Wednesday, 14 May 2014
Devouring Books: Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs by Jeremy Mercer
There are some books that put you in a certain place, at a certain time; and make it seem so enchanting that you never want to leave. When this happens in fiction, it can be heartbreaking to finish the book and be pulled out of that world, but when it happens in non-fiction, you leave with the dizzying idea that maybe, just maybe, you could actually live in that world, or at least something close to it.
This brings me to Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs. It's partially a memoir of a certain time in Jeremy Mercer's life where, due to some poor personal decisions, he ended up close to penniless in Paris and without many options. With all due respect to Mercer and his, you know, life, though, I wasn't really in it for that. What I was really in it for was the snapshot of life in Shakespeare and Company, an English Language bookshop in Paris that's also kind of a Socialist utopia, run by the AWESOME George Whitman, who let writers stay they for free, as long as they worked on their craft and agreed to help out around the shop.
Let me just repeat that: A bookshop. In Paris. That's also a Socialist utopia. If you don't think this is my ideal setting for life, then it's possible you don't even know me at ALL, internet!
As I've said, I was so wrapped up in the feel of the book (well, the feel of the bookshop, really) that I probably couldn't tell you that much about what happens in it. There's a lot of poverty, a lot of out of date advice on how to eat really cheaply in Paris and some drunken exploits by the Seine, all that kind of thing. What I can tell you, though, is that I want to be one of George's starving artists, even if he is kind of crotchety and mean at me*. Crotchety and mean is my favourite, right Bill Bryson? Mercer does a really good job of capturing the people and the feeling of living in Shakespeare and Co, and makes the bookshop, Paris and (to a lesser extent) being a little bit poor ever so appealing.
One of the best things about the book, really, is the people. As in any situation, living in a bookshop in Paris is only as cool as the people you're living with, and Mercer writes about such a range of characters that you almost feel like he's made them up. There's the secretly insane American, the crazy sexy woman he loves, the chef at the Australian embassy who feeds the starving writers, the eccentric English poet who they can't quite get to leave. Each one of them adds something to the feel of the book, and in spite of all their drama and combined neuroses, you kind of want them to be your friends, too. Each one of them adds something to the book, as I'd imagine they also added to the bookshop and to the picture of this amazing Parisian adventure I have in my brain.
Basically, I realise, I've told you nothing about the book ('as always!' I hear you cry) but you know what? I think that's ok. I think it's best that you go exploring through Paris on your own, and when you need a place to rest your head, Shakespeare and Co will be there for you. At least in the Paris of your brain. Or should that be my brain..?
*George died in 2011 aged 98 (!), so this part of the dream is, you know, impossible. George's daughter Sylvia runs the shop now, and I don't know if she lets anyone and everyone sleep there now. But let's pretend she does.