Tumbleweeding

One day in early November, 2014, I arrived at a little book shop facing Notre-Dame in Paris and sheepishly explained to a staff member that a friend of a friend had said that I could perhaps sleep here, in the book shop, while I researched my new novel, Let Us Be True. I half expected them to start laughing at me, but instead, they led me to the back, up the stairs, through a little library with beaten up leather armchairs, unlocked a door to a stairway landing, unlocked another door, and led me into a little staff room. There were lockers and a bunk bed filled with backpacks; books, everywhere; a photo of Walt Whitman stuck to a mirror; the ‘tumbleweed cookbook’, a work in progress decorated with coloured-in graph paper; a cactus with sunglasses named Karl; bottles of cheap wine from Nicolas; on the window was a painted cartoon of Virginia Woolf. In this room, I was initiated into the secret world of the Tumbleweeds.

It’s actually the second shop to have the name Shakespeare & Co. The first was run by a woman called Sylvia Beach who also operated it a private lending library and was a general shoulder to cry on for pretty much the entire Lost Generation of the twenties and thirties, even undertaking to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses when it proved too hot to handle in Britain and America. Her shop was closed down during the Occupation and never re-opened, but George Whitman, who owned another Left Bank book shop, got her permission to rename his own shop Shakespeare & Co after the war. Since then, first George and then his daughter (named Silvia in tribute to the first owner) have taken in vagrant writers, with only a few conditions.

First, you should read a book a day. You’re not there to smoke Gauloises, you are there to sponge from the library. You will sleep on camping mattresses among the shelves (one in the library, two next to the piano, one hidden behind a little curtain above the children’s books). In the morning, you get up, figure out the day’s shelf-stacking rota, empty the dehumidifier in the basement (no one likes rotting stock), and unshutter the shop. Boards are unboarded; shelves are wheeled out front. You may subsidise your income with money dropped in the wishing well, where a little sign says ‘feed the starving writers’. There is only limited access to the kitchen, so you’d better like cheese, meat and bread. When I was there, we were also trying to come up with puns for the café they were thinking of opening (‘Tender is the Bite’, ‘Mushroom with a View’, ‘Finnegan’s Cake’).

It was the perfect place to conduct my research: across the road was the Caveau de la Huchette, where my main character, Ralf, went to watch live jazz; down towards the Sorbonne were the roads where the fighting was most intense during the 1968 student riots; just across the bridge, on the Île de la Cité, was the square du Vert-Galant, where Ralf sat watching the Seine, shoulder to shoulder with the woman he was falling in love with. I spent the days wandering around these places, feeling as if I had climbed inside my own novel. And then in the evenings, I would chat with the other tumbleweeds that were sleeping in the book shop – we would read each other poetry, we’d talk about what made great literature, our eyes shining, inspired by the possibilities (and possibly also by the red wine). Those nights felt perfect and endless, which made it feel all the more unfair when I realised my time was already up, and I had to catch my train the next day.

The last thing you have to do before you leave is write a one-page autobiography, which everyone staying at the shop has had to do, apocryphally, for the benefit of the government, who rightly considered the shop a hotbed of radicalism. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to read some of the thousands of autobiographies in the archive there, including famous guests like James Baldwin. By the time I came to write mine, I was in love with the place. ‘Some things change inevitably and others we have a duty to preserve,’ I hammered out at the battered typewriter on my last morning, in a sentimental daze, glancing up occasionally at Notre-Dame through the window. ‘It is why I came to this place and why people queue to get in, why the library is filling with pilgrims, even as I type, desperate to confirm the rumour that there is still generosity and shelter here, and that the library which exists in the heart of every book lover is real.’

 

First published on Love Books

Why Place is Character

There’s this idea that we are born as a discrete unit, placed onto the surface of the world, moving around in a fleshy little body. The world is just a map that you land on, randomly spawned like a character in a video game. And that idea is quite convenient for anyone who subscribes to a broadly liberal world view, because it allows us to believe in the ‘accident of birth’, an idea that ‘I’ could have been born anywhere and happened to fall out here and now. But unfortunately, each of us only has an identity at all thanks to our surroundings. The social psychologist Dr Bruce Hood writes that ‘keeping you alive is not the sole function nor the responsibility of the brain… When you take a closer look at our planet and all its life forms, it soon becomes apparent that the original reason why living things evolved brains was for movement… Arguably the main reason that the brain evolved was to navigate the world – to work out where you currently are, remember where you have been and decide where you are going next.’1

The earliest knowledge we have about our species is where we were. Place came before culture, before consciousness. I am here, therefore I am. We only have brains in the first place as a way to situate ourselves, to retain and manipulate our sense of place, which is one of the reasons why we have such prodigious spatial memories (if you don’t believe me, Google memory palaces). It is not an accident that I was born here and not over there, because I literally wouldn’t be me if I was born over there. From this perspective, it’s impossible not to think of each of us as products and prisoners of a particular time and place.

So often, writers talk about creating character and creating place as if the two are completely separate enterprises – it’s that view of the character as a little ball of impulses, rolling around and bumping into things. If you subscribe to that view, place can only ever be a colourful, two-dimensional backdrop, like the plywood sky that the boat bumps into in The Truman Show. But to me, it is impossible to understand your character if you don’t understand their surroundings, since that character is an expression of the place.

In my second novel, Let Us Be True, I focused on two characters that find each other in Paris in 1958, just as the French Fourth Republic, founded after the Second World War, is in crisis. They find each other, and begin to fall in love, but neither of them knows anything about the other’s past. We know they weren’t always living in Paris. But where did they come from? Where were they during the war? And how did they end up here? Is Paris a home or a hiding place?

For each of us, understanding our place in the world – finding ourselves – is the key to escaping our present situation. What is a situation, after all, if not where we happen to be sitting?

 

First published on Nut Press

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The Philosopher and the Window Cleaner

In my first novel, Glass, my main character strikes up a friendship with his live-in landlord, a man known only as the Steppenwolf. The Steppenwolf is a recluse, who shuts himself away in a cork lined room most days, in the hopes of writing a book which contains all life. He is a philosopher; my main character is a window cleaner.

It might not seem like the most realistic part of the novel, but it is actually inspired by a real life friendship between Marcel Proust and his maid, Céleste Albaret. In the last eight years of his life, Proust never left Paris, preferring instead to shut himself away and work on his great novel, In Search of Lost Time. Céleste was his chauffeur’s wife, and turned out to be the only person who could keep up with Proust’s endless requests. From the moment he woke up at around 4pm, she did everything for him: delivered parcels and flowers, took dictation, changed his linen, prepared his foot bath, disinfected his incoming mail. At his request, she would put lime blossoms and a bottle of Evian by his bed every night. In the eight years she served him, he didn’t drink a single drop.

She recalls in her memoirs, Monsieur Proust, that his room was ‘kept hermetically sealed and daylight never entered.’ He would rarely leave the house, and seemed not to need anyone but Céleste. ‘He had enough in his memory not to need the actual presence of people,’ she writes.

In fact, Prince Antoine Bibesco, one of Proust’s greatest admirers, once wrote that Proust had only really loved two people in the world – his mother and Céleste. They would stay up talking until dawn, and she would indulge him by talking about his writing (she preferred sewing lace). ‘You know, Céleste,’ he told her once, ‘I want my work to be a sort of cathedral in literature. That is why it is never finished… There is always some decoration to add, or a stained-glass window or a capital or another chapel to be opened up.’ That was his aim: to write a book that would last centuries.

In the last seven weeks of Proust’s life, Céleste didn’t sleep in her own bed; she barely slept at all. She cared for him constantly as he worked to finish his novel. In the end he was too weak to continue and entrusted the last amendments to her. With her help, the last volume could finally be finished.

In the week after Proust died, Céleste passed a window display of his books, arranged in threes. She suddenly remembered a passage he’d finished years before, in which the writer Bergotte dies: ‘They buried him, but all night before his funeral, in the lighted windows, his books, set out in threes, kept watch like angels with outspread wings, as if they were, for him who was no more, a symbol of the resurrection.’

First published on the Serpent’s Tail blog.