Walking in the Footsteps of Literary Giants in Paris
I certainly don’t call myself a writer, though I have a passion to write, I hold that title for others like the writers I admire like Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Wilde and T.S. Elliot. And on my recent visit to Paris I set out to track down these iconic writers in Paris and found myself walking in the footsteps of those literary giants of the lost generation. I admit it was my fourth visit to the city of lights and to be honest it wasnt until this last visit that I found my place in Paris when traveling solo I followed my heart and my pen in search of inspiration.
Finding myself in the Latin Quarter I strolled along Boulevard Saint Germain in search of cafe culture. Here literary minds had sat and met along with a drink, more likely of the alcoholic variety, to ponder life, love, art and their next tale. I found a table at Café de Flore – outside of course, to sit and sip my coffee and break bread for lunch. French chatter over life and food, others read the daily paper all to the soundtrack of horns in the street. One thing you realize fast in Paris’s cafe culture is that to dine outside is a must! The smell of smoke mixes with brewing coffee, fresh pastries and fried eggs as I sit and take it all in and try to conjure up the literary minds that had graced these tables before me. I pause before I go to smile and chuckle to myself as a French woman says, “c’est la vie.”
The next best thing to a writer after putting pen to paper in a cafe is the lure of the bookshop. Whether at home and wandering the aisles of Chapters or elsewhere on my travels, I’m always drawn to bookshops new and used. A sense of calm and comfort washes over me as soon as I enter it’s walls and smell the books. When it comes to books I tend to sway toward the gently used variety, perhaps it’s their tattered pages or the thought that it has touched a heart of another before me that stirs my interest. So, on my hunt for literary giants it’s no surprise I went in search of classic book shops.
I wandered down a small, nondescript side street steeped in book trade history, in search of a fellow Torontoian’s Abbey Bookshops. Upon arriving I was greeted by the joyous trill of a college student beaming over her find of a much needed text book at a great price. Into its narrow passage ways with so many books piled high and sliding bookshelves, from floor to ceiling, hiding more treasures behind, I shivered at the joy of it all, like a child in a toy store. I couldn’t help but fall in love with the wonders the books held and the stories of their lives if they could tell. And how could you not love a bookshop where the proprietor offers you coffee while you browse and invites you to a book party on Friday night where an author will be speaking about his book and wine will make an obvious appearance. Sadly, I told him my train to Lyon leaves Thursday, he kindly replied, “well, if you happen to miss it you know where to go.”
From one bookshop to the bookshop, I headed next to Shakespeare & Co. It is not the original owned by Sylvia Beach where the likes of the Lost Generation writers had met in the 1920s, that one was closed down in 1940 during the German occupation of Paris. This new store is a tribute to Beach’s and opened in 1951 by George Whitman and also saw its fair share of writers, these from the Beat Generation like William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg. Located in the Latin Quarter, across the Seine from Notre Dame, it’s prime location was swarming with tourists and I couldn’t help but wonder were they fans of the bookshop, fans of the literary giants that had crossed its path or were merely crossing off another attraction from their guidebooks without a thought of the history behind this place. Whatever their reason I understood.
I ventured in and found myself among small rooms filled with books and strange narrow passageways and halls leading to more book filled rooms. Up a narrow worn staircase leads to a reading room, the library of Sylvia Beach, seating to read, write or ponder, an old typewriteron s small desk at the window overlooking Notre Dame and a fluffy white cat currled up of a sofa. I couldn’t help but think what it would be like to call that desk yours and to sit at that typewriter and be inspired by Paris and create a masterpiece. I could have sat up there forever channeling the literary minds that still haunt its walls.
I couldn’t help but pay my respects, while in Paris, to one of my favourites, the man behind Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde. Buried among some icons of history like, Chopin, Sarah Bernhardt, Jim Morrison and other literary giants like Gertude Stein and Balzac is the tomb of Oscar Wilde in Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery. After winding my way by the simple to the exotic tombs of those long passed I made my way to the nearly far reaches of the cemetery. There, much to my surprise, was a strange tomb built for Wilde. It’s a winged messenger in flight and though I first thought it odd after reading up on the sculpture’s thought of the poet as a messenger I could see and appreciate his vision.
I paused and sat there awhile and pondered what the poet might think of all the fuss, thousands flocking to his grave every year, flowers, mementos and ticket stubs left for him. And endless kisses left on his tomb, leading to a glass barrier being put up to protect it which still more kiss stained wishes for him. Would he think us mad or pleased and humbled as great writers are when alas their words have left a lasting legacy behind of intrigued and inspiration. It is for these and many other reasons I write. I feel we all have a story to tell.