Letters to Strabo — Shakespeare and Company, Paris

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On the train from Nice to Paris, my main protagonist Finn Black meets a solitary, short dapper man called George.

“I guessed he was in his early sixties, with a moustache and rakish grey goatee and a large leather satchel filled with books… He asked me a few questions about my travel experiences and then reached into his satchel and handed me a battered paperback. It was a copy of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

“‘You should try this. I’d be interested to see what you make of it. No one was quite sure about it at the time, but it’s still hot stuff,’ he said chuckling.”

It turns out that George owns and runs a bookstore on the banks of the Seine near Notre Dame. He invites Finn to stay there for a few days. “He only had two rules: to work in the store for two hours a day and to write something, anything, every day.” That suits Finn down to the ground: while his girlfriend Françoise is busy dealing with her art gallery friends in preparation for an exhibit she’s organising, he can get down to some serious writing.

But Finn soon finds out that this bookstore has history, specifically an earlier incarnation was run by a lady called Sylvia Beach who was a friend of Joyce and Hemingway, amongst others. The original Shakespeare and Company was closed in December 1941 during the German occupation of France. It’s been suggested that it may have been ordered shut because Beach denied a German officer the last copy of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. When the war ended, Hemingway “personally liberated” the store, but it never re-opened on this site. It was only when George Whitman started the present day store in Sylvia’s honour that the name was restored.

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Anyway the history and the things he discovers inspires Finn to begin his own story about his experiences in the south of France. It also leads him to discover more about the exact nature of his relationship with Françoise and his increasing doubts about its sustainability. I won’t give any more spoilers on that here!

Anyway, after I wrote this part of my novel, I came across by chance the section of the film Before Sunset that is set in exactly the same bookstore. So I’ve incorporated this scene in an imaginary interview between the store manager and the writer Adam Black below which links together my own story and the story in the film.

Bookstore Manager: So Adam Black, welcome back to Shakespeare and Company, it’s been almost thirty years, hasn’t it?

Adam Black: It has indeed, but it’s great to be back. I see you still have the famous sign upstairs.

Manager:  “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise?” Yes, of course.

After some more background on the writer’s work, the bookshop manager opens the floor up to questions

French Journalist 1: So do you consider the book to be autobiographical in any way?

Adam: Well I guess everything is autobiographical in a way. There are bits of me in there, but bits of a lot of other people I’ve met too.

French Journalist 1: And the section set here in Paris, in this very bookstore. Was that about you?

Adam: Well, I was here about the same time as Finn visited yes, but the events are of course completely fictional…

French journalist 2: So there was never a girl called Françoise that you met in Spain and travelled with by train to Paris?

Adam: Well, that’s not important; it’s just a story after all

French Journalist 1: Do you think they ever met again after they split up? In real life I mean?

Adam: No. I’m afraid that I don’t think they ever did, sorry, I don’t think they ever would have done.

French Journalist 2: Maybe a subject for your next book?

Adam: Maybe.

At the back of the room he notices a face in the crowd, a beautiful woman wearing dark glasses. He leans over to the bookshop manager and whispers.

Adam: Look, I’m terribly sorry but I’ll have to leave now. I have a plane to catch and still have to shop for my wife.

Manager: No problem…Well thank you Adam, we really appreciate you coming here today. I hope you won’t leave it so long next time!

Adam gets up, talks to one or two admirers and then goes over to the woman waiting patiently.

Adam: Françoise?

The woman: I said you’d include me in one of your books one day.

Adam: And I said I wouldn’t ever do that

The woman: Menteur, I think you already did. Do you want to go for coffee somewhere?

Adam to himself: I think I’m gonna miss that plane.

Letters to Strabo

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