A Visit to 12. rue de l'Odéon

The rue de l'Odeon
Looking up and south in the rue de l'Odéon.

From Shakespeare & Co. to the Luxembourg

Paris:- Wednesday, 22. October 1997:- Looking up to the theatre, the street does not look 'provincial,' as Sylvia once characterized it.

This is in the middle of a sunny day in October and I am looking up the rue de l'Odéon, from the carrefour towards the theatre. It is mostly in blue-mauve shadow, but the buildings on the left at the top of the block are skimmed by golden light and the theatre is silhouetted in deep mauve.

If you are here in summer, at whatever time the sun is at high noon and the light comes down here in a flood, then maybe it could look 'provincial;' at least I remember it seeming to, with so many of the upper-floored windows still having their louvered shutters.

Today the street is blue and high-contrast and solidly lined with shiny cars and zig-zag lines by the bus stop, and the theatre up at the top is festooned with yellow-starred blue Euro flags. 'Provincial' doesn't come to mind.

All the same, I am thinking of Thursday, 2. February 1922 - just a bit more than 75 years ago. That morning at seven, Sylvia Beach was on the platform at the Gare de Lyon, when the express train from Djion arrived. The conductor handed her a package. It contained the first two copies of James Joyce's 'Ulysses.'

She took a taxi to rue de l'Université and rang the bell at number nine. James Joyce opened the door on this, his 40th birthday, and Sylvia handed him a copy of Ulysses; the first printed version of the novel he had begun eight years earlier.

Then she went to her lending library and bookshop in the rue de l'Odéon - this street - and placed the second copy in the window of the shop. It was 'unfurled' there, all 732 pages of it, weighing just over a kilo, with its Greek-blue cover with white lettering.

So many people who had been waiting for this event came that day, that Sylvia had to remove the single copy from the window display. They had placed their orders for the book, and waited and waited, and did not understand why their copies were not yet available.

But Ulysses was launched. It would go through many printings, many revisions - Sylvia estimated there were an average Book shop in the rue de l'Odeon of six mistakes per page in the first edition; some due to Joyce's own crabbed column-notes and extensive rewriting on the proofs themselves, and others due to the French typesetters.

The book would be praised, panned, banned, confiscated, smuggled, read, misunderstood, celebrated - 'Bloomsday!' - and it was the English language's publishing 'event' of the century.

Little changed, this book shop is almost directly opposite number 12. rue de l'Odéon.

In a way, the publication of Ulysses by Sylvia Beach was the story of her bookshop, Shakespeare and Company. In the early 1920's, new literature in English, found itself being made 'in France' rather than in its various homelands. Almost by pure chance, Sylvia Beach, who was who she modestly was; accidently chose to be in this right place at this right time, and when the opportunity to showcase new writers presented itself, she said, "Let's do it."

In this way, English literature was centered in the rue de l'Odeon, on the left bank in Paris, around Sylvia Beach and her 'friends.'

This street has changed over time only a little. There are still bookshops located in it; most of them dealing in rare books. Few shop fronts are greatly altered and most of the upper floors of the buildings that line the street, have not changed at all. If they have, they are good replicas.

At number 12, where Shakespeare and Company was located, the building front looks unchanged - although it once had a shop front like many others still have in the street - high windows surrounded by wood; in dark paint. The modest shop now there with its concrete fake-stone front, sells ladies clothes. New also, are small, half-round windows, letting in light to sort of an upper mezzanine floor - below a small apartment where more than a few sublet living quarters from the book shop below.

Number 12 is about halfway between the carrefour de l'Odéon and the grand theatre, on the place de l'Odéon. I stand with my back against the wall and survey the north-south vista. The street is fairly wide; there are no trees lining it, so there is a lot of light and the shops opposite are not too close - in the generally tightly-packed latin quarter.

I push off the wall to take a photo of a book shop across the street because it looks 'in character,' but settle back against the wall and scan the upper floors and the sky again.

When I think of 1922, which was a long time before I was around, I think it is doubtful there was weather like it is here today. This makes me consider that I am not able to think of 1922 very clearly; I can't get into the mood for it.

When I get moving again, it is uphill towards the theatre. The upper floors of the big restaurant to the right on the In the Luxembourg Gardens place still have the peeling paint, but with the full blast of sunlight they're getting, they're not looking as shabby as they often do.

Nobody wants to miss each day of sun which may be the last of the year.

The big theatre, with all its flags, looks big as usual. Here I stop to wonder - if I were coming this way from Shakespeare to go to the Luxembourg gardens, would I go around the theatre on the left or the right?

I take the left side, walking under the arches on the light sand-colored marble stones, wondering why everything about the theatre seems to be over-dimensioned; as if it were ready for conversion to a fortress or a prison. At Vaugirard, across from the gardens, I see that I should have come the other way - to the right, up the rue Rotrou.

The Luxembourg gardens are full of light and it is flat against the face. The near shadows are hard and dark, but because of the 'contrejour,' shadows further away have less contrast and saturation but not much less.

Hundreds of people have taken places in the metal chairs, by the trees, further out on the terrace, and all have their faces towards the sun. Some are reading, but most are doing nothing; slouched comfortably in front of the earth's fire. Everybody is facing the same direction, as if a magnetic force is compelling this - or they belong to some religious sect and that is the compulsion. It looks slightly odd, but at the same time it makes sense.

The water in the pond in Marie's garden behind Marie's house is as green as ever - the sky is a fierce blue and I was hoping this would be reflected but not even the chateau makes a good reflection. I have never been where when it does; I guess I don't get up early enough for it.

All the trees around, the trees marching away in columns to the south, and all the other trees, are mostly green. A workman is up in one of them, hidden by leaves, doing something, and leaves fall like huge snowflakes; but most of them are still up there.

As usual on Wednesdays, there are a lot of little kids in the area reserved for them and they are making all the noise they can; more The Luxembourg Palace than what you hear in summer. Probably because it is an ordinary Wednesday day off from school, and not a holiday.

Marie's château, the pond and the trees, in October.

Some bigger ones are tossing baskets in their unfenced area. I do not hear the pok pok of the tennis, but I don't miss it. The boules park has its fair number of players, in two distinct groups, and the... pitch, I guess you'd call it - is in its usual deep shadow. I think it only gets the light early in the day; at a time when there are no players.

I wanted to see the boules players because I haven't seen any since those playing in the evenings by the Rio Muga in Spain in August when it was so hot. Here, these are serious; but those were listless after a long day under that Spanish sun; so hot that the warm evenings seemed cool.

By coming to see the boules, I've missed coming out at Fleurus and I get a bit lost going over to Raspail. I don't mind because I don't come this way every day. It's good to see these Montparnasse buildings being themselves as if it is going to go on forever.

And I suppose that is what it is. Not the weather; it doesn't matter - but the rue de l'Odéon and the theatre there and the high, gold-tipped grille of the gardens, and the gardens themselves.

I don't know how long forever is in Paris, but I think it will be a long time in this part of it.


Two Books:

Sharkespeare & Co by Sylvia Beach'Shakespeare & Company' by Sylvia Beach. Autobiography, published by the University of Nebraska Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation Press; re-edition, 1991. First Bison Book, New Edition 1991. Originally published by Harcourt, Brace, 1959. 230 pages,16 pages of photographs, and index. ISBN 0-8032-6097-0.

'Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation' by Noel Riley Fitch. A biography, first published in 1985 by W. W. Norton & Company. 447 pages, 16 pages of photographs; notes and index. ISBN 0-393-30231-8


Ed's Note: In early February, the current Shakespeare & Co. was featured in a Metropole article. George Whitman, who runs the present establishment, pays homage to Sylvia but the times have long since changed - and there is no 'Odeon' crowd anymore.


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