December 15, 2011
Books and Pastrami Sandwiches
Today I pulled down a copy of John Keegan’s “Six Armies in Normandy” from my bookshelf and opened it to the title page, all in tribute to the late George Whitman, whose obituary appears in the New York Times.
I bought the book at the famous Left Bank bookstore in Paris that Whitman operated since 1951 and where he died at the age of 98 in an apartment over the store. On the title page is a rubber stamp: “SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY. — Kilometer Zero Paris.”
Bringing home a souvenir from Shakespeare and Company is a fine old literary tradition. American tourists in the 1920s favored James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” was a bestseller in the 1930s. Both of these books were banned back in America, but they could bought off the shelf at Shakespeare and Company, which was then owned and operated by its original founder, Sylvia Beach.
Sometimes a visit to Shakespeare and Company was an opportunity for an even more exotic purchase. On one occasion, I found and bought a two-volume paperback edition of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece, “The Gulag Archipelago,” as published in Russian by the YMCA Press in Paris. The story is told that Solzhenitsyn, still prevented from publishing his work in his homeland in the 1970s, consented to the publication of his new book outside the U.S.S.R. to secure a copyright in the West. Such acts of culture war were reputedly funded by the CIA, but they bestowed upon us a literary treasure and an important historical document.
Actually, I read two obituaries today. The New York Times noted the passing of George Whitman, and the Los Angeles Times paid tribute to Marvin Saul, founder of Junior’s Deli at Pico and Westwood in West Los Angeles. Each man figured importantly in the cultural life of the place where he lived, and each one sated the appetites of his customers in different but equally primal ways. I know for a fact that a great many working writers in Los Angeles sustained their efforts on Marvin’s chicken soup, pastrami sandwiches, and seven-layer cake over the years because I was one of them.
I salute them both.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Exterminating Angel,” a biography of a Jewish resistance fighter set in Paris in the 1930s. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.