Curiously devoid of tourists, the Sixth Arrondissement was instead crowded with schoolchildren. Passing them, I walked along the embankment, back and forth across the bridges, with the cranes that now tower above Notre-Dame de Paris serving as my beacon. A pair of British accents broke through the din of French chatter, as two tourists tried to recall exactly when the cathedral had burned. “Oh, no, you’re right,” one said, pointing upriver. It took me a moment to do the math myself: pre-pandemic, yes, but was it pre- or post-getting-Brexit-done?
Since April 15, 2019, Notre-Dame has been a very confused temporal marker: a shuttered spectre of stone that carries the weight of both religious and national identity. Overlooking the site of an earlier, much smaller cathedral — and a temple to Jupiter before that — the iconic bell towers of its western facade, adorned with kings of the Old Testament, date to the early thirteenth century. Spires were planned for both, but neither was ever installed. In the nineteenth century, a flèche was built above the church’s crossing, in place of an original that had been removed due to instability. The soaring wooden spire, of course, did not survive the flames.
Near the Louvre, I met my friend Sasha, who was taking me to Shakespeare and Company at 37 Rue de la Bûcherie. But first, he insisted, we had to experience Notre-Dame from the two vantage points that he’d frequented throughout the pandemic. Standing below Matisse’s former atelier, between Pont Saint-Michel and the Petit Pont, I wondered, “What would the artist’s view have been that terrible night?” Then we headed onto Île de la Cité and the south side of the cathedral, in order to really take in the dual feats of Gothic architecture and modern restoration (even if the large “midday rose” window, which was gifted by Louis IX in 1260, remains shrouded for its protection). Sasha reminded me that the entire site had fallen into disrepair and neglect during the French Revolution. A relatively recent rehabilitation was carried out thanks largely to Victor Hugo — and his bell tower hero, Quasimodo. Notre-Dame was saved by a book.
Like its famous neighbour across the Seine, Shakespeare and Company serves as a cultural touchstone — a landmark at once living and historical that occupies a special place in the city’s sense of itself, despite being a tourist magnet and full of English-language books. Housed in a seventeenth-century monastery on the Left Bank, it was opened as Le Mistral in 1951 by the American George Whitman. In 1964, he rechristened it Shakespeare and Company, in honour of the playwright as well as of Sylvia Beach, another American, who had opened a shop of the same name in 1919. (Hers ceased operation amid the turmoil of the Second World War.)
I knew if I could detach myself from Sasha — along with the steady flow of visitors, all implicitly understanding that we must whisper here — this would be a good place to sit and read for a while. Among crooked doorways, reclaimed tiles, and partial mosaics, I saw aphorisms painted on the worn steps: “Live for humanity,” one urges passersby. A black and white photograph hangs on the wall showing a child seated on a man’s lap, reading on those same steps. I was tempted to ask someone if this was Whitman and his daughter, also named Sylvia, who now runs the place with her partner, David. But I moved on to the literature section instead, where a sign declares “No Photos.”
In the section labelled “Life Events,” I was glad to see people studying books rather than sizing up angles for selfies. Up the stairs, painted green atop an earlier red, I was greeted by portraits of the expat writers who populate the shelves today but who camped out between them on couches and cots decades ago. I also spotted a young man in suspenders sitting at a piano. Soon he began softly playing a tune I didn’t quite recognize for the silent patrons tucked into the many ottomans, armchairs, and aging divans. All seemed to be communing with their open pages, almost oblivious to the foot traffic of less bookish onlookers. I paused at an antique stand, which held a dusty bound volume of Country Life, open to Saturday, August 5, 1905. I flipped through the magazine in an attempt to steal a few more seconds of atmosphere, feigning the poise particular to that peculiar social club: strangers reading, alone but together. No photos, please.
At its maximum capacity of eight bodies, the mezzanine was just out of reach. The section labelled “Mystery” seemed in particularly high demand. I made my way to “Current Politics” instead. Above another worn divan, a pair of idle typewriters, and a tape dispenser with no tape, I found a wall crowded with short thank-you notes to literature and with love letters to Paris. Each date and signature told a particular story, while the whole captured something else entirely. I stood with the resident house cat beside an old metal mailbox labelled “Message in a Bottle,” but I knew my situation was not yet so dire.
Back in the open air of the Latin Quarter, I reunited with Sasha, who wondered if we had just visited “a monument or memorial to books.” In this age of e-readers and twenty-four-hour news, Shakespeare and Company stubbornly offers much more than just a quirky shop. Clearly, we had just experienced hallowed ground for the second time that afternoon.