An extract from the The Legacy of Solomon
’Connelly had been invited to what was announced as a ‘travel writer’s celebration’, organised by Shakespeare & Company, a Parisian bookshop, in reality a rag-tag monument to second-hand books and literature, situated on quai de Montebello opposite Notre Dame, on the Left Bank of the Seine, and run by an ancient Bostonian, George Whitman. O’Connelly presence was as the member of a panel at ‘Travel in Words’. Significantly, however, he had not been invited to present a book, he had written nothing for over two years. His name was still a good draw for the reading public, a successful writer, whose books had regular remained in the best sellers’ lists for several weeks and could be found on the shelves of most bookshops and libraries.
He remembered having met George by chance one Sunday summer afternoon a good many years previously as he explored the shelves, in the vague hope that he might find Liddel Hart’s biography ‘T.E.Lawrence’ published in 1934, for background to an article he was writing for another of the endless Middle East crises.
George Whitman, who was in fact born in Salem, must have been in his early seventies at the time, whom O’Connolly took for a rather strange scruffy old eccentric, which he was, even for a second-hand bookshop. He asked him if he was looking for something in particular, then led him up the very steep rickety stairway lined higgledy-piggledy with old books to the first floor. In a small back room with an unmade bed, he quickly glanced over the shelves stopped and pointed a wrinkled finger to a dusty red spine red on a low shelf deformed by the weight of books. O'Connelly slid the book out and flipped it open to publisher’s information page. It was exactly what he was looking for, a June 1935 reprint, published by Jonathan Cape, complete with fold-out maps, in pristine, though yellowed, condition. On the inside cover was pencilled 20F, a bargain.
‘I’ll take it, excellent.’
‘Would you like to join us for tea?’
‘Tea!’ said O’Connolly a little taken aback.
‘Yes, come with me.’
He followed him up several flights of steep stairs, past more books it seemed than the British Museum Library. On the top floor in a creaky room, looking across the Seine towards Notre Dame, several people whom seemed as bemused as O’Connelly were gathered around unexpectedly holding holding cups and saucers and drinking tea, trying to open conversations as a plate of home made cake cut into slices was being offered around.
George poured a tea and handed to him, then left in search of another impromptu guest.
Since that time he became a regular visitor of the bookshop and as the years passed little changed, George got older, but seemed as sprightly as ever, though a little more abrupt.
Shakespeare & Company was now taken over by a new generation, which seemed not only determined to maintain the tradition but also to turn the monument into an institution with the ‘celebration’. For O’Connelly it was a welcome event in the literary wilderness of Paris for English writers.
A large white marquee had been set up in the Réné Vivaldi Park just a few paces from the bookshop as a conference hall for the four day event and twenty seven of the ‘best’ travel writers had been invited to speak.
Inside there was a pleasant looking crowd, bon chic bon genre looking prosperously clean in their summer outfits, the only off key point was a drunk, whose bench had been usurped by the event, and who appeared from time to time to shout obscenities.
The round table question time was going well, the guest writers replying to the questions from a mainly Anglo-American crowd with a sprinkling of French Anglophiles who spoke slightly accented but perfect English. It was a relief from the pompous French intellectual literary milieu, perched on the pedestals and always ready to be outré, for ever sliding back to their favourite phobias of racism, guilt and socialist politics.
Towards the end of question time Laura slipped into the only empty seat on the front row reserved for guest writers, critics and organisers, she caught O’Connelly’s eye and smiled. A few minutes later the session broke up and the audience ambled towards the bookshop where the writers were signing books for the public. It seemed a long time since O’Connelly had performed that obligation.
‘Pat, there’s somebody I would like to say hello to you…you know the archaeologist,’ she nodded towards a thin, elongated individual, whose brown bespectacled head reflected the afternoon sunshine like an elongated polished nut, he was gazing in the direction of Notre Dame.
‘Now?’ O'Connelly replied sounding a little vexed.
‘This is Monsieur de Lussac,’ she said in French turning to the tall Frenchman.
‘Enchanté,’ said O'Connelly forcing a polite smile, looking at the archaeologist’s narrow face, wondering if he was not a reincarnation of King Tut.
‘Ah, it’s a pleasure to meet you,’ replied de Lussac beaming, ‘I have read your books and now Laura has told me a lot about you.’
On second thoughts, he looks like a curé from a Medieval film, thought O'Connelly.
‘Monsieur de Lussac has been working a project about the Temple in Jerusalem.’
Laura had vaguely mentioned de Lussac’s work, however, O'Connelly had only half listened. He smiled as he vaguely tried to recollect which temple, as images of gold domed mosques flashed through his mind.
‘Very interesting discussion,’ he said nodding to the panel.
‘Look I don’t want to bother you now, you must be quite busy, why don’t we try to meet at a more appropriate moment,’ de Lussac said waving to the crowd and a young woman, one of the organisers, who was urgently beckoning O'Connelly. ‘Here’s my card.’
‘Excellent, I’ll call you,’ he said relieved to escape vespers.
He headed towards Silvia who announced Florence Lucci, the editor of the cultural section of Le Monde was waiting for him in the private cocktail room set up on the first floor. Lucci was in fact a friend who had little to do with culture, but was at the Middle East desk of the paper. Their friendship went back to the days when they both worked for the Herald Tribune as novice journalists.
‘So Pat, still bathing in an aura of recent glory?
‘Ah! So it’s serious, sorry I was just pulling your leg.’
‘No, don’t worry, I’m looking for an idea, but that’s as far as I’ve got.’
‘Why don’t you do something on the Middle East?’
‘You mean something like how I tracked down Osama bin Ladin,’ he said a little sourly collecting a glass of Champagne.
Lucci shrugged, he was only trying to help.
‘Forget it, here’s to future success.’
O'Connelly emptied the glass and got a refill.
‘When are you off again?’
‘With the present situation in Palestine, I’m off to Jerusalem next week, an interview with Shimon Perez.’
‘Lucky for you, be careful.
‘Don’t you miss all that?’
‘Not really, I never did like editors and their deadlines breathing down by back.’
‘Me too, I’d prefer Cannes and film festivals.’
He gave a Gallic shrug, ‘Can’t really say I like that either.’
‘Down stairs talking to some kind of an archaeologist…curé’
‘Looks like one, or a Jesuit.’
‘Yeah, some kind of a strange bird. Something about a temple.’
‘That sounds interesting’
‘If I remember what Laura told me he’s discovered some new site.’
‘That would stir up a hornets nest.’
‘I assume your talking about the Temple.’
O'Connelly shrugged he was not sure, he hadn’t thought about it.
‘It’s an age old bone of contention between the Jews and Muslims. In the present circumstances best left alone.’
‘So are we going to eat?’
‘That’s the general idea, a bit too early though.’
‘Let’s get Laura, then we can go and have a before dinner drink somewhere at St Germain, get some air.’
‘I’ve had nothing but fresh air all the afternoon,’ he said thinking of the open marquee.
They spent fifteen minutes shaking hands and tapping shoulders before they got away to join the early evening strollers and headed along the Quai des Grands Augustins towards rue Bonaparte.
They found a table outside of a café on the square facing St Germain des Près and ordered drinks. Laura was in good form
Laura had been working on him for the last week to meet her archaeologist. He had only half listened, too preoccupied about trying to fix a meeting with his elusive his agent to discuss prospects before his New York publisher arrived in Paris at the nd of the month and wondering what kind of a story he would tell them. He had pocketed an advance of twenty thousand dollars for a book he had not even started, and did not know where to start. Not that the money was a problem, words on paper were the problem and worse ideas were in such short supply that his mind seemed to have shrivelled to the point of resembling a walnut.