Shelf-lives

Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs: the Left Bank world of

Shakespeare and Co

Jeremy Mercer <em>Weide

This is a coming-of-age memoir. The genre, of which Peter Alson's Confessions of an Ivy League Bookie is my favourite recent example, has this set-up: a young man (usually), feeling adrift in the world, meets an extraordinary character, or group of characters. There may be a love interest; in this case, Jeremy Mercer falls for a woman who turns out to prefer other women. (If there were to be a film version, she would abandon the preference, finding true love with him - or possibly not show the preference in the first place.) The man, an aspiring writer, emerges with an enhanced knowledge of life, with inspiration for his career, and with a book about his experiences.

The writer needs to convince you that his cast of eccentrics is fascinating, rather than - as you suspect you might find them - tiresome. It requires skill: he must write unaffectedly, but give a charismatic glow to his characters and locations. Jeremy Mercer, likeable though his writing is, falls short of this achievement.

Mercer was a crime reporter in Ottawa. He had become increasingly uneasy with the ethics of his job, had started behaving recklessly, and had brought his career to a crisis when, in a true-crime book, he named a source. The source was not a good person to upset. Mercer escaped to Paris. Walking the streets one day, he got caught in a downpour, and followed a group of tourists into the shelter of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop.

This was not the Shakespeare and Company that was the first publisher of James Joyce's Ulysses. Sylvia Beach's shop - a favourite with Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein - closed in 1941, during the Nazi occupation. Ten years later, a wandering American named George Whitman opened a bookshop on the Left Bank and called it Le Mistral. Beach died in 1962; Whitman, having bought her book collection, renamed his shop after hers two years later. He also named his daughter Sylvia Beach Whitman.

George Whitman had lived a peripatetic existence, becoming a communist on his journeys. At his shop, he applied the philosophy of "give what you can; take what you need", offering refuge to travellers, many of them impoverished writers. His guests would enjoy rudimentary lodging and sustenance in return for assistance with bookselling. When Mercer arrived there were five others, some of whom had stayed for longer than Whitman considered to be in the spirit of his hospitality.

As is appropriate, Whitman emerges from Mercer's book as the strongest character. Continuing to run the store in his mid-eighties, he is generous yet quick to entertain suspicion, idealistic yet pragmatic, careless with money yet penny-pinching. Mercer's description of him as an admirer of communist China is not endearing; but you have to acknowledge that Whitman has been a benevolent influence on many people's lives.

Other characters are less vivid. The voice of one, Luke, has "a strong dose of north London in it"; the reader does not recognise this previously unclassified accent from Luke's introductory words, "Oh, hello, old boy. I don't know where my head is these days." Mercer's writing can be ponderous: he tends to "avail" himself of things, or to "have the pleasure of" doing them; he is "not averse to" (actually, the book has "not adverse to") recreational drugs. His images - such as "the people spilling out on to the street like blood from a haemorrhaging vein" - do not quite hit the spot.

One does not get the impression that Mercer is particularly literary. He refers to writers called "Malmud" and "Nabakov", and says of Lolita that he was "astounded . . . that I hadn't come across this novel before". In Shakespeare and Company's impressive fiction room, he finds works by such writers as Faulkner, Capote, Hesse, Camus and Richler, and offers this miscellaneous list as evidence that the room contained "a comprehensive collection of the century's greatest works".

These flaws would matter more if Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs were a pretentious book - if Mercer were self-consciously the ambitious young writer. He comes across as modest; as a man hoping to leave behind the mistakes of his past, and to acquire a generosity of spirit from the people he meets. His touching book suggests that his time at Shakespeare and Company was well spent.

Nicholas Clee is the author of Don't Sweat the Aubergine: what works in the kitchen and why (Short Books)