December 9, 2010

Melville House to publish winner of Paris Literary Prize


In 1945, a U.S. Major named Ernest Hemingway drove his tank into Paris and personally liberated Sylvia Beach, the founder of Shakespeare and Company–the bookstore that had been a home and hangout for such famous “Lost Generation” writers as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Anaïs Nin, and Henry Miller, and that had published and championed James Joyce’s Ulysses after the book was banned in the U.S.

Another literary G.I., George Whitman, fell in love with Paris and opened a bookstore of his own that, in 1962 after Sylvia Beach’s death, he renamed Shakespeare and Company. Years later, he would also name his daughter in Sylvia Beach’s honor. Whitman’s version of the store soon developed a literary tradition of its own, becoming a haunt for Beat writers like Jack KereoucAlan GinsburgGregory Corso, and William Burroughs. At night, in-between the shelves, George offered cots to young writers for free in exchange for two hours of work and on the condition they read a book a day. It’s a tradition that continues to this day, even as Sylvia Whitman has taken over managing the store and her father, now in his nineties, has moved upstairs. As Stephen Emms Guardian article from earlier this year attests, the remarkable creative atmosphere of Shakespeare and Company is as dynamic as ever:

“We have six at any one time,” says Sylvia, “generally in their early 20s. They come to write from all over the world while doing a couple of hours in the shop a day. Generally they stay a week to a month, but one English poet stayed seven years.” Seven years – really? “If someone’s reading and writing, we encourage that,” she says. “It’s a different life after closing time. They all come out of the woodwork! And for us, it’s an organic cycle: aspiring writers tapping away upstairs and books being sold downstairs.”

Everything here encourages creativity. A tiny enclosed bureau, lined with rugs and a blue painted chair, bears the sign: “Feel free to use the typewriter for your lovely writing/creative ventures.” Notes from customers are scrawled in all languages. “A friend told me if I ever felt lonely to come to Shakespeare & Company,” one says. Visitors are so effusive that a few years ago George installed what he calls a “mirror of love”, where hundreds more scribblings are pinned, from the surreal to the touching: “Dear Granny, I would like you to come to Paris with me”, reads one. “Books insulate this nest of wandering dreams”, reads another, “there should always be a place where stories reign over commercial enterprise.”

This year, Shakespeare and Company launched The Paris Literary Prize for a novella by a new writer, simultaneously championing undiscovered writers and highlighting the exquisite yet oft-neglected qualities of the novella as an art form. The prizewinner, selected by a panel of prestigious judges, will win 10,000€, a trip to Paris, and now–we are pleased to announce–will be offered publication by us here at Melville House. As passionate advocates of “The Art of the Novella” we can’t wait to see what radical young writer Shakespeare and Company discovers next.