'A socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore' is how George Whitman describes the labyrinth of books that is Shakespeare & Company. He founded the bookshop in 1951 opposite Notre Dame and since then has kept it open every day of the year. The bookshop, library and George's apartment are all crammed with books: a gift from a bibliophile to the curious passerby in search of refuge and literary nourishment.
Bookshops, for George, are a political act. In their choice of titles and support of authors and small publishers, as well as the sense of community they offer, independent bookshops are, in their very existence, political. As our lives become more and more defined by the internet, virtual social networks and new ways of reading, bookshops offer something more tangible and contemplative.
It was this context that inspired the festival theme of Storytelling and Politics. Who are today's storytellers and what are the most influential narratives? Can a work of fiction reflect society without being political? Do writers have a particular responsibility? Should literature engage with the world, or offer respite from it?
The word 'political' can be interpreted in many different ways and is tied to distinct histories, cultures and stories from around the world. Through readings, music, debates and discussions, we hope the festival will provide a forum for these voices. We selected the authors involved because we admire their writing and find their perspective on both storytelling and politics illuminating. We warmly thank the writers and artists who have come from near and far to be with us here in Paris. They are the heart of the festival.
So many people helped us put the festival together and we are grateful to them all. Thank you to the incredible group of interviewers for their generosity, skill and the knowledge they bring to each event: Steven Gale, Mark Gevisser, Janine di Giovanni, Heather Hartley, Ian Jack, Natalie Levisalles and Erica Wagner. And to Anne-Laure Tissut and her extraordinary team – thank you for showing us the art of translation and enabling us to make most events bilingual.
We are fortunate to be collaborating with some exceptional organisations and performers: 5x15, Porchlight Storytelling, Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, New York University in France, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, The Paper Cinema and the roaming storytellers. We are sure their magical events will charm you all.
And thanks to the volunteers and tumbleweeds for their energy and dedication and for helping with so many essential details.
Finally, there are many people behind the scenes supporting the entire structure – without you the festival would not take place: Eurostar and The New York Review of Books, Mairie de Paris, Centre National du Livre, DRAC, and Région Île-de-France, Champagne Louis Roederer and Montblanc … and our wonderful patrons Charles & Clydette de Groot, Mary Duncan and Craig Copland. Thank you.
FestivalandCo is free and open to everyone. We hope you will find the occasion to pass through our little 'utopia' in the square René Viviani and share some thoughts, ideas, stories and poetry.
Jemma Birrell, David Delannet & Sylvia Whitman
In a way it's surprising that there is a festival at Shakespeare & Company – for the simple reason that, to me at least, Shakespeare & Company is always a festival. Like so many people – readers, writers, book-lovers of every shape, size, stripe – I first walked into this bookshop on a summer's evening, after a fine dinner somewhere … light glittered on the slick black surface of the Seine, and we could have climbed into a bateau mouche – but we dived into Shakespeare & Company instead. Sometimes I feel, even when I am far away, that I've never left. It's that kind of place. It stays in your blood, in your heart, and reminds you why you love to read.
Because books are about more than words between covers. At Shakespeare & Company, the words on the pages of a book are always the starting point of a conversation, and never more so than at FestivalandCo, when authors from all over the world descend on the place to discuss, debate and celebrate. Authors and readers too, because Shakespeare & Company is a place that's never forgotten that books aren't books unless there are readers to read them … seems obvious to you? Well, you'd be surprised. Here, the audience is an integral part of every event. Not least because every event is free. This is a festival for everyone.
This year's theme is Storytelling and Politics. Strange, isn't it, how these days we divide up the world into fragments, hiving off art from science, poetry from astronomy – politics from storytelling, indeed. But it's all part of one big discussion, or should be. One way to define the word 'politics' would be to say simply that it is a sequence of interlocking narratives that define our ideas and beliefs. Philip Pullman's remarkable new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, provides a perfect demonstration: for it unpicks the story of Jesus from the way his story was told – changed – by those who came after him and wished to use that story for their own ends. He shows a man of peace transformed into an icon of power – politics in a nutshell.
But Philip Pullman is only one of many authors appearing at the festival whose work makes us think about how we live – and thinking about that is the first step to real politics. From the Nobel prizewinning author, painter, director and playwright Gao Xingjian, to political activist and author Fatima Bhutto and playwright David Hare – they, along with many others, bring their voices, their imaginations, their passions to the banks of the Seine this June. It promises to be a festival like no other.
It's been my privilege to find that, years after that long-ago late night, I have dear friends at Shakespeare & Company, and I am delighted and honoured to be appearing at the festival myself. But I always remember my first, chance encounter with this wonderful place: so while part of me hopes you are here because you know all about it already, there's another part that hopes you've just wandered in, on a summer's evening, after a fine dinner somewhere…