Jeremy Mercer, Time Was Soft There

I usually wait at least a little while before I write about a completed book. I'm easily convinced, you see. Words are beautiful, and it takes some time for perspective to develop. Still, here goes - I just this moment finished Jeremy Mercer's memoir Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co., and it was such fun.

Mercer's journalistic past shows, because the prose is seriously readable, and not the least bit precious. On the other hand it's not particularly literary either, and I do want some flashes. Life's too short to be stuck reading newspapers when you expected a book, but Time Was Soft There does qualify as a book.

The gist: Jeremy Mercer, crime reporter, flees Ottawa thinking that his recent true-crime book has generated a credible death threat. He arrives in Paris, runs out of money, and winds up living in the legendary - no, the mythic - quarters of bookstore Shakespeare & Co., which is filled with characters strange enough that they make more sense in a memoir than in fiction. He then goes on to observe (and participate in) its long-delayed achievement of stability and solvency, and to manage something of a "mostly happy for the foreseeable future" ending for himself.

And it's just plain fun. A fast read, light on its feet but anchored through its characters and environs to great swathes of Western civilization. I could quibble with what felt to me like a relatively unsophisticated use of characters as stereotypes, but (a) maybe that's how they functioned in the fatiguing, pressured world of S.&Co., (b) the introductory "Author's Note" remarks that "the truth becomes liquid" and that "this is as true a story as can be told at this time," and (c) I'd be expecting too much from it if I seriously meant such a quibble.

Right now I'm pondering the relations and distinctions between this volume and Dave Eggers' various McSweeney's enterprises, but it's too early to come up with anything. Mercer's a realist, more or less, uninterested in gadgetry, and these distinguish him pretty clearly from Eggers.

Of course, I haven't found enough in Eggers' work to hold my attention, as much as I adore the gadgetry of recent numbers of McSweeney's....

(And another entry for the Canadian Book Challenge, over at The Book Mine Set. Finally getting rolling here.)


Anonymous said…
I've been meaning to read this book, Richard, ever since Michael Hayward's review on his blog:
I've had a few afternoons among the stacks in that bookstore myself and can easily imagine settling in for a longer period. Or perhaps I mean that my younger self can imagine this...
Theresa K.
richard said…
How did I not know, Theresa, that Texts & Pretexts was Michael Hayward's?!? Terrible.

I imagine it's quite an intoxicating place. Never having been, I can only recall fondly an old place near Chinatown here in Victoria called Books & Crannies, with spongy stairs, low attic ceilings but seriously high main-floor ones, and books books books everywhere. It hurt when they became a suburban-feeling bookstore/coffeehouse in a newly renovated space in James Bay, now I think lost....

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