One of the pleasures of walking Paris is the abundance of single pleasures tucked into one location. (Abbondanza, as the Italians call it, often reveals itself in one street or square.) After a long trek from the 9th arrondissement one November afternoon, I was headed for Shakespeare & Company on rue de la Bucherie for Robert Kildea’s new history of the Resistance. But first I took a break from the cobblestones and hours of potential standing and browsing to come in the small Left Bank Square Rene-Viviani. There are benches under the trees of this Square on the south side, along a path shaded by what is said to be the oldest tree in Paris and leading to maybe the oldest church, Saint-Julien le Pauvre. The air was all cold breeze, but the bench, lit by faint sun and facing the Cathedral of Notre-Dame across the river on the Ile de la Cite, was all comfort.
There’s a tall bronze fountain in the Square’s center. Parisians were reading on the benches and the low, stone wall around the fountain. A tourist kid reading a plaque called out the name of the fountain and factoids about the church’s namesake. Saint Julien. I remembered that Flaubert had written a story about the legend of this saint, a murderer guilty of patricide and matricide, a sinner whose radical repentance created the myth honored by the fountain…
The cold clouds took over. I moved toward the river to examine the carved bronze sculpted images on the fountain, the motifs of the saint’s medieval legend. There were still roses in bloom on the trellises – in November! – Parisians reading and smoking on the low wall near the square’s exit gate.
But who was the namesake of the Square itself: Rene Viviani? I needed a book. My destination, Shakespeare and Company, less than a minute west of the square, is always beautifully crowded. The line at the entrance, it’s worth the wait. Some tourists are curious about the shop itself, originally in Rue de l’Odeon and owned by Sylvia Beach who, defying censors, published James Joyce’s Ulysses there in 1922. I wait because I’m looking for a certain title and want to check out what’s new on the shelves. My favorite spot is just inside the entrance in the front lobby near the cash register where you find an astonishingly rich range of books about Paris by French and English-language authors. Colette, Camus, Kildea, Duras, Sante. I browse and browse, read bits, discover new treasures. Julian Green’s Paris. “The most bizarre and delicious of travel books” to quote the Observer’s blurb. The city, writes Green, is loath to surrender itself to people who are in a hurry; it belongs to the dreamers, to those capable of amusing themselves without regard to time . . .
Then, there on the same shelf with Julian Green, where it does not belong, is Gustave Flaubert’s Three Tales: A Simple Heart; Herodias; and The Legend of Saint Julian The Hospitaller.
I pay for the Flaubert and the Julian Green, both paperbacks. It’s almost dark when I leave. Next to the bookshop is its new café. I find a seat, again facing the Cathedral. The scones and the coffee (I have two espressos because it’s going to be a long night) suit the place, the friendly service, and another day spent walking Paris: perfection. I’m also happy that I found out from one of the historians shelved in Shakespeare and Company that it was Rene Viviani, the namesake of the pretty square just next to the café, who founded (along with Jean Jaures and Aristide Briand) the Socialist Party of France. That the socialist cause – to provide a helping network of services to people who had nothing – corresponds to the square’s commemoration of the repentant Saint Julien-le-Pauvre’s story, well, discovering and ruminating on such correspondences are just one more pleasure of an afternoon spent roaming around Paris and stopping to rest in one small street, one small shop.
There are many more wonderful places to explore within a one or two block radius of this square and quay along the river, but they belong to another afternoon.
It is almost nighttime, time to find the metro back to the onzieme. I was looking forward to reading Flaubert’s Saint-Julien and to watching the election returns from the U.S. with friends and family, and in the wee hours raising our flutes to America’s first woman president.
Susan Cahill, January 2017