Shakespeare and Company does not have bedbugs.
American readers (a few of them) know Jeremy Mercer’s Shakespeare and Company memoir as Time Was Soft There, but the original title, derived from prison lingo (hard time vs. soft time), was changed for the British version to Books, Baguettes, and Bedbugs. (I first learned of the book under its British title.) Why the title was changed is not too hard to discern; why it was changed to Books, Baguettes, and Bedbugs is something of a mystery. Obviously there’s the alliteration angle, but one hopes for a deeper reason. I’m surprised the people at Shakespeare and Company didn’t squash that title; it can’t be good for the image. A better choice would have been Sex, Poetry, and Codeine.
Plot: Mercer—provincial Canadian, crime reporter, author of two worst-selling true crime books—finds himself arguably exiled in Paris (he’s on the run after revealing the name of a confidential source, who subsequently threatens physical harm, and it takes a while, after this revelation, to work up sympathy for the narrator), where, after much aimless walking (the best kind), he stumbles into Shakespeare and Company, and a memoir is born.
The book contains a bit too much happiness and redemption for my taste, but I was glad to read the history of the bookstore. (Mercer’s story would be perfect for Hollywood if the most interesting character weren’t a socialist.) The real problem with Books, Baguettes, and Bedbugs, as I insist on calling it right now, is the severe lack of bedbugs.
There were books on nearly every page—Mercer, like everyone who stays at the store, was supposed to read one per day; one of them was Lolita, which I also read for the first time in Paris, one of my first purchases at Shakespeare and Company—and baguettes, naturally, abound; but there are no actual bedbugs to be found. For those who love nothing more than to see the word “bedbug” printed in nonscientific works of literature, turn straight to Page 149. There you will learn that the store did have bedbugs once, but the rumor of an ongoing infestation, according to George Whitman, the owner and soul of Shakespeare and Company, and no relation to Walt, originated in a spiced-up news story.
The bookstore has what some people might call a cockroach problem, although Whitman, in Mercer’s telling, regards the cockroaches not as a problem but as protein. He laughs at Mercer’s squeamishness upon seeing some roaches in the kitchen (and, according to Mercer, tries to swat a couple roaches into a pot of potatoes; it’s hard to tell how much of that was a put-on meant to mess with the gaping mind of a novitiate), but when Mercer later mentions a rumor about bedbugs, Whitman reacts the way we might expect a business owner to react to such an accusation: he swears it’s slander.
The book was published in 2005, and the action takes place in 2000, in the days before terrorists and bedbugs dictated our travel arrangements. Shakespeare and Company may not have had them then, but it could easily have them now. The place is cluttered, and travelers are in and out all day.
I had hoped, from the British title, to devote a whole column to Books, etc. I haunted Shakespeare and Company for a couple months when I was living on books and baguettes. I thought about saying something like, “Shakespeare and Company, the venerable Left Bank harborer of English-language books and agent-less authors, might be the one environment in which bedbugs would be endurable.”
Shakespeare and Company is an oasis within an oasis. I didn’t stay there, but I vaguely wanted to. After reading Mercer’s book, I suspect I would have hated it. I’m perhaps overly fond of things like privacy and personal space. I may be sympathetic to, as Whitman calls his creation, “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore,” but I have thoroughly bourgeois bowels, which would not have looked kindly on the primitive Shakespeare and Company facilities.
There are so many things, like, for instance, how to speak French, I wasn’t taught in French class.
Punaise is a word with many meanings. Une punaise de lit is a bedbug, but you do see it shortened to une punaise, which can still mean bedbug but can also refer to a thumbtack, or a potato bug, or a certain type of woman.
Every time I see the word punaise I read it, for a second, as putain. They are two words that belong together, as in: “Zut! Une putain punaise!”
A visit to the forum on wordreference.com proves edifying. It emerges, from a conversation one commentator had with a French friend, that a punaise is a type of woman you want to avoid. The human variety of punaise is associated with the smell that emanates from a crushed punaise (the potato bug variety). Rendering the derogatory form of punaise into English can’t really be done in polite company, but the kind commentator suggests it rhymes with witch.
Regardless of the accuracy of the above etymology, it’s clear that punaise isn’t any better than “bitch.” Both are misogynistic. English-speakers wishing to avoid unconscious woman-hating could replace “bitch” with “bedbug,” but it doesn’t have much of a bite. Try shouting “son of a bedbug!” when you hammer your thumb instead of a nail.
Solution: I have no idea how to pronounce bettwanze, the German word for bedbug, but it certainly looks dirty. I think we could adopt it as a term for someone (male or female) to be avoided, or someone you despise, as in: “Ugh, I can’t stand my roommate. He’s such a fucking bettwanze.”