March 25, 2020

Social Distancing in “Babylon Berlin” and Sylvia Beach’s Paris

By Stuart Mitchner

Meanwhile, here we are, with America hanging from a cliff that looms larger every day” — so ended a “Cliffhangers and Character” column about escaping into films and series television thrillers like Stranger Things, Ozark, and Babylon Berlin.

That was in August 2018.

At the time, after binge-watching the first two seasons of Netflix’s sensational German import about Berlin in its racy late-twenties, pre-Third-Reich heyday, I called it one of the best shows of the year. Now, when the whole world seems to be hanging from a cliff, my wife and I have just survived the recently released third season of Babylon Berlin. “Released?” — imagine a maddened bull charging out of the gate of the Weimar past. Grab it by the horns and off you go. As with the first two seasons, your bond with the show, your ballast, is a charismatic couple: the damaged, unrelenting Bogart-in-a-Trilby-hat police inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) and the spunky, savvy, charmingly undaunted Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), plus stunning visuals, epic musical sequences in arena-sized cabarets, and cliffhangers to die for, but nothing equals riding the bull of season three in the pandemic present.

“It is a bit of a mess,” my shaken wife said as the season finale clawed, shrieked, howled, knifed, bled, drugged, and cross-dressed itself to a close. Only something this outrageously improbable and fascinatingly visual could hold its own in times like these. As New York Magazine’s “Vulture” Kathryn VanArendonk says, “it’s the kind of show you get to the end of, and then desperately need to talk about with every single person you see for the next week.” Not much chance of that these days, at least not in person. But here we are.

Given the current statewide stay-at-home and “non-essential” services decree, I’ve been asking myself what could possibly make a column on books and film and music “essential.” In the past decade, I’ve written about subjects ranging from Shakespeare and Chopin to Sandy Denny against the backdrop of emergencies personal, local, and worldwide, such as superstorms, floods, power outages, and terrorist events. If nothing else, living on the edge forces you to take stock of your purpose in life, what you do, what you give, what you take, what you need to survive, what’s essential and what isn’t. Writing these columns, it’s most often a question of sharing and celebrating something: saying read this book, see this series, listen to this music.

From Berlin to Paris

For a must-see show like Babylon Berlin, you can go to Netflix or else to YouTube for a preview via the spectacular cabaret number, Zu Asche zu Staub (To Ash, To Dust). For the book I’m recommending, it’s not that easy. There’s a copy of Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company (Bison Books) in the library’s Princeton Collection, but the library’s closed. Plenty of copies are available online for anywhere from a few dollars to $200 for the original Harcourt and Brace edition (pictured here). Why this particular book at this particular time? For one thing, the author’s life has a profound everyday connection to the library. Her roots are in Princeton, between the cemetery, where she’s buried, and Sylvia Beach Way, the drive behind the library where until the recent past patrons dropped off books and parents dropped off and picked up their children.

One of the charms of Charlotte in Babylon Berlin is her spirited pursuit of her dream to be the first woman detective on the Berlin police force. Sylvia Beach’s dream was to live in Paris and open a bookstore and lending library. Fifteen years ago this month, the main gallery at Firestone Library was transformed into a replica of Shakespeare and Company, with the Bard presiding over the exhibit as he presided over the actual bookshop at 12 Rue l’Odéon, its patron saint, his face on the signboard hanging in front.

Hemingway’s Sylvia

In A Moveable Feast, the better-known Paris memoir featured in last week’s column, Ernest Hemingway describes his first view of Shakespeare and Company, “a warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books” and “photographs of famous writers both dead and living. The photographs all looked like snapshots and even the dead writers looked as though they had really been alive.” He also offers this portrait of the owner: “Sylvia had a lively, sharply sculptured face, brown eyes that were as alive as a small animal’s and as gay as a young girl’s, and wavy brown hair that was brushed back from her fine forehead and cut thick below her ears and at the line of the collar of the brown velvet jacket she wore. She had pretty legs and she was kind, cheerful, and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.”

Paris and Princeton

Recalling the rue l’Odéon, Sylvia mentions a theater at the end of the street that reminded her of “Colonial houses in Princeton,” where her father was the minister of the First Presbyterian Church from 1906 to 1923. When she decided to turn her dream of a Paris bookshop into a reality, she sent the following cable home to her mother: “Opening bookshop in Paris. Please send money.” Her mother sent all her savings.

Half a century ago, when I first read Shakespeare and Company, I had no interest in the author’s Princeton connection. My focus was on the relationship between Sylvia Beach and James Joyce, and her portrait of the author, surely one of the most accurate, and adoring, on record. Her courage in taking on a project as massively demanding as the publication of Ulysses still deserves to be celebrated by anyone who loves books and bookstores. So, in respect of the “we’re all in this together” in spite of social distancing idea, I’ll mention some highlights of the Princeton side of the story.

In fact, the whole Beach family had moved to Princeton from Paris, where her father had taken them when Sylvia was 14. He’d been asked to take charge of Students’ Atelier Reunions in Montparnasse, to see that American students “came under home influence.” After “Father gave a sensible talk,” some of the “most brilliant singers of the time … gave their services to this work.” Other performers included Pablo Casals and Loïe Fuller, a dancer whose reputation for spectacle reminded me of the excitement of the dancers in the crowd and on the stage in the cabaret scenes in Babylon Berlin. Beach makes the most of the contrast between “a stumpy, rather plain girl from Chicago wearing glasses, the schoolmarm type,” who came to the Atelier “not to dance but to talk about her dancing,” particularly regarding the lighting system. “She was dancing at the Moulin Rouge at the time … and making a sensation. When you saw her there, the stoutish woman you knew as Loïe Fuller was transformed. With two outstretched sticks, she manipulated five hundred metres of swirling stuff, flames enveloped her, and she was consumed. Finally, all that remained were a few ashes” — my cue for another plug for the “To Ash, To Dust” scene as a preview of Babylon Berlin.

Au Chat Noir

An amusing vignette of Paris night life surprising Princeton involves Sylvia’s beautiful sister Cyprian, who “couldn’t stroll around Paris without being pestered by some follower or other,” and was “immediately recognized by little boys as ‘Belles Mirettes,’ a character in a serial film called ‘Judex,’ shown in weekly episodes all over Paris.” It helps to know this detail to appreciate Beach’s anecdote about the hot Sunday morning at the First Presbyterian Church in Princeton when Cyprian sat down in the Beach family’s front pew and opened a large fan decorated with a black cat and the name of a famous cabaret in Paris, Au Chat Noir.”

Library Place

Given the location of Sylvia Beach Way, the most revealing detail in her account of Princeton (“with its trees and birds … more a leafy, flowery park than a town”) comes after she notes that the family settled down in the Colonial parsonage on Library Place,” wondering, “Did the name influence my choice of a career in the book business?”

Germans in Paris

Babylon Berlin has apparently been confirmed for a fourth season set in Berlin in 1933.

Berlin came to Paris, in effect, with the German occupation. Though Shakespeare and Company eventually surfaced and survived after the war, the store was forced to “disappear” during the occupation. When Sylvia refused to sell a German officer a copy of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, he was furious and told her they were coming that same day to confiscate “everything.” With the help of friends, she took down all the photographs and carried them with the books in clothes baskets to a vacant apartment on the third floor. She even had a carpenter dismantle the shelves while a house painter painted out the name Shakespeare and Company. By the time the Germans came back there was nothing left to take.