The view from the southern foot of London Bridge always seems to me to capture the essential character of this city.
To the left is Southwark Cathedral, which has stood for over a thousand years and is still in use. On a Thursday, Friday or Saturday the courtyard outside this medieval site is filled with hungry Londoners eating meals from Borough Market, which has existed since 1040, though its current incarnation is decidedly Victorian. Looking East is Tower Bridge, rising up victorious and grand from the Thames in all its late-Victorian glory and leading towards the Tower of London on the North side of the river, which also dates back to the eleventh century. To the northeast is St Paul’s Cathedral, that most distinctive of London landmarks, an oily rascal known as well as Shakespeare’s Falstaff (Henry IV , anyone? anyone?) built at the close of the seventeenth century. And the Gherkin – a symbol of London as a global financial centre – and the Shard make their case for the power of the new millenium.
The layers of history, the palimpsest of stories told by generations of Londoners and newcomers, make London what it is. Ancient and modern, old families and humble immigrants, traditionalists and revolutionaries co-exist here, adding layers of stories which enrich rather than replace the city’s past.
Across the city, in Piccadilly Circus, the same is true. London’s oldest bookshop, Hatchard’s, may be overshadowed by the huge Waterstone’s, but it’s still there. Clarissa Dalloway’s harried wanderings along Regent Street and Bond Street may not have the same immediacy as the enormous Top Shop assaulting you with pop music, but even that fictional character colours the way I experience the area. It is the middle ground between posh Mayfair, busy Oxford Circus and trendy Soho with its own unique history. The layers of history in every part of London reflect the generations of people who have come here from other parts of the country and the world and added their touch or made a home.
So it’s no wonder that the stories of London are read and written and told in many dialects and languages, translated from Old English to Modern English, into Portuguese and Farsi and mirrored back to us in similar stories that arrive from all over the world. We need only look at the number of Arabic, Russian, Polish, French and Bengali bookshops that have filled up the city to see how much London has benefited from the profusion of other and different voices that fill it. One of these, hiding from garish Regent Street on a quiet road in Soho, is the European Bookshop. It’s the best place in London to find books written in, translated from and translated into French, Spanish, Italian or German.
Now, having lived in North America, I am particularly appreciative of the mere fact that this bookshop exists. Cuz, like, hello, there are, like, other languages, dude! Even though my rusty French and dodgy Spanish keep me from fully appreciating what’s on offer, it makes me very happy that I live in a city which respects the importance of hearing each other’s stories enough for a place like the European Bookshop to thrive.
The ground floor is a Francophile’s paradise, full of French literature, poetry, philosophy and social commentary. From Balzac to Baudelaire, Sade to Sartre, all of the famous Frenchmen and women who have captured the world’s imaginations are available in their original language, which is always the best way to read them. But what is particularly brilliant about the European Bookshop is that it doesn’t settle for just the crowd-pleasers. We can also explore the work of writers whose fame never went beyond France, or those we tend to forget originally wrote in French (cough cough, Samuel Beckett!) It also gives browsers the chance to learn about writing from other Francophone countries or regions. I discovered a Quebecois playwright, a Moroccan novelist and a wealth of novels and poetry by writers from former French colonies in North Africa, writing about the post-colonial experience in their colonial language. I was reminded of how powerful and how inflammatory language can be, and of the power and significance of words, which we too often waste or use foolishly.
There is a small Italian bookshop at the back of the ground floor as well and Spanish and German books are downstairs. In each you’ll find well-stocked selections of fiction, biography, history, poetry and theatre but there are also translation of English books into other languages. In the German section are the twisted fairy tales, imaginative novels and grim memoirs that you would expect from the country and the language, but their original passion and force is restored to them, I imagine, by being read in the language in which they were written. If you’re interested in anything from Walter Benjamin’s brilliant musings to Angela Merkel’s biography, this is the place to go.
In the Spanish ‘Traducciones’ section I found Ulisses by James Joyce, a translation of the epic novel. Reading Ulysses in English is enough of a struggle, but trying to do so in translation is a task I’ll just have to admit I’m not up to. Distressingly, Joyce is only two books away from Spanish translations of the 50 Shades series. Normally this would have made me livid, but I realised that looking at the wall of Spanish books next to me, I had no idea which books were award-winners and which were rubbish and that maybe that’s okay. Now don’t get me wrong. As an unrepentant book snob I think it’s extremely important to recognise good literature and – if nothing else – quite a lot of fun to deride bad literature, but every once in a while, it’s nice to leave ideas of good/bad or respected/mocked behind and just let yourself get swept up in the magic of a wall full of books. And rummaging through a collection of poetry, plays and stories in another language is a great way to bring back the mystery and adventure of reading for its own sake. Some books may be better than others, but when you’re liberated from prejudices and preconceptions, the only way to find out is to read! We can return to our snobbery later; it’ll still be there. Like all of our human failings, it’s not going anywhere, but the elusive glimmer of adventure is only a fleeting one.
In each section there is a collection of children’s books. Which makes sense, really, because the best way to get some one to fall in love with words and language is through a good old-fashioned bedtime story. Whether they take you to a dark enchanted forest or an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, the love of words starts with a book, read anywhere in the world, in any language. The particular magic of The European Bookshop is that, like the city that gave it a home, it brings so many stories together in one place, not to replace each other, but merely to enrich our understanding of the story-filled world around us.