Sylvia Beach is one of my heroes due to her influential bookshop in Paris (Shakespeare & Co.), and her nurturing of the writers of that time. You know, minor writers like James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein. When nobody would publish Joyce’s Ulysses due to its already-controversial nature, she decided that Shakespeare & Co. would put the book out (her first foray into publishing – not too shabby, to start with Ulysses). She got in big trouble for that, as books were confiscated at customs houses in England and America, and obscenity trials heated up over the next decade. This small unassuming woman from New Jersey was at the center of the literary event of the century. I’ve written a lot about Sylvia Beach, and I have known about her from my reading on all of the literary giants of the day. She was one of those people who intersected with everyone.
She was the daughter of a minister, and during WWI, she served with the Red Cross in Serbia. Then, her mother helped her finance a little bookshop in Paris – which had always been Beach’s dream – and over the next 2 decades, it became a smashing success, and a hub for all of the famous literary ex-pats in Paris at that time. Oh, for a time machine. My #1 destination would be Shakespeare & Co. in Paris in, oh, 1925. That’s where I want to go, please. When the Nazis marched into Paris, Beach repeatedly refused to leave her books, although she was ordered to.
James Campbell reviews the Letters of Sylvia Beach for the TLS, and seems frustrated with the editing thereof, the sketchy shorthand footnotes, the blanks not filled in for the lay reader. The events of Sylvia Beach’s life are fascinating in and of themselves (who WAS this woman??), and I mainly know her through her intersections with the literary giants of the day. I love that Campbell calls her the “midwife of Modernism”.
Here is a really interesting anecdote (which gives you some background of just ONE aspect of her life – and, of course, of course, James Joyce is peripherally involved):
When the Nazis entered Paris, Beach, who had lately made a visit home to the United States where she underwent a hysterectomy (she was also “knocked out by headaches” all her life), declined to leave rue de l’Odeon a second time. In her memoir, she told the almost too-cinematic story of how a “high-ranking German officer” entered her shop one day and, “speaking perfect English”, asked to buy the single copy of Finnegans Wake (published by Faber and Faber) displayed in the window. Beach told him it was not for sale, and duly removed it.
A fortnight later, the same officer strode into the bookshop. Where was Finnegans Wake? I had put it away. Fairly trembling with rage, he said, “We’re coming to confiscate all your goods today.” “All right.” He drove off.
Within a few hours, she had boxed up the stock, removed the sign and painted over the patron’s name. The Germans did not get Finnegans Wake, but they did get Beach. She spent six months in an internment camp at Vittel, alongside Jewish prisoners who would later be removed to Auschwitz.
There’s another great anecdote about Ernest Hemingway, who was with the Allied army when they liberated Paris – and Hemingway went PERSONALLY to “liberate” Shakespeare & Co.
All of this can be read about in Beach’s own memoir (Shakespeare and Company) – but here, for the first time, editor Keri Walsh has collated Beach’s voluminous correspondence, so we actually get to hear Beach’s unedited voice.
That was one of the best things about this volume (which I tore through at the speed of light last year): getting to know her unselfconscious in-the-moment voice, the voice one uses when writing a letter (as opposed to something more planned-out). I always knew that Beach was a homey regular kind of person, not an obvious intellectual, but more of a can-do fix-it “I’ve got a barn, let’s do a show” kind of person. She was part of a family of daughters, and all of them were strong autonomous interesting women (they obviously had been raised well – none of them seemed to have a sense that there was anything they couldn’t do, being women) … and Sylvia Beach, who loved books (obviously) had a dream of opening a bookshop. That’s all. She didn’t have a dream of attaching herself to a writer, or publishing books, or anything like that. She wanted a gathering-place for book lovers. She happened to be in the right place at the right time, AND she was a canny businesswoman who knew how to make important connections (and, judging from her correspondence, KEEP those connections). She was, to use a well-trod phrase, a “people person”. She was also not embarrassed to ask for things. She often needed help, either financial or otherwise, and she, like all talented people of business, knew who to go to to get things done, and knew to ask at the right time. The publication of Ulysses obviously put her on the map (for better or worse), and she had an awareness of that at the time, writing to her sister, “Ulysses is going to make my place famous.”
She’s one of those people who intersected with everyone, and, as I got to know her chatty friendly voice, full of misspellings and multiple exclamation marks, I fell in love with her. She was so enthusiastic, such a champion. Let the artists do their work, let them be eccentric and strange … she was there to usher them into the limelight where they belonged. Sylvia Beach was a lesbian, and had a lifelong relationship with Adrienne Monnier, a French book-store owner. They were business partners and life partners. This is so much just a fact of Beach’s life that it is barely mentioned in the book, and the acceptance of it is one of those things that makes you realize that life on the ground is often very different from up in the stratosphere where ideologues argue things out on an abstract level. There is no sense at all that Beach had to hide her sexual orientation. She lived with Adrienne Monnier for decades. They were partners. When Monnier passed away, people from all over the world sent Beach consolation letters. Beach was now a widow, regardless of the “legality” of their relationship. It’s a beautiful example of the individual doing what the individual wants to do, regardless of the prejudice that exists in limited little minds. This is still the case today. Beach goes about her life with very little fanfare, which is ironic considering how famous (and infamous) she became for publishing a “dirty book”.
I loved the humor in this volume (Beach was quite funny), and I loved encountering her real voice. It was not at all what I expected. Really homey American-style speech, self-deprecating and funny. Yet she’s corresponding with Gertrude Stein and H.D. and Hemingway. They all loved her. Reading these letters, you can really see why. What a breath of fresh air.
Here is a review of the letters. This is all well-trod ground for me, having read many biographies of Joyce (and other literary giants of the day), where she plays a prominent role. But there’s something about reading someone’s letters … the un-cleaned-up un-edited thought process and syntax revealed. Relationships made clear, without an editorial voice inserting itself. For example:
More and better literary gossip is spilled in Beachâs 1959 memoir, but these letters have tart moments on nearly every page. Beach introduced Sherwood Anderson to Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald to James Joyce, and knew everyone. She describes a reading in her bookstore, given by Hemingway and Stephen Spender, during which beer and whiskey were âdisplayed on the table in front of the boys, of which they were partaking freely. The sight of this made Joyce stand up and leave. It “made him too thirsty,” she writes, “to stand it any longer.” Beach, a popular giver of dinner parties and a bohemian cult hero, was unpretentious. Inviting the writer Bryher to a reception, she wrote: “You know it won’t be at all formal, never is in our house, and people don’t dress up here. I never wear an evening gown no matter what they invite me too – haint got none.”
Here is one of her letters to Marion Peter, one of her lifelong friends back in America. They corresponded for decades, and I love, too, how Beach is so interested in her friend’s life as well. She’s not just listing what SHE is up to. Maintaining relationships was important to her. Ulysses had come out on February 1, 1922, and was immediately problematic. It was not allowed into the United States, or England, or anywhere else, boxes of books were confiscated at Customs Houses. Marion Peter often helped her out getting copies smuggled into the States for this or that person.
Excerpt from The Letters of Sylvia Beach, edited by Keri Walsh
75. To Marion Peter, May 29, 1923
Excuse me for typing this. I always try to write to my friends by hand, but I see that the only way to get off a letter to you at once is to make such a noise with this machine that people will leave me alone to finish what they think must be some business correspondence. Marion, if you knew how I never get a minute until late in the evening when I am quite too “abrutie” to think of anything! It was disgusting of me all the same not to write you a Christmas letter explaining about the present I was sending you. Mrs. Heyworth Campbell whose husband is on Vogue was so kind as to offer to take home the garment and it was all arranged in a sudden rush – I had about one minute to get you something and to give it to her and I never heard from her afterwards, nor she from me, nor you from me nor her!!!!!!!!!!
I’m very glad you got the nightgown safely and hope it fits you and that you don’t mind the color. What a pity you had the trouble of writing to Vogue about it. I am so sorry. Please forgive me, Marion dear. Yes, I see everything I mean one but you. Your father has often been in my shop and has told me all your doings and was very patient when I made him describe over and over again just what little Sylvia looks like and behaves like. Also I saw not long ago your nice pianist friend who was on her way to Milan I think. Of course Blanche I used to see also when she was in Paris. You will have to try to get over here soon. You must be very much tied down with the children, and perhaps your husband can’t get away long enough to come to Europe.
Marion, you were such an angel to take all that trouble bootlegging for me! As for the two copies that were confiscated, it was a miracle they were not all taken. 500 copies of the 2nd edition [of Ulysses] which appeared in October were seized in the States and the same number were destroyed in England about two months ago by the enlightened (?) authorities. What a dark age we are living in and what a privilege to behold the spectacle of ignorant men solemnly deciding whether the work of some great writer is suitable for the public to read or not!
How is your voice? What has become of Charles Clark? I went with [James] Joyce and his wife and son one night to hear John McCormack sing. He and Joyce are old friends. He sang beautifully but it’s a pity he doesn’t keep away from the subject of that Old Rose of Summer. I went to the Ballet Suedois and there was Ganna Walska in a box. Oh la-oh-la oh la.
I am kept very busy with my little shop from 9 in the morning till about 8 at night but it’s an interesting life. The interesting people that come in make up for the raft of “vieux chameaux” that make a business of pestering the life out of you.
Did you know that my father has resigned from his church? The congregation has made him pastor emeritus so that he will have a little salary to live on and not be obliged to work any more. He was always such a hard worker; he even preached in the summer when he was supposed to be on his vacation. Mother is getting ready to move out of the parsonage. She is going to sail for Italy on the 5th of June. Holly and Cyprian [Sylvia Beach's sisters] are running the shop in Pasadena and have done very well so far. Mother is coming to replenish the stock which has run low again.
Goodby Marian dear and thank you again,
With best love,
Sylvia Beach wrote of her first meeting with James Joyce in her memoirs, He walked into Shakespeare & Co. in Paris. She describes his behavior thus:
He stepped into my bookshop . . . he inspected my two photographs of Oscar Wilde. Then he sat down beside my table.
Marvelous. I wonder what he was thinking.
Sylvia said of Joyce: “As for Joyce, he treated people invariably as his equals, whether they were writers, children, waiters, princesses, or charladies. What anybody had to say interested him; he told me that he had never met a bore.”
(As far as I’m concerned – anyone who can say that he has “never met a bore” is a genius of the human spirit.)
When she met James Joyce, he had already written Ulysses, and it was a finished manuscript by that point (or as finished as any Joycean manuscript ever would be) – but essentially unpublishable, due to its being deemed “obscene”. The funny thing about all of this is that Joyce said later, “The pity is that the public will demand and find a moral in my book, or worse they may take it in some serious way, and on the honour of a gentleman, there is not one single serious word in it.”
But Sylvia Beach – who had never published a book before – took a risk and said that Shakespeare & Co. would put out the book, which was already highly controversial. It was an act of courage. Perhaps she went into it recklessly, thinking that giving a space for genius would be its own reward – perhaps she went into it knowing the eventual fallout that would crash down upon her head – But whatever her interior process, she published it.
And the shit hit the fan.
Once it was published, the obscenity controversies heated up, the book was banned (Joyce said later, “I have come to the conclusion that I cannot write without offending people.”) everybody was talking about it, who had actually read it? – you could be arrested for trying to smuggle it into certain countries – and there were a couple of years where the only place on the planet you could get a copy of Ulysses was through Beach’s bookshop in Paris. And so the orders flew in from folks around the world. People who were book readers, people who were collectors, people who sensed the historic moment and just wanted a copy.
The comments of other great writers on this book are, of course, great interest to me. They run the gamut of disgust, elation, despair, awe, humility, and I love it, too, that Yeats (an early supporter of Joyce) changed his mind. His first response on reading it? “A mad book!” Then later, as it percolated, Yeats said: “I have made a terrible mistake. It is a work perhaps of genius. I now perceive its coherence … It is an entirely new thing — neither what the eye sees nor the ear hears, but what the rambling mind thinks and imagines from moment to moment. He has certainly surpassed in intensity any novelist of our time.”
Hart Crane had this to say (or shout): “I feel like shouting EUREKA! Easily the epic of the age.”
George Bernard Shaw was disturbed by Ulysses, and its view of Ireland – so much so that it tormented him a bit. He saw it as an indictment (and, in a way, it was). He said, however: “If a man holds up a mirror to your nature and shows you that it needs washing — not whitewashing — it is no use breaking the mirror. Go for soap and water.”
T.S. Eliot was especially devastated by the book, and his comments on it are numerous. Examples: “How could anyone write again after achieving the immense prodigy of the last chapter?” And also – this quote really touches me, because as a writer, Eliot wasn’t half-bad himself: “I wish, for my own sake, that I had not read it.” And lastly (and I think this pretty much gets at the root of what was so disturbing to Eliot): “I hold Ulysses to be the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.”
Edmund Wilson wrote of it:
The more we read Ulysses, the more we are convinced of its psychological truth, and the more we are amazed at Joyce’s genius in mastering and in presenting, not through analysis or generalization, but by the complete recreation of life in the process of being lived, the relations of human beings to their environment and to each other; the nature of their perception of what goes on about them and of what goes on within themselves; and the interdependence of their intellectual, their physical, their professional and their emotional lives. To have traced all these interdependences, to have given each of these elements its value, yet never to have lost sight of the moral through preoccuptation with the physical, nor to have forgotten the general in the particular; to have exhibited ordinary humanity without either satirizing it or sentimentalizing it – this would already have been sufficiently remarkable; but to have subdued all this material to the uses of a supremely finished and disciplined work of art is a feat which has hardly been equalled in the literature of our time.
Wilson also wrote:
“Yet for all its appalling longeurs, “Ulysses” is a work of high genius. Its importance seems to me to lie, not so much in its opening new doors to knowledge — unless in setting an example to Anglo-Saxon writers of putting down everything without compunction — or in inventing new literary forms — Joyce’s formula is really, as I have indicated, nearly seventy-five years old — as in its once more setting the standard of the novel so high that it need not be ashamed to take its place beside poetry and drama. “Ulysses” has the effect at once of making everything else look brassy.”
And here is the lady who first made this “epic of the age” available to the world, at great financial and personal risk:
Joyce eventually moved to another publisher – for later editions – which left Beach financially stranded (along with the Great Depression which really hit Shakespeare & Co. hard.) But Beach had rich influential literary friends – many of whom came to her rescue during this difficult time. Famous writers did readings at Shakespeare & Co., admission was charged, people paid subscription fees – and in this way the bookstore made it through. Beach died in 1962. She is widely revered for her courageous independent move to publish Ulysses – the book that T.S. Eliot said “destroyed the 19th century”.
I was on the platform, my heart going like the locomotive, as the train from Dijon came slowly to a standstill and I saw the conductor getting off, holding a parcel and looking around for someone — me. In a few minutes, I was ringing the doorbell at the Joyces’ and handing them Copy No. 1 of Ulysses. It was February 2, 1922.