I just finished reading The letters of Sylvia Beach. A stunning recount of a fearless woman’s life in Paris. A visionary in the 20′s. It was beautiful and heartfelt. Then, the other day, my eldest daughter, who is an avid reader brought home a copy of Ulysses. So I thought it fitting to write about the woman that
had the belief to friend this writer and many others and do everything to get this writer published. The influence that she had and the enthusiasm is amazing.
I do hope you have a chance to read this book, it is wonderful.
Have a Fabulous Thanksgiving!
If the world’s dwindling independent bookstores have a patron saint, an exemplar to cling to in moments of duress, she is Sylvia Beach (1887-1962), the soulful and fearless owner of Shakespeare & Company, the English-language bookstore she founded in Paris in 1919 and operated on the Left Bank
until the German occupation during World War II.
Beach was the first publisher of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and helped smuggle copies to readers in the United States. She coined the term Bloomsday to describe the day on which the novel is set. Her bookstore, packed with fresh journals, good sunlight and plump armchairs,
was a sanctuary for the era’s best writers, ex-pat and otherwise. Her friends — she introduced many of them to one another — included Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound ,Ernest Hemmingway , Janet Flanner and the poet H. D. For her favorites she operated as banker,
post office, clipping service and cheering section. She was a prizewinning translator of Paul Valéry and Henri Michaux. As it happened, she also had “pretty legs and she was kind, cheerful and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip,” Hemingway wrote in “A Moveable Feast.”
“No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.” Beach’s story has been told before, in her appealing memoir “Shakespeare & Company” (1959) and more exactingly in Noel Riley Fitch’s “Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation” (1983).
Beach was an unlikely champion of literary modernism. The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, she was the second of three daughters and grew up in Bridgeton and Princeton, N.J. She didn’t attend college but saw the world, working during World War I as a volunteer
She was a bibliophile from an early age and debated opening a bookstore in New York or London. But in Paris she met and fell in love with a bookstore owner, Adrienne Monnier, who would become, Ms. Walsh writes in her introduction, “her lifelong personal and professional partner.”
(This book’s dust jacket speaks of these women’s complicated “affair,” an odd phrase for a decades-long relationship. That phrase also goes farther than Beach does; she was reserved about her sexuality, and these letters are quite chaste.)
Shakespeare and Company opened in 1919, when Beach was 32, with money supplied by her mother and vital help from Monnier. The shop’s literary clientele wasn’t wealthy, and Beach lent books, for a small fee, in addition to selling them. She referred to her patrons as her “bunnies,”
a play on the French word for subscriber, “abonné.”
Beach was scalding about the censorship of “Ulysses.” “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!” she wrote a friend.
She deeply admired Joyce’s work, but as a businesswomen she was not stupid.