The letters of Sylvia Beach. Edited by Keri Walsh.
Columbia University Press. 347pp. $49.95.
SYLVIA BEACH (1887-1962) was the founder of the legendary Paris left bank bookshop Shakespeare and Company at 12 Rue de l’Odéon and the first publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses. While Beach’s story has been told before, in her somewhat rambling memoir, Shakespeare & Company (1959) and Noel Riley Fitch’s more authoritative Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation (1983), this is the first published collection of her letters.
Keri Walsh, Assistant Professor of Literature at Claremont McKenna College in Los Angeles, collects letters written by Beach throughout her life. Beach was a book lover from an early age and fell in love with Paris after her Presbyterian minister father took the family on a visit in 1901. After working with the Red Cross in the First World War, Beach opened Shakespeare and Company in 1919, with help from her mother and her long time personal and professional companion, Adrienne Monnier.
Fitch in his Foreword writes that Beach ‘was the midwife of literary modernism’, as she nurtured literary talent through her bookshop and publishing activities. Notable relationships, as well as Joyce, included Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, André Gide, William Carlos Williams and F Scott Fitzgerald. In addition to selling books, Beach allowed impoverished young writers, like Ernest Hemingway, to borrow from her stock. She referred to them as her ‘bunnies’, from the French, abonné for subscriber. Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast, ‘She was kind, cheerful and interested . . . No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.’
Joyce, an early visitor to her bookshop, wasn’t, however, particularly nice to her. Many of the early letters deal with her tireless endeavours, often unappreciated, in support of Joyce and Ulysses. In 1921 she decided to publish Ulysses, even though, ‘Nine stenographers gave up the typing . . . and a gentleman from the British Embassy burned a dozen pages in a rage’. She strongly believed, ‘Ulysses is a masterpiece and one day will rank among the classics of English literature’. Beach also helped to smuggle copies into the United States.
Beach abhorred 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!’ Beach, however, turned down DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover because ‘it was all preaching, preaching’. She later reflected, ‘it’s nobody’s duty to go in for sex if he doesn’t want to’.
For Joyce and other authors, she was publisher, financer, distributor and postal service. While Beach recognised ‘Ulysses is going to make my place famous’, she ultimately lost out financially when Joyce took the rights, without any recompense, to Random House. Beach notes ‘the profits were for him’ as the Random House edition immediately sold 35,000 copies. Walsh includes a 12 April, 1927 letter, which was never sent to Joyce, in which she describes her financial difficulties and the demands that Joyce places upon her — ‘the truth is that as my affection and admiration for you are unlimited, so is the work you pile on my shoulders . . . I am poor and tired too.’
Walsh says ‘A less devoted, tenacious, and flexible person would simply not have been able to get Ulysses into print. But their intense and one-sided relationship proved unsustainable as his needs escalated and her resources diminished during the Depression’. The bookshop struggled in the Depression. To help raise funds, readings were organised with authors such as Gide, Maurois, Hemingway and Stephen Spender, ‘a gentle boy with nice manners’.
The shop closed down during the Nazi occupation of Paris, culminating in Beach’s internment. Hemingway’s first act in returning to Paris in 1944 was to ‘liberate’ the shop, but Beach never reopened it. In 1951 its stock, including the lending library, was acquired in part by the American Library in Paris and by George Whitman to whom she ‘bequeathed’ the name Shakespeare and Company.
The Letters of Sylvia Beach is not only a fascinating resource to a key period of literary history and a tribute to a remarkable woman, but also a reminder that bookselling is essentially hard work. Beach writes: ‘A bookshop is mostly tiresome details all day long and you have to have a passion for it . . . to grub and grub in it. I have always loved books and their authors, and for the sake of them swallowed the rest of it, but you can’t expect everyone to do the same.’ Posterity is grateful she did.