Welcome back to my series on Women of the Left Bank – perhaps my least read blogposts ever but also ones I very much enjoy writing.
Today my attention turns to Sylvia Beach – a woman who was vitally important to the development of modernism and who first published the movement’s seminal text, Ulysses.
Many bookish tourists visiting Paris head to Notre Dame to visit the wonderful Shakespeare & Company shop, with its towering shelves crammed with literary delights new and old. But what many people don’t realise when they think they’re walking in Hemingway’s footsteps is that this is the second incarnation of the iconic shop. The original Shakespeare & Company was on rue de l’Odeon and it was founded by the utterly fabulous Sylvia Beach. On the same road, literary people could find La Maison des Amis des Livres, run by Sylvia’s partner Adrienne Monnier.
The first time I went to Paris when I was 20 I wandered up and down rue de l'Odeon for ages looking for the damn shop! I didn't know it had been moved...
Sylvia Beach was born in New Jersey, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. She came to Paris as a young girl with her family in the years 1902 and 1905, an experience which had a profound impact on her. During World War One she returned to France to volunteer for the allies, and ended up doing agricultural work in Touraine. When the war ended she remained in Paris and opened her bookshop, which in 1921 moved to rue de l’Odeon.
When Sylvia opened her shop, Valery Larbaud gave her a little model of Shakespeare’s cottage and some little green soldiers to guard it. They would, he said ‘protect the house of Shakespeare’.
The shop was a hit with the American expats who flocked to Paris after the war. As they walked through its welcoming door to the room with its chessboard floor and scattered chairs, they could find the latest journals and reviews – Little Review, the Dial, the Transatlantic. They could browse the latest poetry, short story collections and novels from the writers who were creating modernism and surrealism in the Montparnasse cafes. And, more often than not, they could meet the writers themselves, looking through the shelves, flicking through the latest edition of Transition, or discussing their work with Sylvia.
As well as a bookshop, Shakespeare & Company worked as a lending library. Along with Monnier, Sylvia really invented the concept of a lending library in France. For perennially skint writers like Hemingway, being able to borrow and return books was a real blessing.
When the young photographer Gisele Freund came to Paris, she suggested to Adrienne and Sylvia that she took photos of all the writers who regularly visited the shops. She did, and her realistic and penetrating portraits were hung on the shop walls.
This clip, from the film Paris was a Woman, features interviews with Sylvia, Gisele Freund and Janet Flanner, talking about the importance of Shakespeare & Company.
Sylvia said that her three great loves were Adrienne Monnier, James Joyce and Shakespeare & Company. It was the second love that led to her embarking on a journey that transformed Sylvia’s life and made her one of the most important women of the modernist project.
Joyce and Sylvia struck up a friendship during his visits to her shop. Customers would often find Joyce, with his thin moustache and white tennis shoes, sat at the table in the shop with Sylvia, discussing his work and the work of their mutual friends. A star-struck Scott Fitzgerald was famously too nervous to start a conversation with Joyce, so Sylvia invited him and Zelda to dinner to meet his hero. According to legend, Scott got down on one knee and proclaimed his gratitude to the modernist master.
As their friendship grew, and Sylvia became more convinced than ever of Joyce’s genius, she became utterly determined that his experimental modernist novel, Ulysses, should be published.
Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson (subjects for a later post!) had already attempted to publish excerpts of Ulysses in Little Review, printing Episode IX in the journal. The reaction was incredible. Both Heap and Anderson were hauled up in front of the law courts, accused of obscenity charges by Mr Sumners, the head of the Society for the Prevention of Vice. They were found guilty. In response, Heap said:
‘It was the poet, the artist, who discovered love and created the lover, made sex everything that it is beyond a function. It is the Mr Sumners who have made it an obscenity.’
I love that quote. It exposes the nonsense of banning Ulysses perfectly.
Sylvia was not deterred by the news from the States. She poured all her energy into finding a publisher for her friend’s book. In fact, her championing of Joyce led to a rift with that other great modernist, Gertrude Stein. Stein felt that Sylvia should be using all that energy to champion her writing, rather than Joyce’s.
Despite her best effort, Sylvia couldn’t find a publisher. So she decided to publish the book herself. It was a venture that would lead to unimaginable success for Joyce, and near ruin for Sylvia.
The costs of publishing Ulysses were far higher than Sylvia could have imagined – especially because Joyce was forever amending and correcting the text. Proofs would arrive back from the printer and he would annotate them until the type was buried in notes. Each new proof required more money. The costs mounted up.
Finally, on 2nd February 1922, 1,000 copies of Ulysses were published. The run was printed by Darantiere in Dijon, and copies went on sale at Shakespeare & Company. I don’t need to tell you about its reception here. We all know Ulysses, even if we don’t all know Sylvia.
Despite rapturous reviews from Eliot and the like, Ulysses remained banned in the UK until the 1930s. It was only made available in the USA in 1934, after a court case named ‘The United States v. One Book Called Ulysses’ ruled the book was not, in fact, pornographic.
Sylvia’s publishing of Ulysses was an incredible feat, and an act of real faith in Joyce. She believed in him as a writer so much, she was determined that the world would recognise his genius and the genius of his book. But when the UK and US stopped banning Ulysses, and Joyce was offered a massive Random House contract a decade later, he tore up his contract with Sylvia Beach. She watched as the book that she had fought to publish became one of the most successful books of the twentieth century. Financially, Joyce was set for life. But after everything Sylvia had done for him, he never gave her a penny.
It was quite the betrayal. Sylvia had nearly gone bankrupt publishing Ulysses. She had nearly lost her shop, and the stress had a terrible impact on her health. Eventually, Adrienne had to write to Joyce and tell him not to come back.
The financial burden of publishing Ulysses left the shop struggling. Writers like Gide rallied around, doing free readings at Shakespeare & Company that brought in buyers. It’s one of the things I love about Shakespeare & Company. You have this sense of it being a place where writers and readers came together to celebrate one another’s work.
The shop remained open until 1940, when Germany occupied Paris. Sylvia angered a German officer by refusing to sell him her copy of Finnegan’s Wake. He threatened to confiscate her stock, close the shop and intern her. That night, Sylvia and her friends hid the entire contents of bookshop in the empty apartments above. There the stock remained until she welcomed Hemingway back to rue de l’Odeon when Paris was liberated in 1944.
Sylvia Beach died in 1962. She was an extraordinary woman who should be remembered for her vital role in promoting and celebrating the work of some of the most exciting and innovative artists and writers of her day. One can’t help but wonder what our understanding of modernism would be without Sylvia Beach’s bookshop and publishing energy.
Other posts in the series: