Who is Sylvia? What is She?

by Ahmad Saidullah

The Letters of Sylvia Beach. Edited by Keri Walsh. Foreword by Noel Riley Fitch. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. 347 pp. $29.95.

ScreenHunter_07 Jun. 07 11.42 Sylvia Beach was an independent bookseller, a publisher, a literary agent and promoter. Noel Riley Fitch dubbed her “the midwife of literary modernism.” She opened Shakespeare and Company, “a little American bookshop on the Left Bank,” in a disused laundry on rue Dupuytren in 1919 on her third trip to Paris. Drawn by the cheap franc like other expats at the end of World War I, she chose the City of Lights over New York and London.

She was also drawn to Adrienne Monnier, owner of a literary bookstore La Maison des Amis des Livres in the Odéon quarter. In 1921, she moved Shakespeare and Company to 12 rue de l’Odéon, a few doors down from Adrienne’s shop. They would share their personal and professional lives until Adrienne’s death from an overdose of sleeping pills in 1955.

This was a remarkable turn for the daughter of a Presbyterian minister from “a leafy, flowery park [more] than a town,” as she described Princeton, New Jersey. Sylvia had not been to college or university and had grown up in an age before women got the right to vote in the US (she was active in the suffrage movement) and when chemists still sold Pink Pills for Pale People.

Culled mostly from the Princeton and Yale collections with some additions from the British Library, Keri Walsh has buttressed Beach’s letters with short biographies of 51 correspondents and a chronology. Beach’s life spanned two world wars, the Jazz Age, the Great Depression, and various social upheavals—what the Russian poet Tyutchev called “the fateful ages” of the world—but her letters, cautious as they are even those to her close friends Marion Peter and Carlotta Welles in the States, rarely give away any secrets.

Her early efforts seem guileless. She sports a light, humorous touch with a few lapses into tweeisms (Sylvia used “somepin” for “something” throughout), like her quicksilver wit and turn of phrase in conversation. We learn how Sylvia and her sisters Cyprian and Holly were encouraged in the arts by their mother Eleanor who felt distant from her husband’s calling. The letters testify to their love of culture but the independence of the Beach girls shocked the parishioners. The Beaches were fond of travelling to Europe.

In 1919, Sylvia and Holly volunteered with the American Red Cross in Belgrade, an experience that shaped their beliefs about the role of women in the modern world. Writing from Belgrade to her father Sylvia noted that “there is only one (1) rule in the house—you must on no account whatsoever go into the kitchen. That suits me very nicely. In fact the whole atmosphere is quite suffragette.” Her sister Cyprian became a film actress; her admirers in Paris included Louis Aragon.

However, the bulk of these letters supports Riley Fitch’s observation in the Foreword that “her correspondence was mostly business” and that business, of course, was books. Although she translated the Belgian experimentalist Henri Michaux, Sylvia’s letters dwell mainly on her bookshop and her related activities. For many writers, Shakespeare and Company, which doubled as a lending library, was a welcome adjunct to the American Library in Paris. Perhaps not as organized as a bookseller ought to be, Sylvia still enjoyed a unique rapport with the writer and the “common reader.” She would discuss books with her customers without pressuring them to buy anything. The bookshop with its burlapped walls, goldfish and brass scales became a second home for expats and tourists. In her memoir Shakespeare and Company, Beach noted that “it was the first thing the pilgrims looked up in Paris.”

The list of literati who used the shop as a meeting place reads like a Who’s Who of modernists, including the so-called Lost Generation of the 1920s and 30s, names that still pull starry-eyed North Americans to Paris. There was Beach’s first sponsor Valéry Larbaud, and others such as André Gide, Paul Valéry, Jean Paulhan, Gertrude Stein, George Antheil, HD (Hilda Doolittle), Ford Maddox Ford, Robert McAlmon, Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman), Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Samuel Beckett, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and, of course, James Joyce, the writer Beach is most closely associated with.

Sylvia observed shrewdly to her sister Holly in 1921 that “Ulysses is going to make my place famous.” She informed her friend Marion Peter the same year that she was “publishing a book now. Ulysses by James Joyce, the greatest book and author of the age.” Her arrangement with the printer Maurice Darantiére of Dijon enabled Joyce to interrupt the publishing process and revise the manuscript continuously until it became the text of Ulysses that we are familiar with. The process took a long time but the limited edition sold out quickly.

Beach fought hard against the ban on Ulysses. In 1927, she organized a campaign endorsed by close to 200 signatories, including Louis Cazamian, André Maurois, Ortega y Gasset, and Miguel Unamuno, against Samuel Roth’s pirated edition of Ulysses in the US. (Walsh includes the letter of protest in Appendix II.) Two years later, Beach also brought out a book of essays on Joyce titled Our Exagmination.

But that was not all.

In her memoir, Beach wrote that “we attended to Joyce’s correspondence, were his bankers, his agents, his errand boys. We made appointments for him, won friends for him, arranged all the business of the translation”…while adding somewhat unconvincingly “I enjoyed it immensely.”

Tired from overwork, beset with money worries of her own, and often in pain from facial neuralgia and migraines, Beach let herself go in an unsent response to Joyce’s demands and complaints in 1927 (Appendix III).

“I am afraid I and my little shop will not be able to stand the struggle to keep you and your family going from now till June, and to finance the trip of Mrs. Joyce and yourself to London ‘with money jingling in your pocket.’”

She ended the letter by asking “is this human?”

Sylvia arranged for doctors to check on Joyce who suffered from generally poor health and glaucoma and tried to smooth out the friction between Gertrude Stein and the Irish novelist, two writers with outsized egos. She still respected his genius but slowly lost her awe of him. In her memoir, Beach admitted “I was willing to do everything I could for Joyce but I insisted on going away on weekends,” the time when she and Adrienne would take to the country. In return, Joyce schemed and intrigued, wheedled money out of her, lived off her largesse as she rarely enforced her contractual rights until, harassed by Paul Léon, Joyce’s intermediary, she gave up her claims as the publisher of Ulysses altogether in 1930.

Adrienne understandably did not warm to Joyce but Sylvia was not his only victim. Marie and Eugène Jolas, founders of the journal transition, also helped Joyce. Harriet Weaver, the British publisher of Ulysses, who became Sylvia’s friend, cashed in her inheritance to finance Joyce’s extravagances. Given that Joyce had the scruples of a weasel, it is hardly surprising that one of his legacies has been this incessant family wrangling over his estate.

Further, the evidence suggests that, Joyce aside, quite a few male writers of that generation were first-class shits. Sylvia Beach felt betrayed by Ford Maddox Ford’s proposal to start another bookshop in Paris. She cooled towards Hemingway who claimed she was the nicest person he had met and then added a few inevitable words about her shapely legs.

Sylvia’s letters may be diplomatic to a fault but while charming in public she could also be acidulous in private with her friends. She befriended Richard Wright, the Afro-American writer who had moved to Paris to avoid the anti-Communist witchhunt in the US. She preferred him to Hemingway who, according to her, thought women were just there to fuck.

Sylvia’s friendships with women went deeper. They supported Sylvia in her role as the “literary midwife.” Her mother Eleanor had sent all her savings after getting Sylvia’s original cable about Shakespeare and Company: “Opening bookshop in Paris. Please send money.” HD, Bryher, Holly, Marion Peter and others frequently sent her money to keep her going during difficult periods. Without these extraordinary women, the literary present would look quite different. Some demystification is overdue. A feminist history of the period cries out to be written.

By the end of her life, Beach was concerned about the disposition of the stock of Shakespeare and Company, which did not re-open after the war, about the sale of her papers and her collection of Joyceana. In her later years, she reports being dogged by Joe Prescott, an academic hustler bent on making his name as a Joycean scholar.

The best letters chart a life. Sadly, these do not shed light on the tensions between her parents; the chronology does not even include a reference to her mother’s suicide. We do not learn much from the letters about Sylvia’s attachment to Adrienne, her lesbianism, her socialist beliefs, her split over money matters with Cyprian in 1923, or her internment at Vittel by the Nazis.

To get a fuller picture of Sylvia Beach beyond the Joyceana in this book, one needs to read her memoir Shakespeare and Company and Riley Fitch’s Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation. Other minor cavils: Walsh’s annotations are informative but do we really need footnotes for the League of Nations and bolshevism when “Ch. Dows Phiqqrs” is left unglossed? There are a few typos in the text but it’s unclear if they are holograph.

In these days when independent booksellers are swallowed up or are put out of business by chain stores, when tensions between France and the US have renewed in a world convulsed with wars and debt, when literature is devalued and manufactured in writing programs, Sylvia Beach’s life and letters illustrate how one person’s exemplary energy and vision can endow culture with relevance so it becomes an intrinsic humanizing and vital force that shapes society.

Ahmad Saidullah is a prizewinning Canadian writer. His book Happiness and Other Disorders: Short Stories was published in Canada and India in 2008 and was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and longlisted for the Crossword Vodafone Book Award in 2009. The book is being translated into French by the University of Ottawa Press. He lives in Toronto, Canada