by Kerri Maher (2022)
Sylvia Beach, an American, fell madly in love with Paris when vacationing there with her family in her mid-teens. She spent nearly 15 years devising various plans for moving to Paris, finally settling on the idea of opening a French bookstore in New York. She was a voracious reader even as a young child, but knew little about being a bookseller, so went to Paris for research. Sylvia found her way to a French bookshop run by Adrienne Monnier, and, there, her life and history changed.
The chances of someone just happening to choose a bookshop at random from all the Parisian shops and finding herself strongly drawn to the owner who becomes the love of her life are astronomical…but that’s what happened. Sylvia worked in Adrienne’s shop to learn the trade, but it wasn’t a hardship for her to be near the woman she was so attracted to, either. (Adrienne’s current lover died and some time passed before they became a couple.) Reading takes one set of skills. Owning and operating a shop that sells books requires completely different ones if one wants to keep the business.
Over time, Sylvia’s master plan changed: in 1919, she opened her own bookshop around the corner from Adrienne’s in Paris and sold books in English. (Later she was able to move her shop across the street from Adrienne’s.) Her clientele gradually grew, comprised mainly of Americans with a mix of other mostly English speakers. She operated a lending library and sold books in her shop named Shakespeare and Company.
Throughout the 1920s, its and her fame grew. The shop became a gathering place for many of the most talented and celebrated writers of that time. Ernest Hemingway was one of the early clients. Over time writers such as Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, T.S. Eliot, and a myriad of other talented writers of the period who are still important today found their way to the shop. Some visited to read & socialize every day, even receiving their mail there. But the star of them all was James Joyce.
Before I say more about Joyce, it’s important to understand who these writers were and why they were ex-pats in Paris for the years when they and their work was controversial and even unwelcome in the United States.
This group and others like them were dubbed “the Lost Generation.” They came of age during WWI, and many had been injured or suffered from what we now call PTSD. “Gertrude Stein is credited for the term Lost Generation, though Hemingway made it widely known. According to Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964), she had heard it used by a garage owner in France, who dismissively referred to the younger generation as a “génération perdue.”’ (Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas also lived in Paris, but didn’t often mix with the bookshop group.)
This group “established their literary reputations in the 1920s. The term is also used more generally to refer to the post-World War I generation.
“The generation was “lost” in the sense that its inherited values were no longer relevant in the postwar world and because of its spiritual alienation from a United States that, basking under Pres. Warren G. Harding’s “back to normalcy” policy, seemed to its members to be hopelessly provincial, materialistic, and emotionally barren.”
(Source of quotes above: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Lost-Generation)
When I read about the post-WWI turmoil and upheaval in the U.S., I was struck by the similarity of some events to those of today. Many people died from the last major epidemic prior to covid: the Spanish flu. Soldiers were returning home from war, many of them needing (but not getting) help for trauma and injuries, trying to find their places in society. Anti-immigrant feeling was rampant. A bombing on Wall Street (on September 16, 1920, in New York, on a “clear, crisp, blue day.” Remind you of anything?) was said to be done by foreign “anarchists.” Racism and lynchings increased. Women’s suffrage was a volatile topic, as was Prohibition.
In short, Ezra Pound was one of many writers and artists seeking to escape. As he told Sylvia in 1920: “It’s s*** to be a real artist in America these days.” [p. 70] James Joyce, though Irish, was about to discover that first hand.
Joyce had already gained literary fame with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Finnegan’s Wake. Then he began work on his magnum opus, considered by many to be the best novel of the 20th century: Ulysses. It’s a tale of a man’s voyage through one day (June 16, now celebrated as Bloomsday by aficionados).
When he sent out parts of the script as he wrote them, anything sent to the U.S. was declared obscene material and confiscated. For years he fought the censors in the U.S. (which is odd for a country that has freedom of speech enshrined in its Constitution), but the puritanical streak prevailed for years. No one was forced to read it, but declaring it obscene material just made more people want to read it for themselves.
The situation finally escalated to the point where Sylvia published Ulysses under the auspices of the bookshop because no one else would. It was the only book she ever published, despite pleas from other writers, but got the book out and later lost the obscenity accusation. The cost to her, both financially and personally, was enormous.
The bulk of The Paris Bookseller follows Joyce, his personal foibles and interactions with Sylvia, and the battle to publish Ulysses. I found it fascinating. I had no idea Joyce was such a brilliant man: he was fluent in at least 9 languages, seems to have had an eidetic memory, just amazingly brilliant. He also had serious health problems, especially with his eyes (iritis, glaucoma), suffered from a lot of pain, yet powered through and wrote with such brilliance.
He was also a man of baffling contradictions. He could be kind and giving, or selfish and egotistical. Perhaps most surprising, given his written work, is that he was a most ordinary man when it came to his wife and children. Over the years, Sylvia had a front row seat to observe him. Time after time, she’d decide in exasperation to cut ties with him…and then he’d do something extraordinarily thoughtful. Joyce was brilliant but complicated.
When the Great Depression struck, ex-pats who could no longer afford to live in Paris returned to the U.S., and business slowed. The shop stayed open until 1941, when a German soldier (remember Paris was occupied by Germans since June 1940) entered the shop asking for a copy of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Sylvia refused to sell it to him, and he stormed off with a threat. She and friends immediately moved the entire store—books, shelves, and all–to the 4th floor of her building, then painted over the front sign. The Germans never did find the store which seemed to have completely vanished. However, Sylvia did serve 6 months in an internment camp from which she was rescued by a friend from her bookshop. She never re-opened it.
Sylvia’s professional life flourished far beyond anything she could have dreamt of as a younger woman. Who would have thought that she would influence literary history, not only of the 20th century, but for all lovers of great literature indefinitely?
However, her personal life was less happy. The relationship with the love of her life, Adrienne, morphed into a close friendship starting in 1937. Adrienne was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease and committed suicide in 1955. Sylvia died in 1962.
I absolutely love this book, but love Sylvia’s memoir Shakespeare and Company much more. This book only extends to 1936, is classified as fiction, and Sylvia’s memoir extends further, for anyone who wants to learn more. Having read them both, Maher’s rendition has a great deal of fact in it.
One drawback of Maher’s book to me is the beginning about the meeting and attraction of the 2 women. It seemed too melodramatic and didn’t fit with the rest of the book and was also too long. After that, it’s hard to put down.
I will not donate Beach’s book because I have it only in paperback. The hardback copy costs nearly $200 or more, but the paperback is affordable, and I recommend it for anyone who loves the time period, the writers, and their work. Once reviled, they carried on to create classics that have endured for a century and long into the future. I wonder what they’d think if they knew their literature was assigned reading in thousands of high school and college classes!
As a bonus, I want to share this site with you:
Technology can give us some amazing info from the past!
The Paris Bookseller will be available at Grover Beach Community Library.