Monday, June 21, 2010



In 1940 Paris, the great Left Bank bookseller & publisher Sylvia Beach wrote to the other great Paris bookseller Adrienne Monnier and listed the English writers she favored. Beach published James Joyce's Ulysses in 1922. Monnier had asked Beach who were her favorites. The two most famous booksellers in the modern era would become lovers for twenty years.

"First, it's no longer a secret that my favorites are my associate "Bill" Shakespeare, William Blake and James Joyce. And I like DeQuincey and Melville."

She continued on a bit later, "It's thus that Mrs. Norledge made me read one of the most beautiful works in the world, 'The Story of My Heart' by Richard Jeffries."

I agree. A book that easily slips away hidden on my bookshelf.

Beach goes on to ruminate about other authors dear to her: DH Lawrence, Huxley, Hemingway, Faulkner, Norman Douglas, Dos Passos, Yeats, Dorothy Richardson, TS Eliot, Marjorie Rawlings, John Steinbeck. . .

Like a bookseller and publisher and reader she just can't stop listing writers and books, mostso to the woman she loves and who was her mentor...with a bookshop right across the street. I'd give anything to walk down that vanished location today. Those double-barrel bookshops.

The year Sylvia Beach was born — 1887 in Baltimore — construction of the Eiffel Tower in Paris started in earnest.

Through the influence of her parents and travel to Europe, Beach settled in Paris and around the age of 30 opened Shakespeare and Company, an English language bookshop.

Quick on her feet, by 1922, she will have published the first edition of Ulysses. (Forty years later Borges will call it "unreadable"). It will take twelve more years (1934) for the notorious one to be brought to America via Random House, where 35,000 copies will sell in the first four months. The crunch of the Depression. More copies were sold in those four months than all the dedicated years of Beach peddling her discovery.

In five more years the German army will occupy France. Samuel Beckett joins the Resistance and within a year James Joyce dies, too young in Zurich, and blind. By 1942 the Nazis are crawling throughout Paris and we find Beach hiding her prized bookstore stock in her apartment. Found to be an American, she is arrested and sent to an internment camp for a half year.

The books survive, but even Ernest Hemingway can't "liberate" the shop back into the fold when he shows up in 1944.

Beach never opens her quixotic shop as a business again.

In 1951, a year after she translated and published with New Directions A Barbarian in Asia by Henri Michaux, Beach allowed George Whitman to use her famed bookshop name, but in another location, where he situated his own legendary book nest. The name lives on.

In 1955 Adrienne Monnier can withstand her suffering no longer (Meniere's Disease etc) and takes her life. A lover gone.

The following year Beach published her classic memoir Shakespeare and Company. One not to miss today, even after we've gone to the moon, are destroying our planet with ooze, and losing our minds to pods.

In 1962, with the helping hands of friends and others, the one who gave so much to many, is able to keep her apartment in Paris where she passes away on October 6th.

Sylvia Beach's grave is in Princeton, New Jersey, her childhood home.

The Letters of Sylvia Beach, edited by Keri Walsh

A lovely to hold in the hand volume, design-wise, with sublime care by the editor.