Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sylvia Beach & the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties & Thirties by Noel Riley Fitch

This is simply one of the best biographies I have ever read.  Detailing the life of Sylvia Beach & her milieu from her birth in 1887 until 1962, the year she died, Sylvia Beach & the Lost Generation is the most comprehensive study I have read of the era.  It is such a full and vibrant portrait of Sylvia Beach & all the literary figures, American, French, English, that passed through the doors of her famous bookshop, Shakespeare & Company, that you will never be bored, despite the 400-plus pages of this tome.

For me Sylvia Beach was one of those names you hear in connection with Joyce & Hemingway, a woman who owned a bookstore that both those illustrious Lost Generation authors frequented. Reading about her life, one of three sisters, daughter of a pastor from Princeton, New Jersey, who ended up living in Paris for over 40 fascinating years & meeting everyone worth knowing, was quite an education.  Sylvia & her family first went to Paris in 1902, when her father was associate pastor of the American Church of Paris.  They moved back to Princeton in 1905, but Sylvia, & to a lesser extent her mother & sisters, had already fallen for Europe's charms.  Sylvia went to Italy in 1907, to Spain in 1915, finally returning to Paris in 1916.  She opened Shakespeare & Company in 1919, with the help of her family & of Adrienne Monnier, owner of her own (French) lending library, La Maison des Amis des Livres, who for 38 years would be Sylvia's "sister, lover, mother & mentor".

Shakespeare & Company was an English language bookstore & lending library that attracted English-speaking literary lights of the early 20th century but also famous French friends, such as the poets Paul Valéry & Léon-Paul Fargue (who alarmed her with his nocturnal prowlings, which he called his "ministry of the night"),  & writers Valery Larbaud, Jules Romains, & André Gide (winner of the Nobel Prize in 1947).  The walls were full of pictures of "the Company", many taken by Sylvia, & out front was a hand-painted sign featuring a bust of Shakespeare.  In the confines of the shop, Sylvia rubbed shoulders with Gertrude Stein (at least in the early days), Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, William Carlos Williams, Kay Boyle, Janet Flanner, John Dos Passos, & Elizabeth Bishop, to name a few luminaries. Shakespeare & Company also sold books by mail to other writers such as Yeats & the Sitwells, as well as the little literary magazines of the era, such as transition, This Quarter, Criterion, & Poetry-with Sylvia contributing to them a few times (mostly translations). The bookshop was not just Sylvia's job, it was her vocation.

In 1920 she met Joyce, which would be a turning point, because for a decade her life would be wound up with the Irishman & his family; Shakespeare & Company published Ulysses, & Sylvia was one of the two women who financed the Joyces' extravagant lifestyle while he wrote-the other woman was in England, so Sylvia also found herself running Joyce's errands & acting as his secretary on many occasions. This took up a lot of her time & Adrienne thought affected Sylvia's health. Also, Gertrude Stein no longer visited the shop, since she was feuding with Joyce.

Besides her long-running commitment to the welfare of James Joyce (& publishing 10 editions of Ulysses), some of Sylvia's other projects during her years in Paris including putting on an exhibition about Walt Whitman & putting a roof over the head of composer George Antheil.  In fact, a great deal of Sylvia's time seems to have been spent as a facilitator-finding someone to translate something, finagling a loan for someone, giving discounts to those in need (in fact, letting Hemingway walk out with any books he wanted).

Sylvia kept Shakespeare & Company going through the Depression, but it would not survive the war-she closed its doors dramatically in 1941, worried the Nazis would confiscate her stock. There is a Shakespeare & Company operating in Paris currently, but it is a different store, opened in 1951, & renamed Shakespeare & Company after Sylvia Beach's death.  This bookstore also has a grand literary tradition, serving as a base for writers of the Beat Generation-but that is another story.

Check out Sylvia Beach & The Lost Generation to learn about this remarkable woman, the linchpin of a literary generation, & also for its anecdotal history of other writers: the profligacy & dependency of the illness-ridden Joyce; Hemingway's many women, his delight in fatherhood, & the ox-tulip incident; the unfulfilled life of longtime member of the Company Robert McAlmon; & all the others who flit in & out of this stunning biography.

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