In honor of the publication of her edition of Sylvia Beach’s letters, I wanted to do something special here at Fernham. As part of Sylvia Beach Week, Keri Walsh and I “interviewed” each other over email. We continued the conversation we began at her reading at Bluestockings books in May, touching on the challenges of editing, on women modernists, on bookstores, archives, and common readers. We could barely stop talking, so the conversation is in four parts. I hope that you enjoy reading it as much as we did writing it!
Anne: You’ve said that Beach’s willingness to work with and for Joyce (a notoriously difficult character) is the central mystery to her life. I find myself hoping that you’re secretly at work on the script for that drama. Are you? More immediately, you must have some hypotheses to the mystery. Can you share any of them here?
Keri: Beach shared Joyce’s love for language, and she took pleasure in playing around with words. Her earliest letters show her punning with advertisements, just as Joyce would do in the Aeolus section of Ulysses. And they both liked to kid around with Shakespeare. Ulysses includes some funny burlesques of Hamlet, and Stephen Dedalus is a bit of a comic Hamlet. The first thing that bonded them when they met at a Paris party was Joyce’s amusement at the name of her bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. He took out a pen to write down the name of the shop, and he came by to visit the next day.
In addition to their shared comic sensibility and her tremendous admiration for his writing, Beach did understand that there were professional advantages in being associated with Joyce: “Ulysses is going to make my place famous,” she predicted in a letter, and it did. The daily presence of Joyce at Shakespeare and Company created an aura around the shop, and that aura drew other writers and creative people. His faith in Beach consolidated her status as a taste-maker and champion of the avant-garde.
So there were some idealistic and some practical reasons why Beach went out of her way for Joyce: her earnest desire to help an artist she believed in, one who was having difficulty getting his work to print, and the status he conferred on her business. But ultimately, it’s still difficult to explain just why she handed over her life to Joyce for ten years, putting herself in constant financial risk and exacerbating her migraines with all the demands attendant upon publishing Ulysses: the huge, constantly-changing manuscript; the fact that to fund the book she needed to get subscribers in advance; the lack of copyright protection in England and America which meant that she also had to fight against the piracy of the book; Joyce’s poor health; the needs of his family. She never put herself on the line for any other writer in this way. Many biographers and memoirists have mentioned Joyce’s personal charisma—his manner of speaking, his beautiful eyes, his good manners and his slightly antique formality (they always called each other “Mr. Joyce” and “Miss Beach”) and the reputation that preceded him as the author of Dubliners and Portrait—and so maybe, at a certain point, we have to appeal to that “Joyce Effect.” Sylvia Beach wasn’t the only person to go out of her way for him. He inspired loyalty and love, in spite of his many trying qualities.
Anne: I know that in high school I grew enamored of Paris in the 1920s because it seemed to offer all kinds of things that Seattle in the 1980s could not. We read Hemingway and Fitzgerald in high school, and, through them, I learned for the first time about this idea of a literary circle, a literary city. What drew you to this place and time?
Keri: How funny, because Seattle was about to explode as a creative capital in its own right, with a musical scene that could rival 1920s Paris. It just goes to show that Paris has no special privilege in the arts, but it does have a lot of creative history accumulated over the centuries, so it’s easy to see why it’s still magnetic. I grew up in the city that Leonard Cohen (with his usual hint of irony, I’m sure), called “the Paris of the Prairies.” But there’s something to his assessment. After all, Joni Mitchell got her start in Saskatoon. I spent most of my childhood in a dance studio, and I especially loved tap and musical theatre. So it was imitating Josephine Baker and Fred Astaire that pulled me into the ex-pat period of the 20s. I remember once shocking my dance teacher, when I was about fourteen and we were rehearsing a can-can, and kicking our legs madly in the air from all angles, by announcing that originally the can-can was done in Paris without underwear. I fell for Paris through MGM musicals, especially Gigi and An American in Paris. I loved the blend of romantic idealism and world-weariness in Gene Kelly’s character Gerry Mulligan in An American in Paris. He was an ex-G.I., and the film was set after the Second World War, in a new wave of ex-pats. Richard Wright was in Paris then, soaking up Sartre, and Julia Child was studying at the Cordon Bleu. Here’s the slightly mixed-up answer Gerry Mulligan gave about why he came to Paris, and it works for me too:
“…for a painter, the Mecca of the world for study, for inspiration, and for living is here on this star called Paris. Just look at it. No wonder so many artists have come here and called it home. Brother, if you can't paint in Paris, you'd better give up and marry the boss's daughter. Back home everyone said I didn't have any talent. They might be saying the same thing over here, but it sounds better in French.”
Keri: I read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time when I was 23. It was recommended to me by the friend who was my own Sally Seton, who in those days was exactly the kind of person who would pawn a brooch to come and see you. I discovered the book through her eyes, and I wasn’t the least bit interested in Richard Dalloway or Peter Walsh: to me, it was Sally and Clarissa’s book. Do you remember your first reading of the novel, and what it meant to you?
Anne: It’s funny, I don’t remember my first reading of the novel at all, though Woolf had a profound effect on me from the moment I first read her. At my women’s college, all the English professors were allergic to Woolf, having overdosed on her in the 1970s, so I arrived at graduate school barely knowing who she was. I took Harriet Chessman’s seminar on Woolf and Stein and fell in love with the first word.
This was awkward for a couple reasons. Harriet admired French feminism, which, for all my continuing love of Harriet, is an intellectual taste I cannot acquire. In her class and in that atmosphere—a kind of rogue feminist space amidst the overwhelming phallic patriarchy of Yale—meant that Stein kept winning the day. She had paired Woolf and Stein week by week and each time I would prefer Woolf only to go to class and find that the coolest grad students found Stein more theoretically rigorous: a better lesbian—an admitted lesbian, a richer experimenter, expressing a deeper sexuality. I marked myself as a hopelessly bourgeois girl in continually plumping for Woolf. But there it was. You cannot choose your loves.
I was one of five grad students who declared they were going to write their dissertations on Woolf. Two of the women dropped out of grad school altogether; the two men included chapters on Woolf in their longer projects; I am the only one who wrote on Woolf alone. I just held on the longest. I was stubborn.
But I fell in love with Woolf for words and phrases not for story, so what moved me were the words—the match in the crocus, the green dress in a square, the fire as burns only once in a lifetime—I was greedy for little nuggets of intensity and Woolf fed me.
I started a Happy Hour at a local bar in New Haven that same year. It was unheard of, in that competitive and hierarchical atmosphere, to suggest a gathering without purpose. I just wanted to make friends. Someone said to me “you really are a Mrs. Dalloway, aren’t you?” I still have mixed feelings about that judgment.