Keri and Sylvia around the web


All week, we’re celebrating Sylvia Beach. Please drop by for a new post—or two--on Beach every day. And then head to your local independent bookstore and buy a copy of The Letters of Sylvia Beach.

To wrap up, in case you’re still hungry for more, you can find reviews and interviews all around the web:
Enjoy. I hope you agree that there is little more diverting than spending a summer week thinking about Paris in the 1920s.

Conversation with Keri Walsh, Part Four: Common Readers and Bookstores


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: Anyone who loves Sylvia Beach must also love bookstores.  Can you tell me about one or two of your favorites and what they offer?

Keri: Some bookstores have such intellectual energy that they make you feel smarter.  Blackwell’s in Oxford is one of them.  You can take your notebook in there and emerge three hours later having done all the research for your latest piece of writing. Blackwell’s has every book you could ever want, at least in the Humanities, and you never know who’ll be sitting beside you in the second-floor café.  There’s a certain jetset element, a Hello magazine blend of Rhodes Scholars and children of foreign potentates.  It makes for glamorous people-watching: you can try to pick out the next Bill Clinton. The main Blackwell’s shop, which opened in 1879, is located in an old house right across the street from the Bodleian, and from the café you can see across the street to the dreaming spires and the Sheldonian theatre. 

I think I grew to love Blackwell’s because it gave me what the Bodleian couldn’t.  Some days I didn’t have the patience for Old Boddy: the books are locked away, can only be called up in small quantities, and you can’t wander in the stacks or take things home, and you certainly can’t drink Diet Coke in there.  All of this leads me back across the street to Blackwell’s. There’s a huge floor in the basement called the Norrington Room (a friend of mine used to call this area the TARDIS, after Dr. Who’s police box).  The store had to excavate beneath Trinity College’s gardens to accommodate it.  The TARDIS holds the philosophy, religion, feminism, film, and cultural studies books.  That’s where I would disappear to read things that weren’t quite approved of by my tutors— French feminism, American cultural studies, and anything else that seemed too jargony or flighty.  And then, if you hike up about five flights of stairs, you get to the second-hand section.  That’s a great place to find out-of-print women’s novels published by Virago in those gorgeous green-backed books—books like Rosamund Lehman’s Dusty Answer, my favorite best-seller of 1927.

Meanwhile, in London: last summer I discovered Samuel French’s Theatre Bookstore.  It caters to an entirely different clientele: the city’s actors.  It’s tucked away on a very quiet corner of Fitzrovia, and the walls are full of notices of auditions and ads for plays.  They carry every thespian thing you could ever want, and then some things you didn’t even know existed.  In that second category, I picked up a script for Mindy Kaling’s spoof of Good Will Hunting called “Matt and Ben.” 

Keri: Please tell me about your favorite bookstores, and what they offer.

Anne: I grew up going to Seattle’s University Bookstore with my family on the weekends. The children’s section and the magazines were on a balcony overlooking the main floor. My father would browse history while my mom, sister, and I picked out books for ourselves. I remember presenting him with a stack of two or three and having him assess my choices, and substitute one book for two others he deemed better. Those were golden hours.

The summer before graduate school, when I was 21, I worked at Bek’s Books in Seattle. It was an ordinary independent bookstore in an underground mall in a bank building: precisely the kind of bookstore I had scorned before the owner, a family friend, offered me a much-needed job. It had New York Times bestsellers near the door, travel books, a romance section, cookbooks, and a small children’s section. It was a place for bank tellers and lawyers to pass through on their lunch break. My snobbery faded pretty quickly. I loved the other clerks there and I grew to love the passionate reading tastes of people who then looked to me very ordinary, very middle-aged. I was working my way through the “recommended reading” from Yale that summer and driving everyone—myself included—crazy by answering customer’s queries about what I was reading with “Oh, The Aeneid.”

Now, I dream daily of Greenwich Village’s Three Lives Books. I feel smarter just going in. That’s a reader’s store: a store to discover great fiction. The staff is wonderful and friendly and though I don’t go nearly as often as I like, they are kind and so knowledgeable and genuinely interested in reading. It’s a lovely little space: just big enough to linger in, but small enough not to be overwhelming. The perfect stop on the way to the PATH train & back home to Jersey. And, of course, in London, I have to go to Hatchard’s, the shop Clarissa browses and still a great browsing store in an old townhouse off Piccadilly (though it’s a chain now).

I wish New York had a good academic bookstore: I miss having a place to browse through the books that I see advertised in The New York Review of Books (on those rare occasions when I get to it). Bluestockings comes close, but I want a broader political range, not only radical books. My husband tells me that NYU has just redone its bookstore and made it into a flagship. I have high hopes for that. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Oxford, but I know just what you mean about the Blackwell’s there: it’s certainly a pilgrimage spot for me. Seminary Books in Chicago is the only American bookstore I know that comes close to giving you that incredible feeling of stretching your brain, making you long to read serious, important books, new and old.

New York’s Drama Bookshop is a space like the one you describe in London. Do you know it? Kris Lundberg of the very Woolfian Shakespeare’s Sister Theater Company did a staged reading there on Woolf’s birthday one year and invited me to speak. They have a small black box performance space in the basement. If you haven’t been, treat yourself!

Keri: When describing Sylvia Beach’s taste in books and her reading practices, I often end up borrowing Virginia Woolf’s idea of the “common reader.”  Making books available to a wide range of people in every walk of life was important to both Woolf and Beach.  And they both liked to make fun of academics who took themselves too seriously (I love Woolf’s academic satires in To the Lighthouse).  Can you say something about Woolf’s fondness for “common reading,” why the concept is so important to her, and also perhaps what role it plays in your own editorial practices, teaching, or reading? 

Anne: The notion of the common reader is really important to me. Woolf writes about reading what one likes and never pretending otherwise. She wasn’t always so confident, but by the time she was in her forties—my age now—she was. Her confidence, her refusal to let others turn her away from Euripides or a Countess’ memoirs, gives me confidence when I feel others challenging my choices.

One of the things I love about blogging is the happy randomness of it, the way it allows you to graze around the web until, suddenly, you hit an unexpected pocket of intensity—some blogging community where everyone is writing fan fiction about Harry Potter or interacting with their favorite romance novelist or enjoining a group of friends to work their way through Don Quixote as I did with Bud Parr a few years back. My friend Lizzie Skurnick (who blogs over at the Old Hag and wrote Shelf Discovery) is my 21st century model for common reading: she can rattle off the plots of great forgotten bestsellers from the 70s and then, in the same paragraph, she’ll tell you about what she’s getting from this rereading of Thackeray.

Although I never read as much as I want to read, reading is the great pleasure in my life and I love peopling my life and my imagination with—well, just everything I can gobble.

When I teach, though, I want to communicate enthusiasm, but I don’t teach a lot of pop. The fun of pop and light fare is discovering it for oneself. I am happy to refer to Lady Gaga in the classroom, but I don’t teach her or Nora Roberts or Eat, Pray Love. My sense is that you want a teacher for those texts that are so intimidating or difficult that you wouldn’t tackle them on your own.

Conversation With Keri Walsh, Part Three: Editing the Modernists

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!

Keri: As I mentioned to you after the Bluestockings reading, I would find the task of editing Mrs. Dalloway intimidating because of the venerable editors who have come before.  Can you say a little bit about your relationship to past editions of the novel, and perhaps tell me about one or two interesting decisions you’ve had to make that depart from decisions made by past editors?  Or can you say something more generally about how these earlier editors appear in your mind as you work—as friends, supporters, rivals, buddies?

Anne: After four years of working on this project (off and on, often in the margins), I have finally reached the stage where my excitement about it is slightly greater than my intimidation. It’s been really hard.

There are three important editions of Mrs. Dalloway that come before me. I was really grateful that the Cambridge general editors made it their policy that we don’t pick fights with prior editions or go out of our way to mention their errors. I don’t know G. Patton Wright at all, but his edition has a really strong sense of the novel’s textual history. That has been a big help. I have a longstanding and friendly email correspondence with Murray Beja and his very funny essay on coming to love textual editing after being skeptical was immensely reassuring to me when I was most bored and intimidated by the tedium of collating editions. He is like a kind uncle to me and I’m deeply grateful for that. David Bradshaw worked off Wright’s edition in preparing a paperback student edition for Oxford. When I finally realized I could just use his historical research as a source in itself, I stopped feeling even the least bit rivalrous. Besides, I know David and like him immensely. He’s editing another of Woolf’s novels for Cambridge and I think it’s a stroke of luck that I get to follow along after him. That is not to say that these three are among the readers whose opinions I most dread.

One of the changes that editors often make regards Elizabeth Dalloway’s dress at the party: it’s referred to three times as pink and once as red. Editors often see that red as a mistake and it’s true that Woolf could be careless at the proof stage. But the person who perceives the dress as red is Sally. Of course, if a dress could flicker between pink and red, Sally Seton would be the one who would see it as red. I’m sticking with it as written, I’ll flag it for the readers, and let them write their own interpretations. I don’t think that’s a mistake.

Keri: When I was working on Beach’s letters, whenever I was in doubt about an editorial decision, I turned to Bonnie Kime Scott’s edition of Rebecca West’s letters.  They were my model.  Do you find inspiration in any particularly exemplary volumes?  What editions of modernist novel do you admire?

Anne: I love Bonnie and she edited Dalloway for Harcourt, but that’s not a model edition for me—it’s too friendly and too close. It’s great for students, but it’s not the work I’m doing here. The edition that I admire most is my friend Jeri Johnson’s Oxford edition of Ulysses. It created all kinds of textual controversies—as such things always do—and that’s not going to be an issue for any book but Ulysses. The inspiration for me is how Jeri is equally interested in chasing down historical and literary allusions and that’s one of my chief aims: to have footnotes about the demolition of Devonshire House (which Clarissa remembers going to parties at and which was torn down between when Woolf submitted the proofs and the novel’s publication date) and footnotes about allusions to the Bible.

The CUP general editors, Jane Goldman and Susan Sellers, have been incredibly generous, sending us all computer files of their notes and apparatus along the way. They are each working on a novel, too (To the Lighthouse and The Waves, respectively) and I’m really lucky that the wonderful Woolf scholar Mark Hussey is doing Between the Acts for CUP, lives in New York, and is a friend. When I get really desperate, I ask him to have lunch with me. He always cheers me up and spurs me on.

Conversation with Keri Walsh, Part Two: Beach & Joyce & Paris & Woolf

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.

Conversation with Keri Walsh, Part One: Who Was Sylvia Beach and How Did you Find Her?

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: For people who don’t know her, tell me a little about Sylvia Beach.  And for all of us, what draws you to her story?

Keri: In introducing Sylvia Beach, I’ll start by naming the two achievements that made her proudest: “publishing Ulysses, and steering a little bookshop for 22 years between the wars.”  Her bookshop was Shakespeare and Company, and it would become legendary as the spiritual homeroom of expatriate Paris.  Writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H.D., and James Joyce wiled away the hours there and Beach provided them with books, a mailing address, places to live, introductions, French tutors, advice on publishing, and anything else they might need in Paris.   With the help of the French printer Darantière and a committed bunch of typists, she brought out Ulysses in 1922 when it was banned in England and America. 

Beach was born in 1887 and she grew up in Princeton, New Jersey where her father was minister at the local Presbyterian church.  She was taken to France as a child and she adored it.  She returned during the First World War and spent time doing agricultural work near Tours, and then working for the American Red Cross forces in Belgrade.  When she returned to Paris at the war’s end, she fell in love with Adrienne Monnier, the owner of a French-language bookstore called La Maison des Amies des Livres.  It would become an inspiration for Sylvia’s own shop.  With Monnier’s help and a gift of $3000 from her mother, she opened Shakespeare and Company in 1919.  Little did she know that American writers would soon start flocking to Paris to take advantage of the exchange rate and the reprieve from Prohibition at home.  She was the right person in the right place at the right time, and for any American writer abroad, her bookstore felt like home.  Beach is described affectionately in so many memoirs—most famously, in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.   Hemingway was moved by the trust she showed him on his first visit:  he couldn’t pay the lending library fee, but Beach let him walk off with a bunch of books and a promise that he’d come back to pay the bill someday.  In a time before English books were readily available in Paris, he and his wife Hadley were so excited by the prospect of all the reading they could do thanks to Shakespeare and Company.  Hemingway describes coming home to Hadley with the good news, telling her, “we’re going to have all the books in the world to read and when we go on trips we can take them.”  Hadley was delighted and amazed by Beach’s unusual business practices:
“Would that be honest?”
“Sure.”
“Does she have Henry James too?”
“Sure.”
“My,” she said, “We’re lucky that you found the place.”  (38)

Anne: How did you come to discover her letters?  And how did you come to see that they could be a book?

Keri: Maria DiBattista, one of my professors at Princeton, was the first to show me what a rich deposit of Sylvia Beach’s letters and belongings we were lucky to have at Firestone library.   While I was reading Ulysses in Maria’s class, she asked me to come with her to give a presentation on Sylvia Beach to a group called The Friends of the Princeton University Library.  She asked me to pick out one of Beach’s letters to present to the group, and I chose one that is still among my favorites— a letter that Beach wrote to Adrienne Monnier in 1940.  It was written in French, and it provided a lovely sketch of her relationship with her customers in the bookshop, and then a list of some of her latest recommendations. 

Then, again through Maria’s mentorship, I helped to curate an exhibition at the Princeton University Library.  It was called “Portraits of the Lost Generation,” and it featured Man Ray’s photographs and other Surrealist materials mostly drawn from the Sylvia Beach Papers

I loved all the time I spent in Sylvia Beach’s company.  Her letters were significant for modernist literary history, to be sure, but they were also so charming in their own right.  And they told the story one American woman’s life in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century.  In all my reading about women’s role in the First World War, I had never read such a detailed first-person account of what it was like to work in Serbia with the Red Cross.  And it was even more fascinating to learn that though she was expected to get married and live a conventional life, Beach was wearing pants and swooning over women.  With a sense of humor and a kind heart and a romantic spirit, she had managed to carve out a life that worked for her in Paris, to live in accordance with her own desires while also serving others. 

I couldn’t help but marvel over the fact that her letters had never been published.  Many scholars had looked through the collection while writing biographies of Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Stein, H.D., but the only person who had made thorough use of the archive with an interest in Sylvia Beach herself was Noel Riley Fitch, Beach’s biographer (Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation, Norton).  It was really my enjoyment of Beach’s letters that made me think they would be a good book.  I thought that others might like to spend time with her too.


Anne: I have an obsession with the particularities of working in archives: it’s, for me, tedious work, always punctuated by elation and discovery.  I love and hate all the rules and the various ways in which each archive has a distinct personality.  Do you have any favorite anecdotes from your work in the Beach archive?

Keri: Archivists and researchers have curious, often endearing relationships.  Ideally, they both love the archive and feel protective towards it.  Your question calls to mind two very different archival experiences I’ve had, one with a well-known resource, another with a found treasure.

For my Sylvia Beach project I was lucky to work with amazing research librarians at Princeton.  They knew the archive better than anyone, certainly better than I did.  I depended on them daily, and learned how to accommodate myself to the rhythms of the archive.  You can’t just barge in ten minutes before the library closes and ask for a bunch of manuscripts.  You need to build goodwill.  There’s a Jane Goodall effect: if you are simply physically present in an archive long enough, and follow its regulations, you end up becoming a familiar and trusted presence.  That’s when you get to go backstage and bend the rules a bit.  This process works best when you get to inhabit a particular archive over a long period of time.  I was fortunately able to work on Sylvia Beach’s letters during my time as a graduate student at Princeton, meaning I had daily access to her papers over the course of four years.  I spent many summer days hanging out in the Rare Books and Special Collections room, often bringing along research assistants or friends I had roped into helping me. 

Since the Sylvia Beach project, I’ve been working mainly in theatre archives, and that’s even more exciting because they are so much less well-trodden than literary archives: there’s more potential for making big discoveries: you don’t have to satisfy yourself with finding an overlooked comma – it’s more like an overlooked box of letters. At the New York Public Library’s Billy Rose Theatre Collection, I was able to look at programs, scripts, photographs, and notes from a 1946 Broadway production of Antigone that wasn’t even catalogued by the library or listed in the Finding Aid.  No one had seen this material since 1946, and bibliographically speaking, it didn’t exist.  To get access to those papers took a lot of coaxing, some cajoling, and some begging. But the high of making contact with that archive, and discovering the missing pieces of a story I was trying to tell, were well worth it. 

Sylvia Beach Week: Adrienne Monnier (1892-1955)


All week, we’re celebrating Sylvia Beach. Please drop by for a new post—or two--on Beach every day. And then head to your local independent bookstore and buy a copy of The Letters of Sylvia Beach.
Keri Walsh wrote this post to explain a little more about Beach’s partner—in life and business—Adrienne Monnier.

I saw in front of me a girl with a round, rosy face, with blue eyes, with blond hair, who, it appeared all at once, had just entered the service of literature as others decide to enter the service of religion….Already her voice was authoritative and charming, very watched over, very limpid, at once full of music and assurance.
-Jules Romains on Adrienne Monnier
Sylvia Beach said that she had three loves: Shakespeare and Company, James Joyce, and Adrienne Monnier.  Of this trilogy, it’s Adrienne Monnier we tend to hear least about, but Monnier was the most influential person in Beach’s life.  Though she was half a decade younger than Beach, Monnier taught her how to run a bookstore, how to deal with French bureaucracy, how to manage cantankerous people: Beach never made an important decision without first consulting her, relying heavily on Monnier’s good judgment and canny grasp of human psychology.  Monnier and Beach met in Paris as Monnier was still grieving her first love, Suzanne Bonnierre. Beach had just returned from her war work with the Red Cross in Serbia, and their romance blossomed slowly into a shared life of books, friends, theatre, writing, publishing, and travel. Monnier’s parents came to see Beach as a kind of adopted daughter, and Beach was there for Monnier in later years when she suffered from the physical and psychological disturbances caused by Menière’s disease.  Despairing of her health’s return, Monnier overdosed on sleeping pills in 1955.  Beach wrote to Hemingway: “I have lost Adrienne-- it’s very sad here without her.”
Image: Sylvia Beach Papers, Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. 
Adrienne Monnier wrote personal essays on a range of subjects from Beowulf to André Breton.  When reading her work I’m always struck by how well she knew herself, what confidence she had in her taste, the subtlety, wit, and depth of her remarks.  Though she was a reader of the most difficult and esoteric works, she was also free from snobbery, ranking Josephine Baker or a virtuoso trapeze artist alongside Shakespeare.  There’s a playfulness and shape to the argumentation of her essays that recalls Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: Monnier charts the movement of her thought, considering and reconsidering points, airing objections and then meeting them.  She also has a sly wit, a sort of parody of the dry reviewer, when she talks about her “duty” to see the nude women in all of Paris’s different cabarets.  Her sensibility is eminently unpuritanical, always seeking aesthetic pleasure, revealing herself as a connoisseur, but never shying away from ethical or political concerns.
When attending the circus she immerses herself utterly in the performance, and then searches for the language that will allow her readers to feel something like what she felt in the crowd.  She calls it “the most vital of all spectacles,” and she remembers that it was Cocteau who first got the literary world lining up for tickets around the year 1922.  Assessing the circus, she asks: “And what is so noble as the hand of the gymnast, who stands up absolutely straight after his stunt, with his palm open like the very symbol of work and its fulfillment?” But she was sensitive to the emotional complications of such extreme vitality, writing also of the “tragic side of the circus,” its tawdriness, the hard lives of its performers, the risk of injury and death.  She sees the circus as a way of managing human pain, especially for hard-working people: “there they can see suffering, rather than suffer.”
My favorite of Monnier’s essays is the one on Maurice Chevalier.  Well aware that in writing about France’s most prominent music-hall star she is approaching what some might see as a guilty pleasure, she builds up to the confession of her infatuation slowly.  She remembers writing in a letter to a friend, “I tenderly love X, Y, Z, and even Chevalier.”  “Even Chevalier?”  she questions herself, and stages the voice of dissent: “Obviously, I understand very well what Chevalier can be reproached for,” she says, and cops to his various flirtations with the audience.  She admits he has a gimmick: “His great idea is to have English chic.” But then she builds a case for his particular charms: “He comes onstage like a conceited seahorse…He worked damned hard.  He was excellent.  He was the gawky kid of the suburbs who goes around with the gamines, and for whom a number of mature women in small businesses are ready to grant big favors.”   I’m still not sure if this is identification or desire.  Whether she’s describing Peggy Ashcroft (“she has a way of laughing that makes you shiver”) or Brando (“it is Shakespeare who yields to the actor and abandons his Antony to him”), all of Monnier’s writings about performance bristle with this erotic energy, this sense that in the audience sits a critic composed equally of body, heart, and mind.—Keri Walsh

Sylvia Beach to F. Scott Fitzgerald, June 23, 1928


All week, we’re celebrating Sylvia Beach. Please drop by for a new post—or two--on Beach every day. And then head to your local independent bookstore and buy a copy of The Letters of Sylvia Beach.

Letter #97
Dear Scott Fitzgerald,
Don’t forget that you and Mrs Fitzgerald are coming to dine with us next Wednesday at 8, (to meet Mr and Mrs Joyce) and we are counting on you. Adrienne and I live at 18 re de l’Odéon on the 4th floor no lift.
Yours very sincerely,
Sylvia Beach

The Letters of Sylvia Beach

All week, we’re celebrating Sylvia Beach. Please drop by for a new post—or two--on Beach every day. And then head to your local independent bookstore and buy a copy of The Letters of Sylvia Beach.

Sylvia Beach might have been a James heroine. She might have been, except that she had the gumption to make a life for herself rather than wallow in an early and ill-considered error.

I’ll admit to finding the opening letters in this edition slow going. It was hard to get my mind accustomed to the rhythms of Sylvia Beach’s mind. They are the ordinary letters of a confident, happy, privileged young woman. Beach’s family was upper-middle class. Her father was a Presbyterian minister in Princeton, New Jersey. The privilege comes not so much out of money—in fact, though she traveled extensively and seems not to suffer from want, many, many letters express the same kinds of small worries and gratitudes about relatively small sums that will be familiar to anyone who has enough—thank you for the $5 for Christmas; can I possibly borrow $1,000 to start my bookstore?

In the early letters, before the U.S. entered WWI, Beach seems to be constantly making elaborate plans for sending gifts of lace and books, giving effusive thanks for receiving pens and nightgowns.

Even when the war begins and the U.S. enters it and Beach goes to Serbia to volunteer with the Red Cross, there remains a spirit of a schoolgirl on holiday. When she plays with words, giving fake Slavic endings to words, it struck a wrong note to my ear: too silly, too goofy, too much of an in-joke of a family.

But, then, too, you hear the intelligence of a woman who could get Joyce’s multilingual play, the joy in being smart. And she writes explicitly about her frustration with the men who mismanage the Red Cross and her own lack of power as a woman volunteer.

Then, the war ends, she decides to stay in Paris, open a bookstore, and falls in love with Adrienne Monnier and, in the course of a couple pages, she is Sylvia Beach: a professional woman, confident and sure of her life.

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote extensively about how the lack of a profession infantilizes women. Sylvia Beach’s letters demonstrate the blossoming of a girl (born in 1887, she was already 30 when writing those girlish letters in 1917) into a powerful, funny woman, negotiating royalties, worrying about James Joyce’s eyesight, and asking permission to bring someone around to meet Gertrude Stein.

Sylvia Beach and Me

In honor of the publication of Keri Walsh’s edition of Sylvia Beach’s letters, I wanted to do something special here at Fernham: all week, we’re celebrating Sylvia Beach. Please drop by for a new post—or two--on Beach every day. And then head to your local independent bookstore and buy a copy of The Letters of Sylvia Beach.

I wanted to be a writer since I could hold a pencil. I started taking French lessons—an hour a week—at age seven. Though I never practiced my French outside that hour of singing “Ainsi font, font, font,” I was avid for it.

That combination meant that it wasn’t long before Paris in the 20s found me. Before I’d finished high school, I’d read A Moveable Feast and Noel Riley Fitch’s Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation. Paris in the 20s still has its allure and, if I spend most of my intellectual time imagining Bloomsbury and London in the 20s, Paris has lost none of its glow in the intervening decades.

Fitch wrote a lovely, generous foreword to Keri Walsh’s new book. It moves me to think that she, too, still finds so much that’s so special in Sylvia Beach, this American woman who opened a bookstore.

Sylvia Beach Week!


In honor of the publication of Keri Walsh’s edition of Sylvia Beach’s letters, I wanted to do something special here at Fernham: all week, we’re celebrating Sylvia Beach. Please drop by for a new post—or two--on Beach every day. And then head to your local independent bookstore and buy a copy of The Letters of Sylvia Beach.

Beach was the founding owner of Shakespeare and Company, the English-language bookstore in Paris. The bookstore doubled as a lending library, post office, youth hostel, and salon for Americans in Paris and all others who had an interest in modernism. Shortly after opening the store, Beach befriended James Joyce and, when he could not find a publisher, she published Ulysses. Beach is the most important modernist who was not a writer.