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

More of the Best, more BAHLER, plus: JERSEY!

Michael was asked: How Has Being From New Jersey Influenced My Writing?

Answer: Got me.

Dan Wickett asked me to help spread the word about this new anthology by letting New Jersey writer Michael Bahler guestblog at Jersey City's own Fernham...I hope it's sparked your interest in checking out more literary magazines and, especially, picking up a copy of Dzanc's new anthology...

BEST of the WEB: More Michael BAHLER

Michael Bahler writes:

The Perils of Online Publishing

My first online story, “Stephanie’s Blood,” was about a woman who bit her toenails. My girlfriend at the time was so excited when it came out, and she emailed the link to all her friends. The next day, however, she was not so excited.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Will you please tell everyone I don’t bite my toenails?”

My second online story, “Virgin Annie,” was about a guy lusting after a Korean woman named Annie K— who he suspected was a virgin. Just last year, I received a surprise email from a real-life Annie K—.
“I googled my name and found your story,” she wrote. “I am Korean, but I am definitely not a virgin.”

I recently showed the “The Stiff Jew” to a colleague.
“Michael, you’re Jewish?”

But my most harrowing online publishing experience had to do with a story I wrote entitled “My Blankie. My Penis.” The opening paragraph of the story read:

“Herpes. Could it be anything else? I’d slept with Adina on a Saturday. The condom had burst. I’d woken up five days later with itchy red dots up and down my penis.”

Around the time it was posted, I was interviewing to become a federal prosecutor. I’d made it all the way to the third round, and had met with the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. “I have no doubt,” he had told me, “you could do any job in this office.” I was also doing online dating, and had been emailing a woman I really liked.

I received a form rejection from the U.S Attorney’s Office, and the woman blew me off. These two developments could have had something to do with “My Blankie. My Penis” showing up first when my name was googled.

I love online publishing, but I think it’s unique from print journals in that stories become readily available to people who might not necessarily be interested in reading them as stories. It makes publishing a little dangerous. My father told me that I should start writing under a pseudonym, but instead I changed the heading on my resume from “Michael Bahler” to “M. F. Bahler.”

The site that posted “My Blankie. My Penis” later reinvented itself and took down my story. I changed my resume back to “Michael Bahler.”

Guestblogger MICHAEL BAHLER: The Saga of The Stiff Jew

Michael writes:

I originally wrote the “The Stiff Jew” for an anthology about Jews dating gentiles (called something like “Was She Worth It?”). The editor of the anthology ultimately passed on my piece, emailing me: “Hi Michael, I thought the narrative was obtuse and underdeveloped . . . . Best wishes and Happy Rosh Hashanah!”

So I took “The Stiff Jew” and I showed it to my writing mentor, an established fiction writer who usually heaped praise on me.
“This is probably the worst thing you’ve ever written,” she said.
“I don’t remember showing you everything I’ve ever written.”
“I’m not saying it’s not salvageable, but it needs a lot of work.”

So I forgot about the “The Stiff Jew” until I saw that Swink was accepting submissions for an upcoming online edition with the theme “taking sides.” Since my piece was—on a basic level—about taking sides on Jesus, I sent it over. Almost two years later, I got a response:
“We love it. We want to publish it an upcoming edition. Please say yes!”

Somewhat ironically, “The Stiff Jew,” written for a Jewish anthology, has now ended up in an anthology with so many gentiles.

Curious? Check out the new Dzanc books anthology, collecting the best writing from online literary mags, The Best of the Web 2008

We interrupt this blog...

A few weeks back, Dan Wickett of the Emerging Writers Network, Dzanc Books and formerly a force behind the Litblog Co-op wrote to ask if I'd let a guestblogger pop in to help draw your attention to Dzanc's new anthology, The Best of the Web, 2008 (edited by Steve Almond). To me, Dan is one of the real heroes of the literary blog so I jumped at the chance to participate.

The idea behind the anthology is to collect some of the best writing from online literary journals in one place: a *great* idea, and one that really shows the coming-of-age of blogs, online publications, and the links between technology and literary life. It's an exciting prospect.

Since I blog from New Jersey, Dan's paired me up with a New Jersey writer and contributor to the anthology, Michael Bahler. He'll be posting here tomorrow. Enjoy!

(Cowper and Stevenson, Jones and Robinson will have to wait...)