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