As the legendary store celebrates its centenary, Cath Pound pays tribute to founder Sylvia Beach, and explores a sanctuary for progressive writers and hub for innovative publishing.
“My loves were Adrienne Monnier and James Joyce and Shakespeare and Company,” wrote Sylvia Beach, whose legendary Parisian bookstore first opened its doors 100 years ago this month. Together with Monnier, her lifelong personal and professional partner whose own store, La Maison des Amis des Livres, was a meeting place for the leading men of French letters, Beach would befriend and nurture two generations of American, Anglo-Irish and French writers including André Gide, Paul Valéry, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway and, of course, James Joyce.
The first combined English language bookshop and lending library in Paris, it provided unprecedented access to Anglo-American literature for a cash-strapped post-war population who had little money to buy books. It was also the major source of distribution for the avant-garde ‘little magazines’ which would be the first place of publication for some of the most important poets, novelists and critics in the early decades of the 20th Century. These included Harriet Weaver’s Egoist, which had been the first to publish work by Joyce.
“Modernism is supposed to be difficult and removed but Beach never accepted that account of it,” says Keri Walsh, the editor of her letters. Beach’s obvious appreciation of literature and nurturing attitude led her to encourage visitors to browse and read for hours without any obligation to buy. That made her shop a natural port of call for the stream of Anglo-Irish and US writers drawn to the French capital in the inter-war years.
Hemingway would become a lifelong friend of Sylvia Beach. ‘No one that I ever knew was nicer to me,’ he said of her
Joyce arrived with his ardent supporter Pound in the summer of 1920, closely followed by TS Eliot and Wyndham Lewis. Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder and Robert McAlmon appeared the following year when the store moved to new premises opposite Monnier’s on the rue de l’Odéon.
Some were more permanent visitors than others, but for many the bookshop would be their meeting place, reading room, post office and money exchange.
Pound, who saw himself as a discoverer of new talent, encouraged Beach’s interest in the little magazines. She forwarded the manuscripts of young writers to their editors and enthusiastically promoted new ones that appeared, including TS Eliot’s Criterion. Beach had admired Eliot even before they met, and her window displays of his work helped drive sales.
Hemingway would become a lifelong friend. “No one that I ever knew was nicer to me,” he said of Beach who let him borrow books for free when he was too poor to afford the subscription. Through the bookshop he would become great friends with Pound, who sauntered into the library where he was reading. The two boxed together and discussed literature.
“It was through his time with Sylvia Beach that he really started discovering who he would be as a writer,” says Walsh of Hemingway.
Ulysses brought worldwide fame but almost dragged the bookshop under in the process, not least because Joyce had a habit of helping himself to advances from the till
But it is of course Joyce with whom Shakespeare and Company will forever be most closely associated. When the US Little Review, which had been publishing Ulysses in instalments, was tried for obscenity and prohibited from publishing anything further, Beach stepped in and offered to publish the entire novel herself.
“She saw a professional opportunity. She knew the work and thought it was great for her bookstore and great for the world,” says Walsh.
But perhaps she was unaware quite what it would involve. Beach ended up soliciting subscriptions, hiring typists, correcting proofs, taking care of Joyce’s family needs and persuading the printer, Maurice Darantière, to add to the manuscript time and time again.
Its publication brought Joyce, Beach and Shakespeare and Company worldwide fame but almost dragged the bookshop under in the process. Not least because Joyce had a habit of helping himself to advances from the till.
The book’s appearance turned the store into a mecca for modernists and their readers. Eliot, Pound and McAlmon now sold as well, if not better, than James, Whitman and Conrad.
A flurry of innovative publishing took place in and around the store. Ford Maddox Ford’s arrival in Paris saw him begin work with Pound on the short-lived but influential transatlantic review. Championing works by US writers, it published work by ee cummings, Pound, Hemingway and McAlmon.
Monnier introduced their work to French-speaking readers in her own journal, Le Navire d’Argent, for which she and Beach translated Eliot. Having been given the French contract for Ulysses, she also published the first French translations in another small magazine, Commerce.
However, quarrels amongst the translators strained relations between their pair of them and Joyce. Matters then worsened considerably in 1932 when, despite having initiated a contract with Beach giving her worldwide rights to Ulysses, he then pressured her to sign away those rights, before entering into a contract with Random House.
“The world was his own,” Beach later sighed.
The loss of income from sales of Ulysses was in many ways offset by the absence of Joyce’s constant financial demands, but nevertheless the depression of the 1930s had a profound effect on Shakespeare and Company.
Loyal friends Gide and Valéry organised a friend’s group to support the store, gathering subscriptions and organising readings by the now-famous Eliot and Hemingway.
Subscriptions kept the wolf from the door, but then came war. When Beach, still devoted to Joyce’s work despite everything, refused to sell her last copy of Finnegan’s Wake to a German officer in 1941 he threatened to come back and confiscate all her books. In rapid time, Beach managed to hide her entire stock in a fourth-floor apartment and flee.
However Beach continued to lend books to old friends such as Gide and Simone De Beauvoir, who had begun visiting the store in the 1930s, and a few new ones including Native Son author Richard Wright.
Sylvia Whitman welcomed a new generation of writers including Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Lawrence Durrell and William Burroughs
Beach would attend signings by Wright at a new bookshop, Le Mistral, which had been set up by an endearingly eccentric fellow American, George Whitman. He had been “completely inspired by her and wanted to continue what she had done,” says his daughter Sylvia Whitman, herself named after Beach.
Whitman welcomed a new generation of writers including Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Lawrence Durrell and William Burroughs, who researched Naked Lunch in the store’s medical library.
At a dinner held for James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, in 1958, to which Whitman had invited Beach, she told him she would like him to have the name Shakespeare and Company. Delighted, Whitman renamed his store in honour of Beach in 1964, two years after her death and on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.
Some years later, on his daughter’s 20th birthday, he handed her his first edition of Ulysses, the pages still uncut. If this was an attempt to pass on the baton, Sylvia took some years to convince. But she now runs Shakespeare and Company in the same nurturing vein as Beach and her father. Having set up a literary festival and a new novella prize, she is even venturing into publishing.
When Whitman spoke to BBC Culture she was in the process of setting up an exhibition devoted to Beach for the centenary. “I’m quite surprised by how moved I am by it,” she says. “I think I’m realising how present she is for us here.”
With works by the authors Beach championed still taking pride of place on the shelves of Shakespeare and Company, how could she not be?