The Very Rich Hours of Adrienne Monnier by
Once upon a time there was a young French girl who loved prose and poetry and art. She dreamed about minding a bookshop. Though of country stock, she was born and bred in Paris. Her father was a postal clerk who sorted mail on trains; her mother educated her. The little girl was taken to the theater, allowed to browse at the bookstalls on the quais, and encouraged to read Emerson and the Bhagavad-Gita as well as the French classics. On her own she devoured Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Apollinaire; the Mercure de France, a most up-and-coming literary review at the time, touched off her feeling for the contemporary avant-grade. At seventeen, she later wrote, “I was as happy as anyone can be at that age of torment…. The three of us [the girl, her mother, a young sister] lived in a state of perpetual enthusiasm for everything that seemed beautiful to us….” The fates—or the deep pull of a vocation: perhaps they were the same?—allowed her to continue in that state of grace through her entire life; those juvenile raptures were the intimations of the sustained devotion, the servitude to art that became the purpose and the center of her existence: a devotion backed by a mature discernment, knowledge, a forceful critical intelligence, a generous heart, and a very great deal of hard work.
She started out teaching school, soon gave that up and scraped a living as a literary secretary. Her chance came soon, in 1915, when she was only twenty-three. Her poor father had been injured in a crash of his postal train; he recovered and eventually was paid some damages. “My parents committed the wise folly of entrusting to me the little money they had, that they had ever had.” It was wartime and rents were low, she was able to get the lease of an empty shop in the rue de l’Odéon—it had to be the Left Bank, “aristocratic and rustic, studious and bohemian…the elected domain of poets and writers with a small audience,…[not the Right Bank] seat of elegance and of pleasure, of luxury and of ‘success’ literature.” She acquired a modest stock of books, put up her sign, and buckled down to her métier of an inspired but (soon) solidly professional bookseller. There was more to it, she found, than love of reading and handing on the enthusiasm about what one read—she learned to deal with publishers and distributors, with invoices and catalogues and accounting (never too well); she spent much of the day unpacking and parceling, arranging shelves and window, lugging heavy cases. She had engaged in something, she would say, that was half convent and half farm. And that was the beginning of La Maison des Amis des Livres, Adrienne Monnier’s famous bookshop that became a center of what was best in French writing in the decades between the wars.
At first there was precious little money (there never was much even in the years of fame); Adrienne Monnier had no experience, no patronage, no connections. No one had heard of her. Yet she made an impact. There is a nice prescient glimpse of her at a first meeting: Jules Romains in 1916,
I saw in front of me a girl with a round, rosy face, with blue eyes, with blond hair, who, it appeared almost at once, had just entered the service of literature as others decide to enter the service of religion. Even her costume already had some of the features of that graceful austerity, of that monastic elegance, which she was later to cultivate [Sylvia Beach described her attire as a cross between a nun’s and a peasant’s]…. Already her voice was authoritative and charming….
Most of the writers, who drifted into the shop and became protégés or friends or both, were more or less unknown as well. This to Adrienne was as it should be. “The great joy is to discover. And then, you know, famous people, they were not born so. One always begins by being unknown.” As it turned out, it was Adrienne Monnier who helped a good many to become famous. How did she do it?
The book under review is an anthology of the miscellaneous writings of Adrienne Monnier with commentaries and a long biographical introduction. It gave me a very great deal of pleasure. Here we have a stimulating and, I think, timely evocation of a golden epoch in French literature and art. Mention Paris of the Twenties to a member of the non-academic American or English literary public and the response nine times out of ten will be Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce. Yes, indeed; but do we remember that Paris then was the world capital of art and letters? We remember the giants. Claudel, Gide, Paul Valéry, Colette…. We think of Cocteau. How many of us still read Valery Larbaud, Léon-Paul Fargue, Jean Giraudoux, the early André Maurois, Soupault, Max Jacob, Blaise Cendrars, Breton, Aragon, Jules Supervielle, Pierre-Jean Jouve, Henri Michaux, Pierre Reverdy…?
One could go on and on—masters, petits maîtres, magicians, charming talents, original talents, innovators, entertainers—it was indeed a dazzling period. By 1920 Adrienne Monnier’s was in the thick of it. She backed her own judgment, stocked the books she believed in; students, collectors, Oxford dons sought her advice, bought and borrowed (a lending library had been added for which she wrote a critical catalogue); the small profits were ploughed back into new stock. (In the early years she lived over the shop, and always she lived simply, though she did go to les spectacles and she knew her food.) She had met most poets and writers and the lifelong friendships had begun, the literary one with André Gide, the more intimate ones with Valéry, Fargue, Larbaud, with Ernest Hemingway, who never wrote an unkind word about her. She had begun her readings—attention was drawn to works and work in progress by reading from them to a more and more influential audience. This was done in the shop—with port wine and petits-fours to follow—and the readers would be amateurs, she would not have actors. Quite a stir was caused by the first Paul Valéry evening in 1919 when fragments of La Soirée avec Monsieur Teste and La Jeune Parque were read in turn by Fargue, André Breton (still in uniform), Adrienne herself, and André Gide, who “reads like nobody else,” although he was worried about the state of his throat.
She was always anxious to give a second chance to works of possible quality that had failed, whether by ill luck, unfashionableness, hostility or indifference of critics, a chance of eventual emergence and survival, so in a corner of the shop she set aside what she called her purgatory; there “I shelve the little books…that calmly wait here, with their slim backs pressed together, the coming of the last judgement.” Today when the game is serve and volley—publication week, a month’s reviews and notice or no notice over the air, and point made—best-selling list or oblivion, such a purgatory would seem essential. But possible? For even the willing publisher or bookseller in this world of cash flow, turn-over, corporations, and no storage space whose very verbiage would have been Greek to Mademoiselle Monnier?
She, in fact, was even able to launch into publishing in a small way (with a good jobbing printer in the provinces and the donkey work dispatched by herself at home). Under the imprint of Les Cahiers des Amis des Livres she brought out a series of slim volumes (an introductory speech to one of his own plays by Claudel, verse by Valéry, Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven in French, her own Joyce’s ULYSSES and the French Public and The Translation of ULYSSES. And from 1938 to the fall of Paris she published her own house organ, Gazette des Amis des Livres, written entirely by herself.
If Adrienne Monnier is not a household word in the United States, her American counterpart, Sylvia Beach, is. The two met in 1917; like so many others Sylvia walked into Adrienne’s shop, sat down, talked books and, as it were, remained to stay. Originally though she had planned to start a French bookshop, a branch of A. Monnier’s, in New York but had to renounce because of the expense. Rents were cheap in Paris, so instead she opened an Anglo-American bookshop and library there in 1919. A couple of years later she moved it from round the corner into a shop in the rue de l’Odéon almost bang opposite to Adrienne’s. And now there they were, Shakespeare and Company and La Maison des Amis des Livres, poised to decoy, presided over by what Cyril Connolly has called “the two bilingual sirens of the sacred rue de l’Odéon.”
Their most arduous enterprise was the long demanding labor of getting James Joyce’s Ulysses into print. When to Joyce’s shattering discouragement it was evident in 1921 that the work was considered too obscene for publication in the United States or England, Sylvia Beach said to him, “Would you let Shakespeare and Company have the honour of bringing out your Ulysses?” The story of his acceptance and her devotion is well known; the English text—endlessly amended by Joyce—had to be set by a French printer, yet the book got out in less than one year. Adrienne Monnier’s French Ulysses took her and the translating team eight full years. Her account (included of course in the anthology) of the incredible problems, linguistic, personal, and financial, which this monster translation entailed is fascinating.
Adrienne Monnier was not a writer of the first order (and she would not have made such claim). She was a highly regarded literary journalist, a regular contributor to the Nouvelle Revue Française and the Figaro Littéraire. Six volumes of her miscellaneous writings, including her poetry, were republished in France by various houses in the 1960s. Her work has vigor and personality, she is very sharp-eyed about people and situations, there is also tone and pace—racy, robust, colloquial (when she is not in one of her worshipping trances, that is). Gide praised her in a letter, “Dear friend, it is excellent. One does not read you so much as one hears you speaking, for you have been able to give the most natural tone of your voice to your sentences….”
Here is perhaps a reason for the one grudge I bear Richard McDougall’s book: Adrienne Monnier’s French is not easy to translate, and it is not well translated. Since 350 out of 535 pages consist of translated texts, this is a serious fault. I know, I know, it isn’t easy, and often impossible to find an exact and satisfactory English equivalent for a French turn of phrase. Richard McDougall has perhaps read too deep in that language, his ear seems to have become Gallicized, there are passages of poor Adrienne Monnier which read pure pen-of-my-aunt. (“Of Suzanne, naturally, it was never a question.” “My voyage to England [from Paris].” “I myself say…” presumably for moi, je dis or quant à moi, je dis.)
Adrienne Monnier certainly was a very good critic, and not only of books. She is interesting on French and English performances of Shakespeare, on Marlon Brando and Maurice Chevalier, and very acute indeed about Ulysses (not in the least all honey). The main interest of the book are the brief pieces, the snapshots as it were, about the members of her circle: Léon-Paul Fargue, the poet of Paris, the incomparably original handler of language, spellbinding talker, impossible guest, six hours late for every meal; Colette enjoying her lunch, Cocteau pulling a fast one, Gide pondering over Adrienne having called his Faux-Monnayeurs cold and méchant to his face, dinner in Chelsea with T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway liberating the rue de l’Odéon in the summer of 1944. When it comes to analyzing peace and war and general ideas she is apt to get a little arid and naïve; but there is a short piece called “Italian Men” (as traveled with on a hot train) which is a gem of perceptiveness and fun. I was struck by many felicities in her critical writings, when she speaks, for instance, of “the enormous presence of the Catholic religion” in one of Claudel’s plays. About Antony and Cleopatra,
Nothing is more interesting, in fact, than seeing the effects and the components of passion among people of a mature age when their life is solidly constructed, their characters entirely formed, when they can judge well what happens to them, and when it all crackles and flies into pieces with great flames.
Yet sometimes her writing has an artless and exalted side which, particularly in English, sounds a bit absurd. Here is her view on Americans (written incidentally in 1945):
There are people who are afraid of the American influence [in France]. They think that someday it could bring us skyscrapers and make our cities shake the way their own do. These people have never been much in the company of Americans.
They appreciate above all in France and in Europe what they do not have at home: what is calm, old, graceful, and made by hand…. Well, well.
One morning after she had just sold her private library to meet some debts inevitably arising from her publishing ventures, she was thinking with “sadness and humiliation about the loss of so many treasures” when the postman came in with a small package containing not only an inscribed volume by Rainer Maria Rilke but an unpublished poem of his dedicated to her, “an unpublished poem, yes, really. And it was completely in his own hand. And it was dedicated to myself, myself, who was unworthy of it, who had just sold the precious books poets had inscribed to me. I fell weeping on my knees.”
Do we smile? Should we? Better perhaps to feel an excess of reverence than to feel none.
My own encounters with the rue de l’Odéon in the Thirties were tangential and prosaic. I was a young and undeclared aspirant, a writer visible only to my own mind: I would go into Adrienne Monnier’s to browse, she was invariably polite (she had that front of amabilité one finds in good French shops), no more. At Shakespeare & Company I subscribed to the lending library (the first book I took out was Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood). There one had to pay a deposit of 50 francs, about two dollars, against loss of books, for me quite a wrench. When I went back to England I asked (sheer necessity) for the deposit back. Perhaps no one ever did, I wish I had not, for Sylvia Beach, handing 50 francs to me, gave me a shocked, astonished look.
The Very Rich Hours of Adrienne Monnier is an imaginative job that was very much worth doing. The book is decently organized, well researched, and Mr. McDougall’s commentaries are necessary and helpful; a good deal of the flavor of those times comes through Adrienne’s own pages. The more I read her and about her, the more I find to admire and respect. Writers and artists must remember her with gratitude. She did well by literature, and literature did well by her: one realizes, and this I find so moving, that she had that rare thing an entirely happy life (except for two last years of wretched health).
She had that secure happiness that only comes through hard congenial work well done—she did what she had wanted, she was fulfilled; she was successful. Yet far from that kind of success which carries its own nemesis. She never had much money. She did not marry and she had no children (her deepest attachment probably was to Sylvia Beach), but she long enjoyed the affection of her parents and her sister; she flourished in her many friendships and she did not lose her friends. She took joy in eating, growing rather stout eventually. True, the Second World War, which she spent in Paris under the Occupation, was a time of grief and deprivations, but she was able to keep the shop open and carry on her work. People, in fact, bought more books than ever, even the purgatory shelves got empty. She and La Maison des Livres survived to see the peace and the return of their American and English friends.
Her life was not a long one, she died in 1955 at the age of sixty-three. When ten years earlier, in that first postwar winter, Cyril Connolly had at last got back to Paris, he sat in the Café des Flores “indescribably happy” having found that those two sirens of the rue de l’Odéon were still there. No longer. Time is gone, time is changed, for us there can be no such homecomings.