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 …