Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties
The generation of English-speaking writers who congregated in Paris just after the First World War, if they were “lost” at the time, have since been more than adequately “found.” Since the Second World War, literary critics, biographers, historians, and writers of memoirs have been gleaning the fields. Joyce (who never was lost in the first place), Pound, Ford, Hemingway, Wyndham Lewis, Fitzgerald, Stein, and Beckett have been the subjects, sometimes the objects, of investigations galore. Their deeds and misdeeds, their writings formal and informal, their feuds, innuendoes, and affairs have been thoroughly chronicled; their dozens of epigones, enemies, intimates, admirers, and associates have been studied down to the minute particulars. So too have the many artists and musicians who were their influential contemporaries, not to mention the French writers—Gide, Valéry, Cocteau, Claudel, Colette—who shared the city with them.
Archibald MacLeish called this complex “the greatest period of literary and artistic innovation since the Renaissance”; since he took part in it, one might reflect that it wasn’t really for him to say. Still, the time and place have clearly proved magnetic. By now one can readily learn more about Paris in the Twenties and Thirties, and without leaving the public library in Peoria, than the participants themselves in those movable feasts ever knew.
Sylvia Beach occupied a central position in the expatriate literary community; indeed, her position takes some explaining, for she was a person of scant financial resources, quiet (not to say discreet) personal habits, and few outspoken intellectual pretensions, who for more than two decades exercised gentle yet decisive prestige within a shifting quasi community consisting in good part of egomaniacs, drunks, fornicators, and libertarian artistic cutups. The unlikely instrument of her dominance was a bookstore.
Considering their importance to the literary world, retailers of books have not as a rule enjoyed a very good press. One or two novels come to mind with booksellers as central figures, but not many; and we don’t very often see literary life through the eyes of the person who buys a stack of books, sets them out on a shelf, and waits hopefully for a customer. Miss Beach became an exception to that rule when in 1959, at the age of seventy-two, she published her first and only volume, Shakespeare and Company. It was a title deriving directly from the name of the English-language bookstore which she founded and managed in the Odéon district of Paris’s Left Bank. In fact the humdrum business of renting or selling books was the least part of her story. Having overcome tremendous odds, she courageously and all but single-handedly arranged for the publication and distribution of Joyce’s Ulysses; for many years, she remained a friend, business agent, factotum, supporter, and defender of that demanding, difficile genius.
In addition, certain traits of intangible character—a combination, perhaps, of warmth, dignity, and integrity—led her to a position almost equivalent to literary adviser to her generation. No doubt she would be embarrassed by the characterization; just as clearly, it was no ordinary woman who could retain, as she did, the affection, respect, and interest of so wide a range of restive and self-absorbed artists. It is true that for a decade she made herself practically the slave of James Joyce; but she was of value to many others who did not exploit her as ruthlessly as he did. Some mixture of qualities not at all easy to define, some compound of sympathy, tolerance, and common sense, interwoven with an odd ascetic streak, made her the close and lasting associate of men and women far more highly charged than herself.
The autobiography of this unusual woman is a modest, carefully uncritical, and frequently reticent little book; celebrities comprise the greater part of the story she has to tell, but she discusses them as acquaintances. Noel Riley Fitch’s new study, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation, is less constrained; in effect it is a life and times of Sylvia Beach, which attempts to give more or less coherent accounts of the major artistic and literary figures with whom she came into contact. Clearly, there is a tremendous amount of material to be covered here, much of it already explored in depth and detail by studies of the individual writers and artists. The personal life of Sylvia Beach, told in its full particulars, is a demanding topic itself. She had two peripatetic sisters, a wandering mother, and a father whose status as a Presbyterian minister in Princeton, New Jersey, did not preclude certain divagations and instabilities. Augmented by relatives and family friends, they all buzzed across the Atlantic at irregular intervals, descending on Sylvia in Paris, converging and diverging in ways that sometimes made the little bookstore on the Left Bank resemble the Gare Montparnasse at rush hour.
For the celebrities and would-be celebrities who congregated around the bookstore were an animated crew as well; apart from the annual migrations of tourists, the expatriate writers were constantly wandering back to America, over to Britain, down to Austria, beyond the Alps, or over the Pyrenees. Wherever they went, they left Sylvia to forward their mail, arrange for delivery of their checks, keep in touch with their agents, and generally do the laborious, practical work of literary life. The free spirits shed and acquired companions, published little magazines, spread scandal, went to parties, organized concerts and exhibitions, sought help in acquiring the services of doctors, lawyers, or rental agents; they formed cliques, schools, factions, and feuds. On the side, some of them also wrote important and complicated books, the character of which is still under discussion today. The story of Sylvia Beach, who was in touch with many of them only briefly and peripherally, does not provide a very strong narrative thread on which to hang an account of so many and such complicated activities.
Unhappily, it is the books written during this period—the raison d’être for the whole study—that suffer worst from the necessary abbreviations. We learn from Ms. Fitch’s account (which proceeds methodically through the 1920s and 1930s, a year or two at a time) who was where when, who was on the outs with whom, who attended what party, even who checked out what books from the lending library, and when. For each year we learn where Sylvia Beach took her summer vacation, and what she did there. In coping with the whirl of literary Paris, the biography has moments of sounding like a transcribed social calendar; at other times it accumulates business details about royalties and advances, sales and contracts, till one seems to be getting a CPA’s view of the literary life. But the accounts of Joyce’s real work (or Pound’s, or Ford’s), the attempts to say what was happening imaginatively or intellectually—such details remain meager to the point of painfulness.
Not only is there too much social and intellectual detail for Ms. Fitch to cope with gracefully, but the organization of her book into year-by-year units creates frequent repetitions, fatal to the reader’s sense of making progress. On page 150, George Antheil is installed in the room above Sylvia’s bookshop, but on page 178 he is installed there again. His Ballet Mécanique proceeds through its rehearsals on pages 192 and 193, and actually reaches a performance; but since that chapter deals with 1925, and the performance proper belongs to 1926, the Ballet Mécanique is put on hold for forty-five pages, till it reemerges, to the accompaniment of a riot, on pages 238 and 239. Such gaucheries are not isolated occurrences.
The richness and variety of her materials might well carry Ms. Fitch successfully across a bit of disorganization if she were a skillful and amusing writer. Her prose is in fact deplorable, particularly ludicrous when she tries to squeeze two simultaneous but unrelated events into one broken-backed sentence:
The first adult trip to Europe for Sylvia was in 1907, the year Lucia was born to Nora Barnacle and James Joyce, who was then teaching English in Trieste and beginning his long campaign to have Dubliners, his collection of short stories, published.[p. 27]
Both before and after this trip, which lasted three weeks, Hemingway spent several days in Paris with Pauline Pfeiffer, who had spent Christmas with the Hemingways in Schruns. Sylvia and his other friends knew—as Hadley did not—of his affair with Pauline, who on 19 January became a member, like Hemingway, of the lending library. [p. 227]
The advantages of lesbianism are summarized in a quaintly Victorian mixed metaphor: “Eros channeled into sorority yielded both personal and literary fruits.” On page 74, Ms. Fitch tries to explain something about the “Circe” unit of Ulysses:
By 20 December, after many rewrites, Joyce had pronounced the Circe section of Ulysses complete. He thought it was the best of his writing. In the final portion of Circe, Bloom is supporting a drunken Stephen, holding his hat and ashplant stick: “A dog barks in the distance. Bloom tightens and loosens his grip on the ashplant. He looks down on Stephen’s face and form.” Then Bloom has a vision of his own dead son, Rudy, holding a book, reading “inaudibly, smiling, kissing the page.”
Apart from the fact that Stephen is flat on the ground at this point, not being sustained by Bloom, there is nothing actively wrong in this texture of paraphrase and quotation—except, of course, that it’s completely meaningless. It does not explain why Joyce thought “Circe” the best of his writing, nor does it illustrate anything else; it is a random snippet out of Ulysses, which deliberately, it would seem, avoids a couple of phrases in the immediate vicinity that might give the passage particular significance of some sort.
The book contains a good deal of Dick-and-Jane prose, but even here Ms. Fitch cannot always keep from stumbling. On page 46 we are told that Larbaud, “who was a zealous collector of toy soldiers, had consulted documents at the Bibliothèque Nationale, supervised their making, and painted each by hand.” On page 155, we learn that William Bird “poured attention to detail, time, and cash into his editions.” Finally, even in a biographie romancée, one ought to be able to avoid cornball clichés like “Joyce looked with interest at the lively American with sympathetic brown eyes.” It’s painful to think that American universities can turn out Doctors of Philosophy who, after ten years of conscientious labor, produce a volume containing sentences like these.
The biographer’s sympathy with her subject is natural and admirable; perhaps, however, it was not necessary to denigrate Joyce quite so thoroughly as she has done in order to elevate Sylvia Beach. Phrases like “the Joyce corporation” and “the Joyce industry” combine with other phrases like “the pretentious seriousness of the audience” (listening to Joyce read “Anna Livia Plurabelle”) to suggest that the Wake is little more than an obscure and boring hoax. Unremitting emphasis on Joyce’s demands for moral, financial, physical, and public-relations assistance create the impression that he was nothing but a literary leech. Thus a few words on the perspective may be in order.
Despite a few awkward efforts like that on page 27 (cited above), Ms. Fitch takes little notice of the first thirty-eight years of Joyce’s life. Those are mostly the Dublin, Trieste, and Zurich years, when, with singular independence and force of character, penniless and responsible for a family, he cut loose from his nation, race, culture, and church to cultivate in the solitude of exile the discipline of his art. Later, even while imposing on Sylvia Beach and others, he was creating—encouraged by no one, discouraged by many, under the constant hood of impending blindness—a new vast work in a new language built along wholly new principles. Because Ms. Fitch is not much interested in his books, she mentions Ulysses mainly in the context of its alleged obscenity and supposed negativism (!) and the Wake simply as a book that people found hard to read. That either book represented a gigantic intellectual construct, that distinctive principles of stylistics were involved in both, you would hardly guess from her account.
Joyce curtly dismissed a gossipy book written by one of his hangers-on, Robert McAlmon, as “the office-boy’s revenge.” For whatever combination of reasons, Sylvia Beach herself wrote no such book, and neither, exactly, has Ms. Fitch. But in this study the office helper is definitely the heroine, and resentment against the brutal male oppressor is spread, some may think, unnecessarily thick. Richard Ellmann has taken account of most of the ugly things about Joyce’s character, but he keeps them in balance with the immense fact of his literary achievement.
In fact, it’s not hard to see how enormous inner sensitivity fitted in Joyce’s character with a streak of harsh cruelty and selfishness. The close analogy is with Proust, whose querulous invalidism masked the spirit of a warrior in service to his art. For both men creation of a book was like the deliberate growth of a tumor in the brain, a form of possession. In addition, Joyce directly identified his gift with a drive to self-destruction; it is no accident that Stephen Dedalus, when asked by Bloom why he left his father’s house, answers in three words: “To seek misfortune.” Joyce was never the prudent member; we should not remember him today if he had been. Stanislaus Joyce, an apothecary’s apprentice not yet nineteen years old, wrote with icy Dantesque accuracy about his elder brother:
…though he dislikes greatly to be rude, I think there is little courtesy in his nature. As he sits on the hearth-rug, his arms embracing his knees, his head thrown a little back, his hair brushed up straight off his forehead, his long face red as an Indian’s in the reflexion of the fire, there is a look of cruelty in his face. Not that he is not gentle at times, for he can be kind, and one is not surprised to find simpleness in him. (He is always simple and open with those that are so with him.) But few people will love him, I think, in spite of his graces and his genius, and whosoever exchanges kindnesses with him is likely to get the worst of the bargain.
One is struck, though not startled, to find in a few lines by a boy more insight into a complex character than in a volume by a professor. In any case, it’s clear that such a man was not a good person for a woman with a touch of the missionary spirit to know. On the other hand, if Sylvia Beach had not known him, it’s more than doubtful that we would ever have heard of her.