In 1919, Sylvia Beach sent a telegram to her mother in America: “Opening bookshop in Paris. Please send money.” At the time, Beach, a 32-year-old ex-pat and former Red Cross worker with an interest in contemporary French literature, wrote that she “had long wanted a bookshop.” Later that year, on November 19, the doors opened at Shakespeare and Company, a small lending library located at 8 rue Dupuytren, a tiny street on the Left Bank. “From that moment on, for over twenty years, they never gave me time to meditate,” Beach later wrote in her memoir.
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The earliest patrons of Shakespeare and Company would have found a modest collection of books: English poetry, a selection of the latest literary magazines, as well as works by Yeats, Joyce, and Pound—all arranged somewhat haphazardly; there was no catalogue and no index. Beach also secured a pair of drawings by William Blake, and photographs of Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, and Edgar Allan Poe—an assemblage of writers she admired. Shakespeare and Company’s informality set the tone for a congenial atmosphere that was inviting to many. Cyril Connolly called it a “cache of dynamite in a solemn crypt” (Litz). Of Beach, Ernest Hemingway said, “No one I ever knew was nicer to me.”
For those two interwar decades, Shakespeare and Company served as more than just a library. It was, as Noel Riley Fitch writes in her book Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation, also a “meeting place, clubhouse, post office, money exchange, and reading room for the famous and soon-to-be famous of the avant garde. More grandly, it was a literary center for the cross-fertilization of cultures.” The list of writers, artists, and intellectuals who borrowed from it over the years is extensive. Besides well-known contenders like Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, patrons included Serge Eisenstein, John Dos Passos, Man Ray, Djuna Barnes, Walter Benjamin, André Gide, George Gershwin, and Paul Valéry.
It was Beach’s longtime friend and lover Adrienne Monnier, owner of a bookshop called La Maison des Amis des Livres, who gave her the idea of “opening a library where French readers might become acquainted with the modern literature of England, and particularly America” (561, Seymour Toll). A few years after its opening, Shakespeare and Company moved to a larger location on the rue de l’Odéon, the very same street as Monnier’s shop. Together, the two bookstores offered Left Bank readers some of the era’s most interesting writing in French and English—Stratford-on-Odéon it was nicknamed. Cyril Connolly called it the “sacred rue de l’Odéon” with its “two bilingual sirens who have so long enchanted us with all that is best in two literatures.”
As a friend, correspondent, and host to a slew of writers, Beach solidified a place in literary history, perhaps most notably as the first publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, she “grew up in the shadow of her parents’ unhappy Victorian marriage,” writes the literary scholar Seymour Toll. In Paris, she found both independence and a community of like-minded people. Toll writes: “Living austerely in Paris for more than four decades, she turned out politically, aesthetically, and sexually to be a free soul.” Janet Flanner, correspondent for The New Yorker from Paris, described Beach as “thin as a schoolgirl, dressed like one, in a juvenile short skirt and jacket over a white blouse with a big white turndown collar, like one of Colette’s young heroines.”
Fitch opens her book with the following quote from Beach: “My loves were Adrienne Monnier and James Joyce and Shakespeare and Company.” Not long after the opening of Shakespeare and Company, Beach accompanied Monnier to a Sunday afternoon party, where she first met her idol James Joyce. The next day, he walked into the bookstore.
Over the course of the following year, Joyce was continually besieged with difficulties surrounding the publication of Ulysses (its early serialization in the Little Review was declared indecent in the U.S.). Joyce was at a loss, and one day confided these difficulties to Beach, to which she responded: “Would you let Shakespeare and Company have the honor of bringing out your Ulysses?”
As A. Walton Litz notes in his publication history of Ulysses, Beach wrote to her mother soon after, “It’s decided. I’m going to publish “Ulysses” of James Joyce in October . . . . ! ! ! ! Subscriptions to be sent to Shakespeare and Company at once.” Publication proved anything but easy—Odyssean even—as Joyce continued to revise and expand his unwieldy manuscript. There was immense difficulty in setting the “Circe” episode to type, and Beach exhausted a number of resources in the publication process. In her memoir, Beach describes how Hemingway—whom she recalled as one of her best customers—helped smuggle copies of the novel out of the country: “Daily, he boarded the ferry, a copy of Ulysses stuffed down inside his pants.”
When Shakespeare and Company first published Ulysses in 1922—typographical errors and all—Joyce sent Beach a tribute in the style of Shakespeare: “Who is Sylvia, what is she / That all our scribes commend her?” (A modified version of that first line appears in Finnegan’s Wake: “for Who-is-silvier”.) T. S. Eliot wrote that, “But for two generous and devoted women—Harriet Weaver [Joyce’s longtime patron] and Sylvia Beach—I do not know how Joyce could have survived or how his works could have got published.”
In the early 1930s, Shakespeare and Company suffered financial difficulties. The Roaring Twenties had faded and the Left Bank had changed. In 1933, Joyce negotiated a contract for Ulysses with an American publisher (his financial difficulties were unending). An estrangement ensued and Beach ultimately relinquished her rights to the book without receiving any money. “A baby belongs to its mother, not to the midwife, doesn’t it?” Beach wrote consolingly.
In 1936, Shakespeare and Company was on the verge of shuttering when André Gide and a group of writers staged an intervention by petitioning for increased subscriptions. They also put on a show of unpublished work with readings by Paul Valéry, T. S. Eliot, and Hemingway, who apparently broke his rule against reading in public. Around this time, Beach, out of financial necessity, sold off some of her prized possessions, including manuscripts by Joyce and Hemingway. In spite of Gide’s efforts, with trouble mounting in Europe, Shakespeare and Company’s days were numbered.
During occupation in 1941, a German officer entered the store and asked about the last copy of Finnegans Wake on display. “It’s not for sale,” Beach told him. When he left, Beach hid the copy safely away. Later, the officer returned, this time threatening to come back and confiscate her goods. Within hours, she’d packed up her books and shuttered the library. “I visited the rue de l’Odéon daily, secretly,” Beach wrote of the aftermath. She later spent six months in an internment camp.
Beach’s memoir ends in 1944, with a moving description of the Liberation of Paris from her vantage at the rue de l’Odéon. From her apartment, Beach hears a booming voice calling her name amid the chaos—it was the voice of Hemingway. “I flew downstairs; we met with a crash; he picked me up and swung me around and kissed me while people on the street and in the windows cheered.” In Beach’s telling, Hemingway and his company dealt with the German snipers on Adrienne’s roof, before riding off in their jeeps. They went, Hemingway had said, “to liberate the cellar at the Ritz.”