Ulysses and much more
LETTERS:Though she is most often remembered as Joyce’s publisher, Sylvia Beach had many strings to her bow, writes TERENCE KILLEEN
SYLVIA BEACH would not have considered herself a candidate for sainthood: yet it is hard not to feel a certain reverence and awe when faced with someone who so assiduously and indefatigably advanced the difficult cause of literary Modernism in the early decades of the last century. She did so supremely, of course, by being the first publisher of Ulysses; but there was far more to her than that.
Beach seems to have taken to the climate of cultural experimentation and innovation in post-first World War Paris as if born to it, which she certainly was not: she was in fact born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1887, the daughter of a Presbyterian pastor in Princeton. The qualities that enabled her to make this remarkable transition are clearly evident in these letters: to give a sample, she referred to the subscribers to her bookshop, Shakespeare and Company (French abonnés), as her “bunnies”. Much later, when a delegation arrived from the State University of New York at Buffalo to engage in the ultimately successful negotiations for the purchase of the Shakespeare and Company archive, they became “the Buffalos”. Here is Sylvia’s recipe for a healthy life (this is in the context of Joyce’s many ailments): “plenty of sleep, food, work, outdoor exercise and perhaps to see one’s family as little as possible”. In the last letter of this volume, after she has broken her arm chopping wood, she writes: “They are hoping to take off the plaster cast this week so that nothing will prevent my breaking it again”.
This is not just wit; it is also spirit, the kind of spirit that enabled her to deal with the most impossible and importunate author imaginable, to survive internment and the closure of her business in the second World War and to surmount very difficult economic conditions many times in the effort to keep herself and her bookshop afloat. She was greatly aided in these endeavours by her longtime companion, Adrienne Monnier, an equally formidable Frenchwoman. Pleasingly, the exact nature of their relationship remains unclear even from this correspondence: in an age when, as the biographer Brenda Maddox puts it, one of the primary interests of the reading public is “did they do it?”, Sylvia here isn’t saying.
Beach needed all the help she could get in dealing with Joyce. She displayed immense courage in taking on the publication of Ulyssesand he was far from unappreciative: but he was constitutionally unable to stop himself from exploiting a publisher who was so available and so unprofessional. He was well aware of his own tendencies and did compensate in various ways (not least by giving her many manuscripts and allowing her keep the proofs of Ulysses). While outright hostilities never quite occurred, the relationship cooled considerably as the years went by, at first becoming just a business arrangement, and then not even that.
It is salutary to realise that the Joyce connection was only a part of Beach’s busy life – and that she survived the souring of her relationship with him very well, further testimony to her strength. She was very close to many other Modernist writers, Hemingway and William Carlos Williams in particular, and later to Richard Wright, who came to Paris after the second World War. Later still, she was a keen supporter of the drug-fuelled fantasies of Henri Michaux, many of whose works she translated, winning prizes in the process. Nothing fazed her, as must already be evident.
Encouraging though all this is, there is something a little melancholy about the letters of the later years. In Joyce’s wake, there were considerable difficulties. The bookshop did not reopen after the war (another shop of the same name remains a port of call in Paris). Beach was aided, not just by the sale of manuscripts, but also by generous gifts from many friends. She continued to live “above the shop” in 12 rue de l’Odéon, where she died on October 6th, 1962.
Unfortunately, Beach is not well served by this collection of her fascinating letters. The collection is not complete – there are some 108 unpublished letters from Beach to Joyce that are now in the Zurich James Joyce Foundation and are being edited “in-house” – but even apart from that there are other gaps in the volume. Moreover, the notes and other apparatus are unreliable, with numerous errors and misreadings: Paul Léon did not die in Auschwitz; Lucia Joyce was not in Zurich when her mother died there; when Beach refers in 1958 to “the first draft of a Portrait of the Artist” she does not mean the manuscript that was published as Stephen Hero. These are not particularly esoteric items, and do nothing to encourage confidence in other aspects of the editing by Keri Walsh, assistant professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.
In June 1962, Sylvia Beach was the guest of honour at the opening of the James Joyce Tower in Sandycove as a Joyce museum. While in Dublin, she was interviewed by Telefís Éireann, as it then was. The piece was recently rebroadcast, and a very charming interview it is. Some four months later, she was dead. These letters, imperfectly presented though they are, amply confirm the interview’s evidence of a woman of indomitable spirit whose personality shines through in every word she wrote.
Terence Killeen is a director of the James Joyce Centre, Dublin, and is the author of UlyssesUnbound: A Reader’s Companion to Ulysses