Sylvia Beach: When Discretion Triumphed Disclosure

Sylvia Beach and James Joyce

The lover of gossip and jokes was also very much a woman of her era, when discretion, rather than disclosure, was the mark of a cultured individual. While this lends a certain amount of class, it makes, alas, for dull reading.

The Letters of Sylvia Beach

Price: $29.95
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Length: 376 pages
Editor: Keri Walsh
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-04
“In those days there was no money to buy books. I borrowed books from the rental library of Shakespeare and Company, which was the library and bookstore of Sylvia Beach at 12 Rue de l’Odéon... Sylvia had a lively, sharply sculptured face, brown eyes that were alive as a small animal’s and gay as a young girl’s, and wavy brown hair that was brushed back from her fine forehead... she was kind, cheerful and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.”

-- Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Thus Ernest Hemingway immortalized the owner of Shakespeare and Company, the woman many call the midwife of literary modernism. In addition to running that famous rental library and bookshop, Beach introduced writers and artists to each other, ensured writers had pocket money and reading material, and arranged to publish Ulysses, which was facing both moral censure and legal woes. She managed James Joyce’s writing career, ministered to his demands, and by extension, his family’s demands, all the while smuggling his modernist masterwork into the United States via intrepid friends.

She counted Gertrude Stein, George Antheil, and F. Scott Fitzgerald among a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. As the veritable center of '20s Paris and a woman who loved gossip, one would expect her collected letters to be juicy, indeed... and one would be disappointed.

The fault of The Letters of Sylvia Beach does not lie with editor Keri Walsh, but with Beach herself. The lover of gossip and jokes was also very much a woman of her era, when discretion, rather than disclosure, was the mark of a cultured individual. While this lends a certain amount of class, it makes, alas, for dull reading.

Yes, Beach’s correspondents had names like Stein, Toklas, Hemingway, and Joyce, but even the more informal notes, which evince hints of her humor, are models of abstemiousness. Without Keri Walsh’s biographical introduction and extensive footnoting, readers would be unaware of pivotal events in Beach’s life, including the death of her mother, her feud with sister Cyprian, which led Cyprian to cut Beach from her life, Beach’s 1936 trip to the United States, where she has a hysterectomy, then returned to Paris and found photographer Gisele Freund had moved into her apartment and taken up with Beach’s longtime partner, Adrienne Monnier. Such elisions, bolstered by footnotes, make for dull reading, for even the most esteemed addresses become pedestrian when the letters are mere reportage.

Devotees of '20s Paris are well advised to read Noel Riley Fitch’s seminal biography, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation before taking up this book of letters. Though Walsh’s footnotes makes The Letters of Sylvia Beach comprehensible, Fitch’s biography truly fills in the blanks.

Surprisingly, and sadly, neither Fitch nor Walsh mention Beach’s anti-Semitic references. These pepper her earlier letters, and though they tail off later in her life, I cannot help but be dismayed. As a lesbian who was interned at Vittel during World War II (an event she barely mentions in Letters) and a lifelong resident of Paris, Beach certainly witnessed a horrifying level of hostility toward not only Jews but also homosexuals. Did it change her thinking? It’s impossible to say.

There are a few letters that jolt—her 7/28/46 condolence note to Alice B. Toklas on Gertrude Stein’s death, her 10/24/32 letter to Joyce, stating “Although I shall always continue to be devoted to your work, Mr Joyce, I am sorry that I shall no longer be able to serve you personally.” She doesn’t, and will spend the remainder of her life trying to extract as much financial benefit from her collection of Joyceana as possible.

Keri Walsh has produced a commendable work, a well-designed, lovely volume with a fine photo insert. I wish I could widely recommend this book, but it’s a niche work, likely only to appeal to '20s in Paris aficionados and scholars, and even they may find Beach’s politesse soporific, which is both a shame and an indicator that in earlier days, but not so long ago, dirty laundry was kept far from the nosy, be they neighbors, friends, or curious readers.


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