Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Company, A Mecca for Contemporary Literature

by Virginie Raguenaud

When the French bookshop La Maison des Amis des Livres opened its doors on November 15, 1915, at 7 rue de l’Odeon on the Left Bank in Paris, its 23-year-old owner Adrienne Monnier had the modest goal of wanting to share her love of literature with the public. It was the first free-lending library in France, which enabled Monnier to reach people from all walks of life and turn them into readers. The small bookshop-library invited readers to browse through books spilling from the shelves propped against the walls, sit in one of the antique chairs scattered around a large wooden table, and study the many photographs and drawings that hung high and low.

Monnier had in mind a shop that, as she described in her memoir, did “not tend to satisfy a large public but rather a group that it may be possible to know individually and to  serve perfectly.” Because she did not have the financial means to buy a large quantity of books, Monnier decided to specialize in modern works, which proved to be a major key to her success. She understood the need to take risks by picking up a contemporary poem or novel instead of succumbing to the comfort and safety of the classics. Monnier had found her niche and La Maison soon became the center of French avant-garde literature. Each morning, wearing her traditional long gray skirt that swept the ground with a formfitting waistcoat over a crisp white blouse, Monnier would fill an outdoor display stand with secondhand books, as she greeted her first customer of the day.

One writer who frequently visited La Maison was Jules Romains, best remembered today for his Hommes de Bonne Volonte (Men of Good Will), a compilation of twenty-seven novels that explore French civilization in the first third of the 20th century. Monnier admired him greatly, having read everything he had written to date, and over the years the two developed a close friendship. It was Romains, who inaugurated a long-standing tradition at La Maison, the seances de lecture, or readings, by presenting his poem Europe in 1917.

That same year a young American woman named Sylvia Beach, who was in Paris pursuing her studies in contemporary French literature, came across an advertisement for La Maison, which lured her to Adrienne Monnier and the rue de l’Odeon. The short provincial cobblestone street climbed toward the Theatre de l’Odeon, its 18th-century neo-classic facade reminding Beach of Princeton’s colonial homes. Beach had spent much of her youth in Princeton, New Jersey, where her father, the Reverend Sylvester Woodbridge Beach had led the First Presbyterian Church. During their years in Princeton, the Beach family visited Paris often, sometimes settling in for months at a time. Sylvia later wrote in her memoir, “We had a veritable passion for France.”

Monnier greeted her new visitor and the two women quickly engaged in a passionate conversation about their love for each other’s country’s literature. The idea of being surrounded by books and writers all day must have played in Beach’s mind as she looked around the gray and white bookshop. Beach described Monnier as “stoutish, her coloring fair, almost like a Scandinavian’s,her hair straight and brushed back from her fine forehead. Most striking were her eyes. They were blue-gray and slightly bulging, and reminded me of William Blake’s.” Beach, by contrast, had a smaller frame and wore thick wavy brown hair cut below the ears. In A Moveable Feast her friend Ernest Hemingway wrote: “Her brown eyes were as alive as a small animals and as gay as a young girls.”

With Monnier’s full support and business sense, Beach summoned up the courage to open her own bookstore of English and American literature in Paris. Her first venture began on November 19, 1919, at 8 rue Dupuytren, near l’Ecole de Medecine, until, two years later, a shop came up for rent at 12 rue de l’Odeon, directly across the street from La Maison. (“I had hardly dared hope for that,” Beach later wrote.) By then Beach and Monnier had developed a close friendship, had become lovers, and were to live together at 18 rue de l’Odeon for the next 15 years.

As the owner of Shakespeare & Company, the name which came to her in a dream, Beach was delighted with its new location. In the shop’s window she had arranged the latest works of Chaucer, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, fresh from the printers. To the left, as visitors walked in, an iron review rack held the latest and much sought-after copies of the Nation, Little Review, Dial, Egoist, New English Review, and the Transatlantic, which were read cover-to-cover by young writers.  The tall shelves propped against the walls overflowed with English and American titles Beach had acquired from secondhand bookstores in Paris and from helpful expatriates who had packed their suitcases with the latest American publications.

As with La Maison across the street, Shakespeare & Company became the “quintessence of the literary bookshop,” described one visitor, “picturesque and of an authentic homeyness that thousands of art booksellers have [since] tried and failed to attain.”

Although both booksellers, Beach and Monnier never found ground to compete but instead complemented one another perfectly. Monnier focused on her work as editor and publisher of the literary magazine Navire d’Argent, which included her own prose and poetry and “introduced in translation the works of American, English and German writers to France.” As T.S. Eliot once remarked after seeing his poem Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock translated into French, “To Adrienne Monnier with Navire d’Argent, I owe the introduction of my verse to French readers.” These words would ring true had they been spoken by Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, or e.e. cummings.

While Monnier developed her own writing and transformed herself as an influential dame-de lettres, Beach preferred to focus her attention on the writers themselves. As Hemingway wrote, “She was kind, cheerful and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.” Shakespeare & Company not only served as bookshop library but also served as post office to expatriates, and as bank to destitute writers. In the back of the shop a door led Beach’s friends and guests to a kitchenette fully equipped with a gas stove and running water. Next to it was a small bed she kept to accommodate artists, far away from home, who needed a warm place to stay for the night.

The two bookshops quickly lodged themselves at the heart of the literary world. French, English, Irish, and American writers greeted one another coming in and out of the bookshops, often engaging in spontaneous debates and discussions, with books tucked under their arms. Beach once noted, “There should have been a tunnel under the rue de l’Odeon.” The bookshops also became the place to casually stalk a favorite writer.  When Hemingway first stepped inside Shakespeare & Company in late 1921, he inquired, “When does Joyce come in?” To which Beach revealed, “If he comes in, it’s usually very late in the afternoon.” In time the two men became great friends, often exchanging ideas at Shakespeare & Company.

During that first visit to the English bookshop, Hemingway signed his new membership card and grabbed works by Turgenev, D.H. Lawrence, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. The avid reader also opened up to Beach about his two years at a military hospital recovering from a war injury and, unexpectedly, pulled up his pant leg and took off his sock to show her the remaining battle scars.

Hemingway frequented the English-language bookshop almost daily, spending long hours talking to Beach about the war, his family, his passion for sports, and the short stories he was working on. Hemingway had recently moved to Paris with his wife Hadley and worked as sports correspondent for the Toronto Star. He was renting a two room apartment at 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine with no hot water and no indoor toilet, while working for the newspaper and writing fictional stories.

When he completed his first story, he called upon Beach and Monnier to hear their impressions. “Imagine our joy,” exclaimed Beach, “over this first bout of Ernest Hemingway.” They were both impressed by his gift of storytelling and encouraged him in his writing. Monnier believed that Hemingway had “le temperament authentique d’ecrivain”, the true writer’s temperament. As founder of the magazine, Navire d’Argent, Monnier published the first Hemingway story in translation, titled The Undefeated, which immediately attracted a lot of attention. Beach recalled, “Hemingway’s readers were usually won over by a first contact.”

While the two booksellers encouraged Hemingway during his early days as a writer, sometimes lending him money between paychecks or recommending certain readings, he, on the other hand, enlightened Monnier and Beach in the art of sports, enticing them to their first boxing match. After learning the rules of the game from the amateur boxer, Monnier and Beach exposed themselves to the sport of cycling as they attended a popular six-day race at the Velodrome d’Hiver in a Paris suburb. Although not quite as passionate about sports as Hemingway was, Beach later candidly noted in her memoir, “What wouldn’t have been engrossing in Hemingway’s company?”

Another frequent visitor to rue de l’Odeon was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, by 1925, had already established himself as a successful writer, with his novels This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned and The Great Gatsby. Although he and his wife Zelda settled by the Mediterranean sea in the mid-1920s, the couple often visited Paris. Fitzgerald desperately wanted to meet James Joyce but could never conjure up the courage to introduce himself, until Monnier decided to intervene and organize a dinner party with the two writers and their wives. Beach wrote, “Scott drew a picture in my copy of The Great Gatsby of the guests with Joyce seated at the table wearing a halo, Scott kneeling beside him, and Adrienne and myself, at the end and foot, depicted as mermaids (or sirens).” She also recalled how the Fitzgeralds always kept money on a tray in the hall of their apartment near Les Champs Elyses, for guests to discreetly help themselves in case of financial trouble.

When the same circle of friends visited fellow writer and art collector Gertrude Stein and her life-partner Alice B. Toklas, they were not treated to free money in the hallway but instead to an eye-catching exhibition of modern art with paintings from their friends Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Juan Gris. Although Gertrude Stein’s writings have been called obscure and inaccessible, a tour at her salon became a ritual for artists living in Paris in the 1920s, oftentimes using Beach as a guide. “Gertrude Stein had so much charm,” recalled Beach, “that she could often, though not always, get away with the most monstrous absurdities, which she uttered with a certain childish malice. Her aim was usually to tease somebody; nothing amused her as much.”

Described as the cultural capital of the world, Paris in the 1920s and 30s was being led into the “greatest period of literary and artistic innovation since the Renaissance.” American artists wanted to escape Prohibition and the hardships back home and life in Paris looked very attractive. As Beach explained, “the presence in Paris of Joyce and Pound and Picasso and Stravinsky and Everybody not quite, since T.S. Eliot was in London, had a great deal to do with it.” The city captured the energy and excitement that exuded from the talented artists and performers already residing in Paris and served it as bait for the undernourished expatriate.

Florence Mills and Adelaide Hall were singing to sold-out crowds at the Moulin Rouge; Stein and Toklas were captivating guests in their salon at 27 rue de Fleurus near the Luxembourg Gardens; Ada Smith was singing Cole Porter songs at her popular nightclub in Montmartre, where American writer Kay Boyle would spend the evening with friends, sitting not far from the famous Montparnasse model Kik’is regular table. But for some the temptation brought them to the outdoor cafes, at Le Cafe des Deux Magots, the haunt of literary figures like Djuna Barnes and Ezra Pound, or at Lipp’s across the street, where Hemingway would stop, after a disciplined morning at his typewriter, for a distingue, which held a liter of beer, and an order of delicious marinated pommes a l’huile. The artists came to Paris to create. They were inspired and many stayed. The ones who craved intellectual stimuli were drawn to rue de l’Odeon, the literary mecca of Europe, where writers, poets, readers and publishers would meet to celebrate the written word.

Monnier, Beach and their circle of friends organized regular seances de lecture at La Maison to introduce the latest poems or essays of French writers to the public. Oftentimes the work chosen had to be typed for the occasion since it had not yet appeared in print. Such was the case on April 12th, 1919 when a night of reading had been prepared in honor of Paul Valery, a man now considered one of France’s most important poets. Monnier recalled in her memoir, “We had been thinking about it all winter, and it demanded preparations without end.” The poet Leon-Paul Fargue decided to read excerpts from La Jeune Parque and La Soiree avec Monsieur Teste, followed by a reading from Andre Breton and Adrienne Monnier herself. But it was the great Andre Gide, author of The Pastoral Symphony and The Immoralist, who surprised and delighted the audience by reading La Pythie. Monnier later wrote, “His voice still haunts our ears.”

Not yet forced to succumb to today’s extensive publicity tours and book signings, the poets and writers living in Paris in the 1920s and 30s were grateful for the attention the readings created. The seances also served to introduce English-language texts translated in French by Monnier, Beach, or one of their friends. It was with great pride and excitement that Monnier and Beach organized yet another memorable reading of translated excerpts on December 7, 1921. The guest of honor was none other than James Joyce, keenly described by a contemporary as an “essentially private man, who wishes his total indifference to public notice to be universally recognized.”

Monnier and Beach had first met the frail but graceful man at a dinner party during the summer of 1920. When Beach, who was already acquainted with his works, gathered up the courage to introduce herself, asking “Is this the great James Joyce?”  She could not have foreseen the importance of their meeting.

At the time James Joyce and his wife Nora were renting an apartment at 5 rue de l’Assomption, after spending some years in Trieste, Italy, where Joyce taught English at the Berlitz School of Languages for part of the time. Joyce had been working on his novel Ulysses for the last five years.

A few attempts had already been made in England and the United States to publish James Joyce’s controversial work. When publisher Harriet Weaver in England failed to find a printer willing to take on the job, the magazine Little Review in the United States came to the rescue. But after four issues containing segments of Ulysses, the Society for the Suppression of Vice brought the publishers to court on obscenity charges and eventually brought the magazine to a close, leaving its publishers in financial ruin.  The court claimed the content of Ulysses to be pornographic based on the characters preoccupation with sex and their colorful language. Soon after the ruling, watching a discouraged James Joyce sitting hunched over in her bookshop, Beach heard herself say, “Would you let Shakespeare & Company have the honor of bringing out your Ulysses?”  An offer Joyce secretly wished for and quickly accepted.

Beach had faith in the great Irish writer’s genius. She consulted Monnier, who quickly agreed on the project. Monnier’s printer in Dijon, Mr. Darantiere, was called to help. He generously agreed to collaborate having full knowledge that Beach was unable to pay for the printing until after the publication of Ulysses.

The task ahead was enormous. Once the type was set and the printing started, the proofs had to be inspected one by one by the author himself. Joyce covered them with notes in the margins, between paragraphs, at the top and bottom of the page, all to be deciphered and rearranged by the printers. Joyce later confessed to Beach “that he had written a third of Ulysses on the proofs.” She had been notified by Mr. Darantiere of the extra expenses the proofs would cost Shakespeare & Company but Beach insisted that “Ulysses was to be as Joyce wished, in every respect.”

Keeping the printers busy with his corrections, Joyce used the time to complete Ulysses. He wrote down every word in pencil which then had to be typed by volunteers. The handwriting was indecipherable, which turned the typing into a long and painful struggle. Another major obstacle came when the husband of one of the volunteers came across a few pages of the manuscript and, in a fit of rage over the sexual language, threw them in the fire. The only other owner of those pages was a lawyer, John Quinn, living in New York, who collected manuscripts and had been buying portions of Ulysses directly from Joyce. He refused to release his manuscript but after much correspondence from Beach and Joyce himself, he agreed to have someone photograph the pages and send them along to Shakespeare & Company. The complete manuscript was finally typed and sent off to Mr. Darantiere in Dijon. All seven hundred and thirty-two pages. Beach managed to keep her sense of humor when she later noted, “If Joyce had foreseen all these difficulties, maybe he would have written a smaller book.”

While completing Ulysses, Joyce, who had always provided for his family by teaching, found himself with no income. He received generous gifts from admirers and friends, anything from a place to live to clothes and shoes to money. But it was never too long before he was in need again. As his publisher, Beach felt compelled to take care of James Joyce, his wife and two children. Joyce borrowed money from Shakespeare & Company on a regular basis. Beach sometimes cashed his checks when the bank turned him down. As his expenses increased, so did the emotional and financial strain on Beach and her business. Shakespeare & Company came close to bankruptcy. But her faith never faltered. As she explained in her memoir, “It seemed natural to me that the efforts and sacrifices on my part should be proportionate to the greatness of the work I was publishing.”

When La Maison was finally ready to host its special reading of translated excerpts of Ulysses in December 1921, Beach and Joyce had been working together for over 15 months. As Monnier noted, “It is certainly the first time, I believe, that a work in the English language has been studied in France, by a French writer, before being studied in England and in America.”

On the night of the seance de lecture the small bookshop was filled to capacity and French writer Valery Larbaud, after a shot of brandy to fight off his stage fright, successfully delivered his interpretation and ultimate praise of Ulysses. The applause and cheers echoing in the room grew louder “when Larbaud, after looking everywhere for Joyce, discovered him behind a screen in the back room, dragged him out blushing, and kissed him French fashion on both cheeks.”

When Ulysses finally came out in 1922, partly because the French printers in Dijon did not speak English and therefore did not censure the work, subscribers rushed to get their copies. Beach pointed out, “And, of course, its reputation as a banned book helped the sales.” With the assistance of friends, Monnier and Beach wrapped the heavy parcels and rushed the long-awaited Ulysses to subscribers in England and Ireland before the authorities could stop them. Unfortunately the shipments to the United States did not go as smoothly. The mailings were suspended when Beach found out that all copies of Ulysses had been confiscated by the authorities at the Port of New York.

Beach discussed with Hemingway the troubles she was having with the shipments to the United States thus the resourceful young writer was quick to come up with a solution. He convinced a good friend of his in Chicago, Bernard B., to assist in the plan. They arranged for Bernard to move to Ontario, Canada, where Ulysses was not banned, and had Beach send him the subscriber’s copies to his new, temporary apartment. From there he smuggled one copy a day, down his pants, traveling by ferry to the US. After a while he approached a trusted friend to help him, this time each smuggling two copies at a time, to ensure that the work would be done before the authorities got too suspicious. The endeavor was risky but soon Ulysses was in the hands of all its American subscribers.

The next logical step for Beach was to encourage Monnier in her efforts to publish Ulysses in French. Although partial translations had been made by poet Valery Larbaud, Jacques Benoist-Mechin, and Stuart Gilbert, the daunting task of translating the complete manuscript fell in the hands of writer Auguste Morel. In March 1929, after countless complications, Monnier published the first French edition of Ulysses.

In the 1930s La Maison des Amis des Livres and Shakespeare & Company continued to gently sway the course of modern literature. As French novelist Andre Chamson wrote, “Sylvia carried pollen like a bee. She cross-fertilized these writers. She did more to link England, the United States, Ireland and France than four great ambassadors combined. It was not merely for the pleasure of friendship that Joyce, Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Bryher, and so many others so often took the path to Shakespeare & Company in the heart of Paris, to meet there all these French writers. But nothing is more mysterious than such fertilizations through dialogue, reading, or simple human contact.”

The English publisher Jonathan Cape, who was responsible for bringing out D.H. Lawrence and Joyce in England, walked in Shakespeare & Company one afternoon in search of the next great American writer. Beach enthusiastically said, “Here, read Hemingway!” and soon, under the nurturing care of Beach, another writer-publisher relationship had blossomed.

When a 43-year-old Henry Miller approached Shakespeare & Company in 1934 in pursuit of a publisher for his first novel Tropic of Cancer, Beach directed him to a man she knew would be interested in his material. The recommendation turned into a lucrative relationship for Miller and publisher Jack Kahane, “who accepted with pleasure this work by a new writer, something that combined literary and sex value.” Over the years Mr. Kahane would bring out a few of Millers works, including Tropic of Capricorn and Black Spring. Both Tropic novels were banned in the U.S. and England until the early 1960s.

World War II erupted in 1939 and the German troops invaded Paris.  Beach was
forced to close Shakespeare and Company’s doors for the last time. By then the
bookshop was famous, and received much publicity in French and American newspapers and magazines. According to Beach, even the American Express bus tours has a scheduled stop for the tourists at 12 rue de ‘lOdeon.

When the United States joined the war, Beach’s nationality made her “the enemy” in Nazi occupied Paris. After surviving six months in an internment camp, Beach returned to Paris and hid at a friend’s youth hostel at 93 boulevard Saint Michel, while secretly visiting rue de l’Odeon. After a few close calls with the Germans, Beach celebrated the liberation of Paris with Monnier and their friends on rue de l’Odeon, one of the last quartiers to be freed. “I heard a deep voice calling: Sylvia!” recalled Beach in her memoir.  “And everybody in the street took up the cry of ‘Sylvia!’ ‘It’s Hemingway! It’s Hemingway!’ cried Adrienne. I flew downstairs; we met in a crash; he picked me up and swung me around and kissed me while people on the streets and in the windows cheered.” Hemingway, in uniform and carrying a machine gun, soon rode off in a jeep with his fellow soldiers after informing Beach and Monnier that he was on his way “to liberate the cellar at the Ritz.”

La Maison survived its second world war and remained opened until Monnier’s health deteriorated in 1951. Beach had moved out of Monnier’s apartment and into her own place above Shakespeare & Company when their love faded in 1936. Although few details have surfaced about their intimate relationship, it is clear the two women stayed close confidants, visiting each other and occasionally taking trips together outside of  Paris.  Beach revealed in her memoir, “My loves were Adrienne Monnier and James Joyce and Shakespeare and Company.”

Beach and Monnier’s passion for French and English literature and their efforts and contributions to modern literature are evident today. Each time a reader picks up an Ernest Hemingway novel, a poem by T.S. Eliot, or, with determination, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and ponders on their significance, Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier will discreetly smile, acknowledging their influence, but will also gently remind the reader next time to take a risk and pick up a contemporary novel.

Although today rue de l’Odeon, with its provincial stillness, still seems cut off from the dizzying traffic of the boulevard St. Michel around the corner, the French and American sister-bookshops have now disappeared. 8 rue de ‘lOdeon currently houses an antique book dealer. A clothing store stands at 12 rue de l’Odeon. A small plaque, by the second floor balcony, indicates “In 1922, in this house, Miss Sylvia Beach published James Joyce’s Ulysses.”

But the legendary name, Shakespeare & Company, continues to live today, albeit without Beach’s blessing, at 37 rue de la Boucherie, across the Seine from Notre Dame Cathedral, where a new generation of young expatriates flock to in a hopeless attempt to relive the magic of the original bookstore.

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