Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Women of the Left Bank series part 5: Sylvia Beach and Company

Welcome back to my series on Women of the Left Bank – perhaps my least read blogposts ever but also ones I very much enjoy writing. 

Today my attention turns to Sylvia Beach – a woman who was vitally important to the development of modernism and who first published the movement’s seminal text, Ulysses. 

Many bookish tourists visiting Paris head to Notre Dame to visit the wonderful Shakespeare & Company shop, with its towering shelves crammed with literary delights new and old. But what many people don’t realise when they think they’re walking in Hemingway’s footsteps is that this is the second incarnation of the iconic shop. The original Shakespeare & Company was on rue de l’Odeon and it was founded by the utterly fabulous Sylvia Beach. On the same road, literary people could find La Maison des Amis des Livres, run by Sylvia’s partner Adrienne Monnier. 

The first time I went to Paris when I was 20 I wandered up and down rue de l'Odeon for ages looking for the damn shop! I didn't know it had been moved...

Sylvia Beach was born in New Jersey, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. She came to Paris as a young girl with her family in the years 1902 and 1905, an experience which had a profound impact on her. During World War One she returned to France to volunteer for the allies, and ended up doing agricultural work in Touraine. When the war ended she remained in Paris and opened her bookshop, which in 1921 moved to rue de l’Odeon. 

When Sylvia opened her shop, Valery Larbaud gave her a little model of Shakespeare’s cottage and some little green soldiers to guard it. They would, he said ‘protect the house of Shakespeare’. 

The shop was a hit with the American expats who flocked to Paris after the war. As they walked through its welcoming door to the room with its chessboard floor and scattered chairs, they could find the latest journals and reviews – Little Review, the Dial, the Transatlantic. They could browse the latest poetry, short story collections and novels from the writers who were creating modernism and surrealism in the Montparnasse cafes. And, more often than not, they could meet the writers themselves, looking through the shelves, flicking through the latest edition of Transition, or discussing their work with Sylvia. 

As well as a bookshop, Shakespeare & Company worked as a lending library. Along with Monnier, Sylvia really invented the concept of a lending library in France. For perennially skint writers like Hemingway, being able to borrow and return books was a real blessing. 

When the young photographer Gisele Freund came to Paris, she suggested to Adrienne and Sylvia that she took photos of all the writers who regularly visited the shops. She did, and her realistic and penetrating portraits were hung on the shop walls. 

This clip, from the film Paris was a Woman, features interviews with Sylvia, Gisele Freund and Janet Flanner, talking about the importance of Shakespeare & Company. 

Sylvia said that her three great loves were Adrienne Monnier, James Joyce and Shakespeare & Company. It was the second love that led to her embarking on a journey that transformed Sylvia’s life and made her one of the most important women of the modernist project. 

Joyce and Sylvia struck up a friendship during his visits to her shop. Customers would often find Joyce, with his thin moustache and white tennis shoes, sat at the table in the shop with Sylvia, discussing his work and the work of their mutual friends. A star-struck Scott Fitzgerald was famously too nervous to start a conversation with Joyce, so Sylvia invited him and Zelda to dinner to meet his hero. According to legend, Scott got down on one knee and proclaimed his gratitude to the modernist master. 

As their friendship grew, and Sylvia became more convinced than ever of Joyce’s genius, she became utterly determined that his experimental modernist novel, Ulysses, should be published. 

Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson (subjects for a later post!) had already attempted to publish excerpts of Ulysses in Little Review, printing Episode IX in the journal. The reaction was incredible. Both Heap and Anderson were hauled up in front of the law courts, accused of obscenity charges by Mr Sumners, the head of the Society for the Prevention of Vice. They were found guilty. In response, Heap said: 

It was the poet, the artist, who discovered love and created the lover, made sex everything that it is beyond a function. It is the Mr Sumners who have made it an obscenity.’

I love that quote. It exposes the nonsense of banning Ulysses perfectly. 

Sylvia was not deterred by the news from the States. She poured all her energy into finding a publisher for her friend’s book. In fact, her championing of Joyce led to a rift with that other great modernist, Gertrude Stein. Stein felt that Sylvia should be using all that energy to champion her writing, rather than Joyce’s. 

Despite her best effort, Sylvia couldn’t find a publisher. So she decided to publish the book herself. It was a venture that would lead to unimaginable success for Joyce, and near ruin for Sylvia. 

The costs of publishing Ulysses were far higher than Sylvia could have imagined – especially because Joyce was forever amending and correcting the text. Proofs would arrive back from the printer and he would annotate them until the type was buried in notes. Each new proof required more money. The costs mounted up.  

Finally, on 2nd February 1922, 1,000 copies of Ulysses were published. The run was printed by Darantiere in Dijon, and copies went on sale at Shakespeare & Company. I don’t need to tell you about its reception here. We all know Ulysses, even if we don’t all know Sylvia. 

Despite rapturous reviews from Eliot and the like, Ulysses remained banned in the UK until the 1930s. It was only made available in the USA in 1934, after a court case named ‘The United States v. One Book Called Ulysses’ ruled the book was not, in fact, pornographic. 

Sylvia’s publishing of Ulysses was an incredible feat, and an act of real faith in Joyce. She believed in him as a writer so much, she was determined that the world would recognise his genius and the genius of his book. But when the UK and US stopped banning Ulysses, and Joyce was offered a massive Random House contract a decade later, he tore up his contract with Sylvia Beach. She watched as the book that she had fought to publish became one of the most successful books of the twentieth century. Financially, Joyce was set for life. But after everything Sylvia had done for him, he never gave her a penny. 

It was quite the betrayal. Sylvia had nearly gone bankrupt publishing Ulysses. She had nearly lost her shop, and the stress had a terrible impact on her health. Eventually, Adrienne had to write to Joyce and tell him not to come back. 

The financial burden of publishing Ulysses left the shop struggling. Writers like Gide rallied around, doing free readings at Shakespeare & Company that brought in buyers. It’s one of the things I love about Shakespeare & Company. You have this sense of it being a place where writers and readers came together to celebrate one another’s work. 

The shop remained open until 1940, when Germany occupied Paris. Sylvia angered a German officer by refusing to sell him her copy of Finnegan’s Wake. He threatened to confiscate her stock, close the shop and intern her. That night, Sylvia and her friends hid the entire contents of bookshop in the empty apartments above. There the stock remained until she welcomed Hemingway back to rue de l’Odeon when Paris was liberated in 1944. 

Sylvia Beach died in 1962. She was an extraordinary woman who should be remembered for her vital role in promoting and celebrating the work of some of the most exciting and innovative artists and writers of her day. One can’t help but wonder what our understanding of modernism would be without Sylvia Beach’s bookshop and publishing energy. 

Other posts in the series: 

To find out more about Sylvia Beach, you can read Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation by Noel Riley Fitch, and Women of the Left Bank by Shari Benstock. 

Monday, 19 January 2015

Writing I've done lately

It looks like my blog has been a bit sparse of late, and there are a few reasons for that. Christmas, mainly. And being very busy organising the Bristol Women's Literature Festival, and writing my new book.

But one of the reasons has been "writing elsewhere". I've been doing words for other people. So I thought I would collect some links and if you missed them before, you can check them out...

FGM must be seen as violence against women, for Bristol 24/7

Domestic abuse victims face refuge crisis, for Bristol 24/7

Bristol leads way to change attitudes towards rape, for Bristol 24/7

Thoughts on Testament of Youth, for Watershed and Conversations about Cinema

As you can probably tell, I'm writing regularly for Bristol 24/7 now and will also be writing regularly for Bristol Woman magazine. So watch this space!

Monday, 5 January 2015

Book Diary 2015

2014 was a year of reading women,  and knowing me 2015 won't be any different! I'm kicking off the list with the books I read over the Christmas break, and then 2015 started with The Last Tycoon by F Scott Fitzgerald...

Don't forget, if you are a bookworm you can read my books too:

Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue

The Boys on the Bus

Happy reading!

The Love Affairs of Nathanial P, Adelle Waldman (new): I really enjoyed this book, I had such a reaction to the charisma and selfishness and immaturity of NP which was really refreshing.

Untitled for Barbara Loden, Nathalie Leger (new): This isn't out yet but is really an extraordinary book - part biog, part memoir, part novel, part study. Highly, highly recommended.

Liberty Silk, Kate Beaufoy (new): Very enjoyable read set in early 20s, 1940s and 1960s - covering three generations of extraordinary women.

Tender is the Night, F Scott Fitzgerald (new kind of, I hadn't read the 1934 version before): Yeah, you know how good this is!

The Last Tycoon, F Scott Fitzgerald (new): It's unfinished! It's so sad that it's unfinished. Because you know it would have been wonderful.

The Summer without Men, Siri Hustvedt (new): A fantastic, precise and emotional novel that has a brilliant section on how utterly shit neurosexism is - as well as gorgeous allusions and discussions about books, science, philosophy and heart.

Persuasion, Jane Austen (re read): One of the best.

Paris France, Gertrude Stein (re read): Her memoir of Paris and France, written in 1939 and published the day the Germans invaded the city.

The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (new): I've been reading this off and on for a year, it's Alice's memoir and it's packed with delicious recipes including the Veal Marengo I made last night (although swapped veal for pork).

A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel (re read): It's one of my favourite books. It's so vivid. You believe you are there, at the corner of the table, rolling your eyes at Camille as Danton slaps you on the back.

The Innocent Libertine, Colette (new): It's an interesting read this one, because she kind of disowned it and was under pressure when she wrote it. It's no Claudine but all the trademark Colette is there.

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (re-read) and Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel (re-read): I wanted to revisit these two ready for/overlapping the TV series.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, Xiaoluo Guo, (new): really loved how clever this book was with language and the way the language changed in it. Very exciting.

The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (re read): I hadn't read this for a while and it is such a perfectly paced, beautifully timed and wonderfully revealed novel. Even though I cried a lot reading it.

Claudine in Paris, Colette (re read): My favourite.

The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood (re read): I always feel it's such a good companion piece to Cat's Eye - the one the cruelty of girls, the second of women. And also a book that is about male violence in many ways. (BTW - who has my copy of Cat's Eye? & my copy of Oryx and Crake?)

Claudine at School, Colette (re read): comfort.

The Edible Woman, Margaret Atwood (re read): Yes, rather in an Atwood/Colette loop right now! I adore this book.

The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, Emma Rees (new): provocative and thought provoking with lots of cunts!

The End of Equality, Beatrix Campbell (new): Concise and powerful, this book looks at the state of gender inequality today

Mrs Harris goes to Paris and Mrs Harris goes to New York, Paul Gallico (new): years ago I saw the film with Angela Lansbury and it seemed like it was a figment of my imagination. And then I found this book!

Miss Pettigrew lives for a Day, Winifred Watson, (re read): gorgeous escapism

The Lady in the Tower, Alison Weir (re read): after watching Wolf Hall I had a fancy to revisit Weir's historical analysis of Boleyn's last days

Night and Day, Virginia Woolf (new): for some reason I never read this book when I was studying Woolf at uni - what an error. It's brilliant, I love it.

Frenchman's Creek, Daphne Du Maurier (re read): Because this book is love.

To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (re read): I'm so so loving revisiting Woolf as a grown up. I loved her as a student but there is something different reading her now. It's really striking how modern, how daring, how experimental she was. I knew it, but I don't think I fully appreciated it.

Orlando, Virginia Woolf (re read): It's so funny! I've always loved how funny it is. And it's just one incredible sexy sensual ode to Vita. Imagine - such love!

Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas (re read): I read it in the bath on Easter Sunday. TMI? What I think I love best about this play is how intensely rich the imagery is whilst at the same time being certainly simple and exact.

Lady of the Rivers, Philippa Gregory (re read): I like this best of the Cousins' War series.

The Paris Wife, Paula McClain (re read): In preparation for my Paris trip next week!

Leonora, Elena Poniatowska, trans Amanda Hopkinson (new): reading this now and it is an extraordinarily vivid and strange novel about an extraordinarily vivid and strange woman (wonderfully strange).

How to be Awesome, Hadley Freeman (re read): I last read this on the train to Paris and last weekend I read it on the train to Paris again.

How to be a Heroine, Samantha Ellis (re read): I last read this when I was tracking down my heroines in Paris last year, and I re read it tracking down my heroines in Paris again this year.

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen (re read): such a joy to read this again! So long since I have - it's so funny and clever. I love it.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte (re read): I love Wuthering Heights but I think I am Team Jane nevertheless.

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (re read): I was in Paris after all.

Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway (re read): His best, in my opinion.

I am China, Xiaolu Guo (new): A really brilliant book that unfolds the story so carefully and is so real. Reminded me a bit of Possession with its structure.

Down with the Royals, Joan Smith (new): Impeccably researched and brilliantly angry, a rousing call for republicanism!

Darkmans, Nicola Barker (new): just started reading this, very intense and draws you right in with the uncertainty of it all.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (re read): the annual re read!

Life moves pretty fast: the lessons we learned from eighties moves (and why we don't learn them from movies anymore), Hadley Freeman (new): Love love love Hadley's new book! She is a superstar! The Princess Bride! Back to the Future! Ghostbusters!

Do It Like A Woman and Change the World, Caroline Criado-Perez (new): Fantastic inspiring read about fantastic inspiring women by a fantastic inspiring woman.

The Cazalet Chronicles (all 4), Elizabeth Jane Howard (re read): Because I love them. Like a nice big chocolate bar of a book. With lots of weepy moments.

Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (re read): Her best, in my view. It's spectacular, it really is.

GAH! I stopped updating this and now I can't quite remember if I've missed some books out. So here's some things I have definitely read recently...I don't think I've missed anything.

The Pure and the Impure, Colette (re read): Long time since I read this, her exploration of gay, lesbian and bisexual life in Paris and beyond. Particularly interesting chapter on the Ladies of Llangollen. With an intro from Janet Flanner - such joy!

The brief and wondrous life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz (new): I am ambivalent.

Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein (both new and re read): I haven't read all of this. Some re-visiting (Autobiog, Tender Buttons), some new (extracts from Making of Americans - been so scared of it but wow oh wow I don't understand it in my brain but I understand it in my heart and in my gut).

Claudine in Paris, Colette (re read): I couldn't sleep and I thought reading Making of Americans would be too much so I picked this up. It didn't help me sleep but it's always a treat.

Reading Claudine in Paris then led to reading Claudine Married, Claudine and Annie, and Claudine at School...all in my 15 year old collection which is as well-loved as Claudine's Balzac. 

The Other One, Colette (new): I picked this up thinking it was short stories and it turned out to be a short but perfectly formed novel about friendship and infidelity. Brilliant Colette.

Aha! You know I said I hadn't updated this for a while and couldn't remember what I had read? I can't believe I forgot the Sammy Steward books!

Parisian Lives, Samuel Steward (new): A sexy rollicking read with a shocking conclusion in the gay world of 1930s Paris, featuring appearances from Gertrude and Alice.

The Caravaggio Shawl, Samuel Steward (new): It's a murder mystery where Gertrude and Alice are detectives!!! It's amazing. The front cover is AMAZING.

The Marriage of Opposites, Alice Hoffman (new): Beautiful descriptions of the Caribbean and an intriguing story but frustrating in parts - there were storylines that I wanted to explore further that were sort of unfinished.

The Neapolitan Novels 1-3, Elena Ferrante (new): Oh my goodness they're so amazing! Read my review here.

Retreat from Love, Colette (new): You know something strange? I've had this book for like, what 14 years? And never read it. Shameful. It's lush. Man, the way Colette writes nature. Just want to dive in to her world.

Chance Acquaintances/Julie de Carneilhein, Colette (new): Another one. Owned it for years! I wasn't mad on the latter, but loved the former, again the descriptions of the mountains around Hotel des Bains. Love, love, love Colette!

The Vagabond, Colette (re read): The first Colette book I ever read and really, my favourite. It's different reading it as an adult. It's so sensitive, and funny, and brutally honest.

My Apprenticeships, Colette (re read): This is a memoir of her first marriage, which is really an exploration of an abusive marriage - many red flags. She escaped. That's the thing. She escaped.

Okay publishers, what's going on here? Why are so many Colette books out of print? Sort it out!

Fierce Attachments, Vivian Gornick (new): Why one should always read random articles in the Paris Review. How else would I have discovered this memoir of her relationship with her mother? Written fiercely, with clear sighted passion and rage.

Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante (new): It's over. The series is over. I need a new series, but can anything be better than this?

Claudine's House, Colette (new): Another Colette book I've had knocking around and then never actually read. It's really rich, evocative, about childhood and a bit about motherhood. Plus a foreword from Doris Lessing, which is always nice.

Then I read some PG Wodehouse stories from World of Jeeves.

The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood (re read): God she's good. I never, ever get bored of this book. I was reading the copy that Lev gave to me, which I lost, and then re-found.

Then I had a tantrum because my life is in boxes and I couldn't find my copy of The Blind Assassin!

So now reading:

Lady Oracle, Margaret Atwood (re read): Classic! The Royal Porcupine!

Forever Amber, Kathleen Winsor (re read): I was on a train for a long time and when you're on a train for a long time there's nothing like the original bodice-ripper. Oh Amber!!! How fabulous you are!!

The Taming of the Queen, Philippa Gregory (new): It took me a while to get into this but once I did I enjoyed it. Lady of the Rivers FTW in this series though. There's quite a lot of male violence in this book - makes a real statement about Henry VIII as a wife killer.

The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (re read): Cue more crying on public transport.

Getting Colder, Amanda Coe (new): This was an interesting novel about a dysfunctional family but to be honest I thought the final metaphor was quite heavy-handed. Still, good holiday read.

Re read Fierce Attachments in order to write my review for OD 50:50 

Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel (new): really enjoyed this post-apocalyptic novel that asked good questions about what we save and what we value.

Cat's Eye, Margaret Atwood (re read) I haven't read this for ages as I lent my copy to someone and it never returned - so I re-purchased it. I actually got my highest ever uni mark for my essay on this book. Talked about the Bridge Metaphor a lot.

The Lost Daughter, Elena Ferrante, trans Anne Goldstein (new): A sparse, short novel that explores some similar themes to the Neapolitan Novels. It's very intense and unsettling with images that haunt you.

I forgot to mention these two:

After me comes the flood, Sarah Perry (new): brilliant debut with a beautifully revealed plot


Boating for Beginners, Jeanette Winterson (re read): The orange demon! Noah! Everything about this book is a delight.

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (re read): I wanted to read something big and chewy and intense. I'm always thrilled and scared by how every time I read it, I think something different about it.

Public Library, Ali Smith (new): Perfect. Read my full review here.

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen (re read): Because I hadn't read it for a while, and I was travelling.

Carol, Patricia Highsmith (re read of sorts): I read this as a teenager and couldn't remember a damn thing about it. Except that I thought Carol was mean. Definitely one to read as an adult, it's beautiful.

A Stricken Field, Martha Gellhorn (new): So much more than Hemingway's wife! This is an extraordinary novel about the refugee crisis after the Munich Agreement which is all too familiar today, sadly.

It's #diversedecember

And so I'm diversifying my reading with:

Mr Fox, Helen Oyeyimi (new): This novel starts in a direction you feel familiar with. And then, BAM! Off we go on some wild, wonderful imaginative directions. It's exciting!

The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri (new): A stunning novel. Really stunning. Very quiet, very stark and packs a huge emotional punch.

Everything I never told you, Celeste Ng (new): recommended by my friend Niz. Reading right now. Gripping stuff.

Half a yellow sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (new): Bit of a cheat here. I started reading it, then my Kindle battery died. And I thought my charger was at the office. It's not. I will finish reading this as soon as I can charge my Kindle!

Because I was waiting for my Kindle charger and didn't want to start anything new, I read some short stories in the That Kind of Woman collection (I think I accidentally have two copies!). Highlights were Roman Fever by Edith Wharton, Sanctuary by Nella Larsen and Kora and Ka by H.D.


That is my book diary for 2015! Once again it was a very woman-y affair although some men sneaked in.

There were a lot of re-reads this year, mainly because I've been living out of boxes and my Kindle broke. So had to make do with the one box of books I unpacked which rather brilliantly was Colette and Virginia Woolf.

Tune in for 2016's reading extravaganza!