Shakespeare and Company - Sylvia Beach, James Laughlin
The third book read in my project to learn more about literary expatriates in 1920s and 1930s Paris, Sylvia Beach's memoir was in many ways the most enjoyable reading experience to date. Beach was an American woman who operated an English language lending library and bookstore called Shakespeare & Company on Paris' Left Bank from 1919 to 1941*. During that period, her store was a hub for expatriate writers including Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fizgerald and, most signficantly, James Joyce. While not at all literary - Beach had no pretensions to be a writer and in the memoir describes herself as a "plain reader" - the work comes across as honest and heartfelt. Unlike Ernest Hemingway in [b:A Moveable Feast|4631|A Moveable Feast|Ernest Hemingway||2459084], Beach was not mean spirited, nor was she self-obsessed as Gertrude Stein demonstrated herself to be in [b:The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas|527495|The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas|Gertrude Stein||2285834]. Instead, the image of Beach which emerges from the work is of a modest, warm, devoted, patient, principled, persistent and humourous woman, who was loyal to her friends and committed to promoting contemporary literature.

In addition to running her bookstore, Sylvia Beach published the first edition of James Joyce's [b:Ulysses|338798|Ulysses|James Joyce||2368224] in book form. This was in 1922, at a time when Joyce could not secure a publisher because the book had been banned in the US and the UK following its publication in periodical form. Beach, who was devoted to Joyce and recognised his literary genius, not only published the book, but acted as Joyce's agent, secretary, banker and adviser. This was ultimately to her financial disadvantage. Joyce must have been extraordinarily frustrating to deal with, but nothing more than a hint of exasperation emerges from Beach's account of their friendship.

Beach has a clear and accessible conversational style. The middle section of the book is somewhat bogged down in an account of less well-known writers and somewhat obscure literary reviews with which Beach was associated. However, it picks up again when Beach recounts how the bookstore was saved from closure during the 1930s by the efforts of French and expatriate literary figures. The final section is particularly moving. In this section Beach describes her experiences in occupied Paris, when she closed down the bookstore after refusing to sell her last copy of [b:Finnegans Wake|11013|Finnegans Wake|James Joyce||322098] to a German officer. The narrative ends with the "liberation" of the store by Ernest Hemingway, who arrives in the Rue d'Odéon accompanied by American soldiers, who then go on to "liberate" the cellars of the Ritz Hotel. It left me with a positive image of Hemingway, which was welcome after the negative impression I gained from reading [b:A Moveable Feast|4631|A Moveable Feast|Ernest Hemingway||2459084].

Overall, this was a most enjoyable read, notwithstanding the less than compelling middle section. However, as interesting as the anecdotes Beach included in her memoir are the things she left out. For example, Beach was in a long-term relationship with bookseller Adrienne Monnier. Beach does not directly refer to the nature of her relationship with Monnier in her memoir. Nor does she expand on the difficulties she must have endured because of Joyce's thoughtless exploitation of her devotion to his interests. These are the sorts of things I hope to read about in [b:Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties|46153|Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties|Noël Riley Fitch||45304]. With luck, I will also discover whether my impression of Beach's character is accurate.

Clips of interviews with Sylvia Beach (the first in English with German subtitles and the second - which is specifically about James Joyce - in French) can be seen here and here.

*The Shakespeare & Company which currently exists in Paris is unconnected with Beach's bookstore otherwise than in name. It was named in Beach's honour by its founder, George Whitman.