“I understand you’re the great James Joyce?” The first words of American Sylvia Beach to the great writer are “Dr. Livingstone, I guess?” The question arose half a century ago. When the Welsh-American explorer Henry M. Stanley questioned David Livingstone on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1871, the great Scottish physician and missionary was missing in Africa for four years. Joyce faced expulsion from the literary world in the 1920’s when paragraphs from her still-published book became confused with conservatives in America. After The Girl in White Gloves (2020), American author Kerry Maher’s new novel is about an unlikely partnership between an American bookseller in Paris and an Irish literary giant in publishing after World War I. Sylvia Beach owns Shakespeare & Company, an English language bookstore in Paris that sells William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Joyce is living in the city of love, busy finishing Ulysses. Living in liberal Paris, the beach does not understand the fate of Ulysses and the country in which his author was born. Excited, he offered Joyce to publish the book. She agrees.
The story of Sylvia Beach and Ulysses, situated between two world wars, is an exploitative account of the famous Shakespeare in Paris in 1920 and the courageous attempt to support a controversial writer who founded the company and its owner. It’s also about the passion and danger of publishing. Maher’s novel focuses on the complex world of creativity, dealing with the struggle for artistic freedom during the dominance of conservative voices in the West. It also shows that nothing changed a century later except for the main characters. There is an ongoing war in Europe and book bans still exist in the world.
Sylvia Beach was different. In love with literature, the young American worked with the Red Cross in the Balkans. His evangelical father moved his family to Paris, where he returned to study French literature at the University of Beach Sorbonne. While reading Walt Whitman’s poems and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he stumbled upon a French-language bookstore owned by a young Adrian Monier. Soon, there is an affectionate bond between Beach and Manier that will last a lifetime. Encouraged by Monier, Beach abandoned her ambition to become an author in her own bookstore, Shakespeare & Company, selling English books in Paris.
In the early 20th century, Paris was the center of a cultural universe that attracted artists and writers from around the world. Erza Pound and Gertrude Stein were there. So was Joyce. Pablo Picasso lived in the town where Ernest Hemingway was a newcomer. The authors visited bookstores such as Monier and Beach, which also served as lending libraries and postal addresses for writers struggling to find new homes in the city. There were many evenings when writers and artists would meet at the home of a local colleague, and the meetings would extend into the morning. Beach and Joyce first met at a meeting at the home of the French poet Andr স্প Spear. Joyce became a regular at Shakespeare & Company, spending time with Beach describing her plight while taking care of her health and publishing books.
Most of the booksellers in Paris are familiar with the details of Beach’s work in printing, publishing and even smuggling copies of Ulysses to America. Beach confirms that the print is world-class and accepts pre-orders for copies from celebrities such as TS Elliott, TE Lawrence and Winston Churchill. Even Alfred Knopf wants a copy for his personal collection. Meanwhile, George Bernard wrote to Shaw Beach that he could not buy a copy because Ulysses was “a rebellious record of a disgusting stage of civilization”. Beach bribes her friend, a female doctor typing Ulysses pages for a printer, with a copy of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women emphasizing the great work women have done in shaping the world.
The book has reached the final stages of printing, with 12 people simultaneously typing pages for the printer so that it could be published in February 1922, Joyce’s 40th birthday. More than three decades later, Beach published his memoirs, entitled Shakespeare and the Company, mostly portraits of Paris, and an army of its artists in the early 20th century. The Paris Bookseller, however, is a tribute to Beach’s selfless work in publishing Ulysses. This is a story that was soon forgotten.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer
Book seller in Paris
Page 319, Rs