Shakespeare & Company by Sylvia Beach
With an introduction by James Laughlin
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.
Originally published in 1959.
When he heard that a friend was going to Paris, Lewis Buzbee handed him a copy of his novel and asked him to slip it onto the shelves of Shakespeare and Company. When he went to Paris himself, years later, he was gratified to see that it was gone. The store to which Buzbee’s friend took his book was not the original Shakespeare and Co. Beach’s store never re-opened after WWII, in spite of Ernest Hemingway’s having arrived to liberate it in a uniform still stained with blood. The store is George Whitman’s, who renamed his own store in honour of Beach and with her permission, and then named his daughter after her. It is she who now runs things at Shakespeare and Company, and the legacy of the bookstore as magnet for literary community lives on.
It was Buzbee’s tender anecdote that finally gave me the push to read Shakespeare & Company, which has been on my TBR list for a long time. Sylvia Beach is called the midwife of modernism, and her bookstore was the centre of literary Paris in the twenties and thirties. In 1922, she published James Joyce’s Ulysses when no publisher in Britain or America would touch it, and much of her memoir is devoted to telling the story of the gestation, birth and growing pains of that book. She also recounts her relationships with Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Paul Valery, Andre Gide, Archibald MacLeish, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thornton Wilder, John Dos Passos, Allen Tate, and many others. For those who are interested in the Lost Generation and in some of the personal dynamics at work behind their work, this is a useful source.
Sadly, I found Beach’s memoir to be a bit of a slog. It was fascinating, alright, and there are many anecdotes to delight the reader, but the voice, form and content all lacked sufficient variety to keep the thing aloft.
I’ve been wading through it for over a week, and it wasn’t until yesterday that it occurred to me that though she may have been the midwife of modern literature, she herself did not have the antecedents of great memoirists to guide her in her own writing. She broke new ground in publishing, she was a magnet to literary talent, she inspired in her customers a profound loyalty, and she had a love of books that few could rival. What she did not have was a form to do justice to her own inscription of her place in the history of letters.
The literary form of autobiography is as old as the hills (St. Augustine’s Confessions), but before the late 20th century, there is little in the way of play with its form. To the extent that there was, it tended towards the blurring of fiction and autobiography (Robinson Crusoe), and fictionalizing her life is not what Beach wanted to do. She wanted to write a history of her bookstore, and literature failed to provide her with a more lively model for the way to write that history.
Readers are still policing the boundary between truth and fiction (remember the brouhaha over A Million Little Pieces?), but for me the interest in memoir lies in its ability to bridge opposites, not suspend them in tension. Anne Fadiman, one of my favourite essayists does this best where books about books are concerned. In Ex Libris and At Large and at Small, she connects the intensely personal act of reading and collecting books with bigger stories, bigger contexts.
One of my favourite books of the past year is Susan Olding’s Pathologies: A Life in Essays. She takes the personal essay to new places, puts it to interesting uses, gives it a fresh shape. It is Olding’s form that is so often the reward of reading her essays. They are fresh and startling and often biting. I like that.
All of this to say that I really wanted to love Shakespeare & Company, and was disappointed when I didn’t. I am always willing to admit that it may be my fault for a poor fit, and I am glad to have come to my realization that Sylvia Beach just needed more interesting precedents to guide her writing. She is not her own best storyteller, but I hope one day to find someone who will tell her story well.