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 very fabulous Sylvia Beach.
Born in New Jersey, Sylvia travelled to Paris as a young girl in the years 1902 and 1905. The experience 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 travelled to Paris and opened a bookshop, which in 1921 moved to rue de l’Odeon.
That year, Valery Larbaud gave Sylvia 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 had 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.
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. As their professional relationship developed, and Sylvia became more convinced than ever of Joyce’s genius, she became determined that his experimental modernist novel, Ulysses, should be published.
Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson (subjects for a later articles in this series!) had already attempted to publish excerpts of Ulysses in Little Review. It didn’t end well. The pair were found guilty under the obscenity laws and forced to pay a fine.
Sylvia was not deterred by the news from the States. She poured all her energy into finding a publisher for her friend’s book. But despite her best efforts, Sylvia couldn’t find anyone willing to take the risk of publishing a book that already had so controversial a history. Instead, she decided to publish the book herself. It was a venture that would lead to unimaginable success for Joyce, and near ruin for Sylvia.
On 2nd February 1922, 1,000 copies of Ulysses appeared in the window of Shakespeare & Company from where it quickly became one of the most important books of 20th century literature.
Sylvia’s publishing of Ulysses was a huge feat against all odds, and an act of real faith in Joyce. But when the UK and US lifted their ban on Ulysses, and Joyce was offered a massive Random House deal, he tore up his old contract with Sylvia Beach.
Financially, Joyce was set for life. And after everything Sylvia had done for him, he never gave her a penny.
It was a huge betrayal. Sylvia had nearly gone bankrupt publishing Ulysses. She had risked losing 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 Andre Gide rallied around, doing free readings at Shakespeare & Company that brought in customers.
The shop remained open until 1940, when Germany occupied Paris. After the invasion, 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 “little bookshop” and her boundless passion for writing and writers.