When James Joyce Met Sylvia Beach
On the Chance Encounter That Changed Literature Forever
On a Monday morning in November 1919, Sylvia Beach hung a small wooden sign above her door and opened the shutters to Shakespeare and Company. The signboard was a painting of the bard. [Fellow Parisian bookseller] Adrienne Monnier helped spread the word, and members of the French literati came immediately, including André Gide, Georges Duhamel, Jules Romains and Valery Larbaud, all prominent French writers. English and American writers weren’t far behind. Shortly after Ezra Pound moved to Paris in 1920 (England had become too docile, he complained), he sauntered into Shakespeare and Company, surveyed the premises and asked Miss Beach if there was anything he could fix for her. He applied his expertise to a cigarette box from Sarajevo and a wobbly chair.
Sylvia Beach had impeccable timing. The First World War had created a generation of transnationalists. Young men and women who never thought of leaving their hometowns found themselves serving in allied or enemy countries and imagining cosmopolitan lives. The booming American and British economies and the plummeting franc made Paris the perfect cosmopolis. Between 1915 and 1920, the franc lost nearly two-thirds of its value against the dollar, and Paris’s affordability made its charms irresistible. Only 15,000 Americans had visited France annually before the war. In 1925, American tourists numbered 400,000, and many of them stayed. There were 8,000 American permanent residents in Paris in 1920. Three years later, there were 32,000. The influx made Paris’s changes seem like Americanizations. One-way streets and electric signs appeared along with English-language newspapers. There were American churches and grocery stores, Masonic lodges and basketball leagues. Cabarets and café concerts were supplanted by large music halls where expatriates listened to jazz while sipping bright jumbles of alcohol they called “cocktails” without having to worry about federal raids.
Shakespeare and Company transformed an Anglophone convergence into a community. It was, in fact, a thinly monetized social center. Library memership fees barely covered expenses, and the shop made only one hundred dollars in profit in 1921. The importance of Shakespeare and Company had nothing to do with money. By the end of the year, it was a place where readers and writers could talk to one another, where older and younger people exchanged ideas and where Sylvia Beach introduced writers to editors and publishers. If you wrote or read literature and found yourself in Paris—for a week, a month or a decade—you knew where to go. Shakespeare and Company became a literary node in a cultural metropolis.
Culture needs locations. It is not a seamless backdrop so much as a patchwork of local phenomena. Cultures have centers, specific arenas where artists join institutions, where people influence and repel one another, where activities change because of planned and unplanned events and where one can be exposed to people and ideas from Japan, Moscow, West Africa and Dublin all in the same day—cultural centers exist because they are hubs for the peripheries. If modernism had a preeminent location, it was Paris: atop Montmartre before the war and then, when prices became too high, the Left Bank, less than two square miles of narrow streets and wide boulevards south of the arcing River Seine.
Left Bank neighborhoods were diverse, inexpensive and saturated with cafés. This was especially true of Montparnasse, a Left Bank neighborhood where working-class people, immigrants and political refugees mixed with artists and the bourgeoisie as well as students from the adjacent Latin Quarter. Artists like Chagall and Brancusi drank with butchers at the Café Dantzig because Montparnasse’s major artist colony was next to a slaughterhouse.
Cafés were more than just the accoutrements of Paris’s cultural life. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were more drinking establishments in Paris than in any other city in the world—one for about every 300 people. That was three times as many per capita as in New York and more than ten times as many as in London. The sheer number of Parisian cafés facilitated the formation of small groups in uncrowded spaces, which allowed people to talk, plan and argue freely. If the arguments became fierce, the café culture helped with that, too—there was always another one down the street, and their sidewalk access facilitated the chance encounters that allow groups to form, dissolve and reconfigure. Though fluid, café interactions were far from frivolous. They thrived in France partly because they were havens from stringent 19th-century assembly laws. Uprisings from 1848 to the Paris Commune to 1919 arose seemingly spontaneously because workers organized in cafés rather than through unions. Left Bank cafés were at once intimate and ephemeral, playful and consequential, semipublic proving grounds for ideas and semiprivate sanctuaries from the state. They were the perfect spaces for modernism and for a book as urban as Ulysses.
Shakespeare and Company was a hybrid space, something between an open café and an ensconced literary salon, which suited Anglophone patrons for whom café culture was always adoptive. Sylvia Beach’s bookshop gave British and American travelers a dose of the stability that cafés didn’t provide. Several members had their mail sent to Shakespeare and Company (for some writers it was their only reliable address), and Beach used a pigeonhole box to sort their mail alphabetically. The Lost Generation had a home.
On a hot Sunday afternoon in July 1920, Adrienne invited Sylvia Beach to an early dinner party at the home of a French poet named André Spire. Beach didn’t want to go. She admired Spire’s poetry, but she didn’t know him personally, and he hadn’t invited her. Adrienne nevertheless insisted and, as usual, she had her way. Spire’s warm welcome put his American guest at ease, but as they entered, he pulled her aside and whispered something that terrified her. “The Irish writer James Joyce is here.”
The dinner was a welcoming party for Joyce, who had just arrived in the city he would call home for the next 20 years. The move had been unplanned. Ezra Pound had convinced Joyce to relocate to Paris when the two men met for the first time in Italy the previous month. Pound detected the sensitive man beneath the “cantankerous” Irish shell and urged him to move closer to the center of modernism. It was a good time to relocate. Joyce had just finished the fourteenth episode of Ulysses, “Oxen of the Sun,” which takes place in a maternity hospital, and its nine-part structure links the development of the English language to the gestation of a fetus. Joyce mimicked dozens of styles, from Anglo-Saxon to Middle English to Elizabethan prose to Milton, Swift, Dickens and others before unraveling into Irish, Cockney and Bowery slang. The episode cost him a thousand hours of work, and he expected the next one, “Circe,” to be even more challenging.
Pound prepared the city for Joyce. He sent copies of his work and favorable news clippings to important individuals. He found a French translator for A Portrait and a furnished three-bedroom apartment free of charge (for a few months, at least). The final touch was a sumptuous literary dinner to introduce Joyce to Paris’s literati. Beach saw Pound slung across an armchair in a velvet jacket and a blue shirt with the collar open wide, and Dorothy Pound, Ezra’s wife, was speaking to a statuesque woman with full auburn hair. Dorothy introduced Miss Beach to Nora, and Beach perceived a certain dignity to Joyce’s wife. Nora was happy to find someone with whom she could speak English, and Beach was happy to approach Joyce indirectly, as if by his reflected light.
Spire announced the meal and began loading plates with cold cuts, fish and meat pies. Salads and baguettes circulated around the long table, and the host filled glasses with red and white wine. Only one guest was not drinking. As the man in the ill-fitting suit kept declining Spire’s repeated offers, the other guests began to watch. James Joyce turned his glass upside down to prove that he meant it. He never drank before eight in the evening. As a jest, Ezra Pound lined up all the bottles in front of Joyce’s plate in case he should change his mind. Everyone laughed, but Joyce was red with embarrassment.
After dinner, he slipped away as the conversation turned to literature, and Beach wandered into Spire’s small library after him. When she saw Joyce hunched in the corner between two bookcases, with his hair swept back from his forehead, she began trembling.
“Is this the great James Joyce?”
He peered up from the book at the petite American woman with the resolute chin. He extended his limp hand and said simply, “James Joyce.”
He expressed himself with careful precision, as if speaking to an audience still learning English. She admired his gentle voice and Irish accent. He pronounced “book” to rhyme with “fluke.” “Thick” was sharpened to “tick,” and his r’s trilled upward. The novel he was writing was “Oolissays.” Joyce’s skin was fair and flushed. He had a small goatee, and there were lines etched into his forehead. She thought about how handsome he must have been as a young man. But there was something abnormal about his right eye, something magnified or distorted by his thick glasses. It was nearly grotesque.
The name Shakespeare and Company made him smile, almost as much, perhaps, as “Sylvia Beach.” He was looking for signs of luck in Paris, and these were auspicious names. As she told him about her bookstore, he pulled a small notebook out of his pocket and held it close to his eyes so he could write down the address. It was heartbreaking. Just then, Joyce jumped at the sound of barking from across the road. She went to the window and saw Spire’s tiny dog bounding after a ball.
“Is it coming in? Is it feerrce?”
She assured Mr. Joyce that the dog did not look at all fierce, and he was certainly not charging toward the library. He had been bitten by a dog on the chin when he was a boy, he explained, and they had terrified him ever since. The great James Joyce was a blushing, trembling man with weak eyes and a fear of dogs. He was adorable.
The next day, Joyce walked into Shakespeare and Company wearing a dark blue serge suit and a black felt hat. He had a slender cane and a regal bearing undercut by dirty canvas shoes. He ambled over to the photographs of Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman, and if she wondered in those brief moments what he thought about her small bookshop, her anxiety was relieved as he sat down in an armchair and asked to join Miss Beach’s lending library. He could afford a subscription for one month.
Sylvia Beach saw Joyce as sensitive and vulnerable. His list of fears included the ocean, heights, horses, machinery and, above all, thunderstorms. As a child, he hid in the cupboard at the sound of thunder, and the tempests seemed to pursue him all his life. Beach remembered him cowering in his hallway during thunderstorms, which he blamed on the preponderance of Parisian radio broadcasts. Beach encouraged Joyce to talk about his troubles, and he had a few to discuss. The apartment that Pound got for Joyce and his family was a small, fifth-floor servants’ flat in Passy. It had one double bed, no bathtub and no electricity. Joyce was in the midst of borrowing a desk, linens, blankets and money. He was also, of course, writing Ulysses, and he believed the strain of writing at night exacerbated his eye troubles.
Joyce sketched a picture of an iridectomy on the back of one of the bookshop’s circulars. He drew two amoeboid circles, one inside the other, and a few erratic scribbles for iris tissue. Sylvia stared at what appeared to be a drawing by an eight-year-old (this was not, after all, Joyce’s medium). He scored five quick lines radiating out from the eye (to signify pain? eyelashes?) and dug the lead of the pencil into the paper as he described the Swiss surgeon’s incisions from the edge of the iris to the margin of the pupil. To clarify, it seems, he drew the eye again—circles, scribbles, slashes and all—though the second time he added a heavy dot on the iris. She kept both drawings.
He claimed his eye surgery in Zurich was poorly timed. They should have waited until the iritis subsided, and the doctor’s haste impaired his vision. Wasn’t it difficult to write? Couldn’t he dictate? That was out of the question, he said. He wanted to be in contact with the words, to shape each letter with his hand. Nora groused about how single-minded he had become with his writing. In the morning, barely awake, his first impulse was to reach for his pencil and paper on the f loor, and his novel would distract him for the rest of the day. He’d stroll out of the house just as Nora was about to serve lunch because he was oblivious to the time. “Look at him now!” she complained to Beach. “Leeching on the bed and scribbling away!” She wished he could have been something other than a writer. Sylvia Beach could not agree.
From THE MOST DANGEROUS BOOK: The Battle For James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Kevin Birmingham.