“I understand you are the great James Joyce?” American Silvia Beach’s first words to the great writer is a throwback to the “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” question posed half a century before. When Welsh-American explorer Henry M Stanley asked David Livingstone the question on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1871, the great Scottish physician and missionary had been missing for four years in Africa. Joyce was facing banishment from the world of literature in 1920 after passages from his yet-to-be published book had run afoul with conservatives in America. American author Kerri Maher’s new novel after The Girl in White Gloves (2020) is about an unlikely partnership in publishing between an American bookseller and an Irish literary giant in Paris soon after the First World War. Silvia Beach owns Shakespeare and Company, an English-language bookshop in Paris selling William Faulkner and F Scott Fitzgerald. Joyce is living in the City of Love busy finishing Ulysses. Living in the liberal Paris, Beach is not able to fathom the fate of Ulysses and its author in the country she was born. Exasperated, she proposes to Joyce about publishing the book herself. He agrees.
Nestled between two world wars, the story of Sylvia Beach and Ulysses is an absorbing account of the founding of the famous Shakespeare and Company in Paris in 1920 and its owner’s daring attempt to back a controversial author. It is also about the passion and perils of publishing. The complicated world of creativity is in focus in Maher’s novel, which deals with the fight for artistic freedom in the West at a time of dominating conservative voices. It also shows nothing much has changed a century later, except the main characters. There is now an ongoing war in Europe and bans on books still exist in the world.
Sylvia Beach was different. In love with literature, the young American worked with the Red Cross in the Balkans. Her missionary father had moved his family to Paris, where Beach stayed back to study French literature at the Sorbonne University. Reading Walt Whitman poems and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, she one day stumbles into a French language bookshop owned by a young woman Adrienne Monnier. Soon, there is a bond of affection between Beach and Monnier that would last a lifetime. Encouraged by Monnier, Beach abandons her ambition to become a writer for a bookshop of her own, Shakespeare and Company, selling English language books in Paris.
Paris in the early 20th century was the centre of the cultural universe that was a magnet attracting artists and writers from around the world. Erza Pound and Gertrude Stein were there. So was Joyce. Pablo Picasso lived in the city where Ernest Hemingway was a newcomer. Writers visited bookshops like Monnier and Beach’s that also served as lending libraries and postal addresses of 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, meetings that would stretch into mornings. It was at one such meeting at the home of French poet André Spire that Beach and Joyce had their first encounter. Joyce would go on to become a regular at Shakespeare and Company, spending time with Beach narrating his travails while nursing his health and publishing books.
Maher’s account of Beach’s work in printing, publishing and even smuggling copies of Ulysses into America makes most of The Paris Bookseller. Beach ensures that the printing is world class and receives pre-orders for copies from such famous personalities as TS Eliot, TE Lawrence and Winston Churchill. Even Alfred Knopf wants a copy for his private collection. Meanwhile, George Bernard Shaw writes to Beach saying he can’t buy a copy because Ulysses is “a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilization”. Beach bribes her friend, a female doctor who is typing out pages of Ulysses for the printer, with a copy of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott to emphasise the great work done by women in shaping the world.
As the book reaches the final stages of printing, there are 12 people simultaneously typing pages for the printer so that it could be published by the 40th birthday of Joyce in February 1922. More than three decades later, Beach published her memoir, titled Shakespeare and Company, mostly a portrait of Paris and its army of artists in the early 20th century. The Paris Bookseller, though, is a tribute to Beach’s selfless work in publishing Ulysses. It is a story that was soon forgotten.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer
The Paris Bookseller
Pp 319, Rs 799