When I think about the people, and books for that matter, I most admire almost always there is a depth and complexity that stands out. I’m not only intrigued by the person (or book) but I find myself examining myself and the world. Great people and great books cause us to think about who we are in the world and what the world means to us; more than just interesting they inspire us to search for meaning in our life. Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties by Noel Riley Fitch is just that type of thought-provoking book about an inspiring woman – Sylvia Beach.
I’ll be honest, I’m only a quarter through this book but I’m absolutely loving every minute of it. More than about Sylvia Beach, this book addresses the literary milieu of Paris in the 20’s and 30’s. I find myself getting sidetracked with side research and looking things up. I put down the book to revisit the poetry of Ezra Pound and e.e. cummings. I paused to look up Andre Gide’s work and to discover more about Natalie Barney. Also, I’ve developed a huge interest James Joyce. I’ve read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but this book has kindled an intense desire to read Ulysses; Ulysses has always been on my “I should read that” list and has now been moved to the “I want to read that” list. Obviously, this is a pretty bangin’ book since it has piqued my library nerdness.
But who is Sylvia Beach? Sylvia Beach was an American woman who made her home in Paris. After spending much of her young adult life roaming about Europe, learning new languages and holding all manner of odd jobs (for example, Sylvia was once a volunteer farm worker), Sylvia decided to open a book shop and lending library. Inspired by her good friend and partner Adrienne Monnier’s French lending library and book shop and fueled by her love of literature and language, Sylvia Beach opened up her bookshop and lending library Shakespeare and Company on 17 November 1919. The shop would be instrumental as a gathering place for the Left Bank expatriates (Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, to name a few) and many French writers and intellects of the day (Andre Gide and Paul Valery, for example).
Probably Sylvia Beach greatest contribution to literature was her publication of James Joyce’s highly controversial novel, Ulysses. Banned in America, Ulysses was desperate for a printer and Joyce was turned down by publishers who feared prosecution. Sylvia Beach bravely took on the publication and gave Joyce a free hand in the publication process (meaning that he was able to add as many corrections as he wanted to galley proofs). Because Beach allowed Joyce this freedom many credit her with being responsible for the Ulysses we have today. Fitch quotes a Paris correspondent of The Guardian, “It was in the exercise of this right that the peculiarities of Joyce’s prose style reached their novel flowering (Fitch 106).” Not only did Beach oversee the publication of Ulysses, but she also fueled the publicity and did everything she could to financially support James Joyce.
Sylvia Beach was so much more than a bookshop owner and publisher. She was vivacious, hard-working, stubborn, and a force to be reckoned. I also like all the side stories about Sylvia Beach. For example, she once rescued a drowning pet parrot from the Seine by diving in and grabbing up the flailing bird.
I’m truly loving this book and Fitch is a very talented writer. There is so much detail in this book and yet I never feel bogged down. I noticed on Good Reads that many people complain that this book isn’t a straight up biography of Sylvia Beach — they dislike the interweaving of life stories and the details related to people who aren’t Sylvia Beach. I simply think that those haters must have ignored the subtitle; after all, the book is entitled Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: a History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties. I, for one, enjoy the depth of detail and I’m thrilled with how much I’m learning. I recommend this book to those interested in the Lost Generation, Paris-junkies, and, of course, anyone with one iota of bibliophilia.