The book is entitled The Paris Bookseller. The author, Kerri Maher. It’s a rather insipid, if accurate title, I think, for a novel about the literary event of the twentieth century. I’ve had my struggles handling this epic novel. Its obvious excellence often outdistances my understanding. As for its successor, Finnegan’s Wake, I confess bewilderment. A terrible thing for an English major to say, I suppose, but that’s the way it is. On the other hand, I’ve been enthralled with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man from the first moment I touched it, so I do have some creds. However, of the effort it took to bring Ulysses to readers, I was close to completely ignorant. I knew it ran into censors and legal challenges and that there was enormous opposition to its publication, but I had no idea. I thank Kerri Maher for this engaging, painful, exciting, and often heart-rending tale.
Though Joyce and Ulysses are seemingly at the heart of the story, the novel is multilayered. It opens with young Sylvia Beach and her first visit as an adult to Paris in post WWI. She hasn’t been there since her family had spent some time there when she was a young girl, but in her heart she never left. She’s smart, well-read, and eager for adventure. She’s also a lesbian. This was a heady mixture for someone from sex-repressed America and who was of a revolutionary frame of mind and ready for adventure and romance.
She soon fell in with the literary crowd that frequented the left bank of the era. Hemingway, Dos Passos, Joyce, and a flock of others became her everyday companions. The atmosphere was bilingual, and she soon became enamored of the notion that she might do well to open a bookstore that catered to the English-speaking crowd that was part of the literary mix. Thus was born Shakespeare and Company, sponsored largely by Adrenne Monnier, who was Sylvia’s lover and the owner of a French bookstore that was already famous among the literati.
All well and good, but what about the Ulysses connection? It happened this way: In the midst of composing his epic, Joyce was having a hard time finding a publisher. He and Sylvia had become close friends as well as colleagues by this time. So, Adrienne and Sylvia cooked up a scheme whereby Sylvia would publish this work by a man they loved who wrote the prose they thought would reshape English literature.
We all know the result of their labors, but if you’re as ignorant as I was, what it took to reach the result is astounding. Thus, the layers I spoke of came into play. Sexism, selfishness, betrayal, misogyny, and greed all became characters in the ugly and thrilling drama that unfolded over many years. The book was finally published in 1922. By that time a pirated edition had emerged, which cut into sales and royalties. In the U.S., the case went all the way to the supreme court despite the fact that the book had appeared in various versions all over the world.
I’ll leave it to you to read the book and discover how Sylvia Beach, the original publisher, editor, and mentor of Joyce and his work fared amid all this sturm und drang. If not for her endurance and sensitivity, the story of Ulysses would likely have ended quite differently. Cream rises to the top? Don’t believe it. Not automatically. It needs a lot of help. Thank goodness, in this case, it got what it needed. Of course, the effect on other writers and readers that succeeded the 1922 group is incalculable. And, despite it all, Sylvia lived a rich and relatively long life. When she died 1n 1962 at the age of seventy five, she was still in Paris, still the proprietor of Shakespeare and Company, still unheralded in comparison to all that every reader and writer owes her right down to present day.