Martin Gardner, R. I. P.
12 June 2010
Shelf talk
19 June 2010

Tradition and the individual bookseller

beach Today’s guest blogger, Keri Walsh, is the editor of The Letters of Sylvia Beach, a collection of the Shakespeare & Co. doyenne’s correspondence. She’ll be speaking about the book at the Library on Wednesday, June 16 at 19h30.

Sylvia Beach (1887-1962) was the owner of the English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company on the Left Bank, and the first publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).  She grew up Princeton, New Jersey, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, and after spending the First World War as a volunteer agricultural worker in France and a member of the Red Cross staff in Belgrade, she came to Paris to found her legendary bookstore.   At the center of Parisian literary modernism, Beach developed relationships with Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, H.D., and Richard Wright, among many others, and left us with a rich trove of correspondence.

One of these letters, written in 1940 to French bookstore-owner Adrienne Monnier, shows Beach championing American writers to French readers.  One such writer was T.S. Eliot, whom she called “the most fascinating and interesting personality at the present moment,” and whose works, we might be surprised to learn, were not at this point widely available in French translation.  “Want something new?” she asks an imaginary patron of her bookshop, “Fresh arrival” the “Nonsense” poems of T.S. Eliot and his “Practical Cats.  All these cats have a name by which they’re known, a name that they only know, but they never confess, this name.”  Of course, Beach was referring to Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, published in 1939 with an illustration by Eliot himself on the cover.  Beach never would have guessed that four decades later, Andrew Lloyd Webber would immortalize Eliot’s feline protagonists in one of the longest-running musicals of all time.  Together, Beach and Monnier translated Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” When it was published in Monnier’s literary journal Le Navire d’Argent, it was the first of Eliot’s major works to appear in French.

Reflecting on Eliot’s importance at the beginning of the Second World War, Beach wrote “Why, oh why not translate absolutely all the prose of T.S. Eliot?” Beach’s supportive relationships with the major figures of modernism were often mutual.  When her business was threatened by the economic crises of the 1930s, Eliot came to Paris and gave a fund-raising reading at Shakespeare and Company, helping Beach to keep her hub of literary life afloat.

–Keri Walsh

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