SYLVIA BEACH IS an interesting, appealing and decidedly minor figure in 20th-century literary history whose name recurs with some frequency in memoirs and other accounts of the "lost" generation. An American born in 1887, she moved to Paris in 1916 and remained there until her death in 1962. In 1919 she opened what Noel Riley Fitch calls "the first combination English-language bookshop and lending library in Paris," which she called Shakespeare and Company and which she expected to cater primarily to a French clientele. Instead Shakespeare and Company became a gathering place for American expatriates and other foreigners possessing literary interests and/or pretensions; the store fulfilled this role, building up something of a legend around itself in the process, until Beach closed it in 1941 as the Nazi occupation got under way.
Not merely was Beach a bookseller and librarian; she was also, for a brief and difficult but glorious moment, a publisher. In April 1921 she reached agreement with James Joyce to bring out a limited edition of 1,000 copies of his work-in-progress, Ulysses, a book rejected by established publishers because of certain erotic passages that had invited the attentions of censors. The book appeared in February of the next year, to considerable literary and legal furor. Though it subsequently went through several printings, it brought Beach little direct profit; what she gained from it, Fitch writes, "was the increase in business that came to the bookshop and the glamour that accrued from her association with a great author." Beach herself wrote:
"I had to come continually to (Joyce's) rescue with my Ulysses Bank and even with the bookshop cash box. Except for the sums always set aside for the printers bills, everything coming in from Ulysses went Joyceward: how could so much money be advanced to the author without drawing on the publisher's royalties? Owing to this system, I never had to wonder how to invest all this fortune I was supposed to be making with Ulysses. After all, I had my bookshop: and if I had wanted to make money I wouldn't have chosen to make it out of anything that belonged to Joyce. My multiple services to Joyce were free, and I felt more than repaid by the fun I got out of knowing him and collaborating as you might say with him. Nothing could have been more interesting, nor have amused me more than having James Joyce come in and out."
The generosity, honesty and good humor of that passage seem to have been entirely genuine; there seems to have been not a particle of the poseur or the groupie in her, which almost certainly explains why she enjoyed so many eminent friendships and served as confessor to so many gifted but troubled souls. They all came to her store, and apparently they all held her in the highest affection and esteem: Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Ford Madox Ford, Katherine Anne Porter, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Robert McAlmon, John Dos Passos, Kay Boyle, William Carlos Williams, Winifred Bryher, Ezra Pound, Lincoln Steffens. All the usual suspects were there; all of them march through the endless pages of Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation.
Precisely what was in the mind of Noel Riley Fitch as she inflated the small story of Sylvia Beach into this bloated doorstopper of a book is far from clear. My guess is that she decided Beach could not carry the book on her own; going on at length about her more celebrated customers and friends would spice up the tale and give it greater consequence-- hence a book that comes to us not as a mere biography of Sylvia Beach but as "A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties." Whatever the case, Fitch has filled its pages with just about every oft-told tale of Left Bank life in the Jazz Age and Depression. The reader who just got off the boat may find all of this fascinating, but anyone having even a nodding acquaintance with the primary and secondary literature of the period is going to feel that he has been sentenced to watch an interminable succession of reruns: Hemingway boxing! Pound babbling! Fitzgerald boozing! Stein holding court! Zzzzzzzz.
Beyond that, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation is scholarship of the sort that simply cannot allow a piece of research to pass by, no matter how trivial, without committing it to print. The profusion of empty detail, reported with no evident awareness of its meaninglessness, is breathtaking:
"Sylvia Beach's personal relations with those closest to her--those who placed the greatest strain on her-- were always cordial, especially those with her mother. Mrs. Beach, much to Sylvia's relief, left Paris soon after her husband arrived there on what Sylvia called 'a grand tour . . . in behalf of the churches.' Returning from the south of France were Bill and Flossie Williams, for whom Sylvia and Adrienne arranged a dinner with Larbaud, McAlmon, Bryher and H.D. During the meal a shout from the street announced Pound's arrival from Rapallo. When he refused to come up, Williams went down to embrace his old friend and former classmate. The meal had been specifically arranged so that Williams could spend an evening with Larbaud. Years later Williams would write with fond memories of Adrienne's chicken dinner, the white wine, and the thrill of meeting the French writer. He and Larbaud shared an interest in the history of the Americas. He was startled to learn that Larbaud had read Cotton Mather's Marginalia, which he himself had only glanced through, and had written about Bolivar. These discussions with Larbaud were his best moments in France."
One suchhparagraph, to give a sense of Beach's social life, might be useful; but there are scores of them in Fitch's book, so ultimately all they contribute is clutter and--because they contain so much ill- digested information--confusion. Inside this behemoth that Fitch has created there is a small book struggling to get out, but she either did not see it or chose to ignore it. Sylvia Beach had an interesting life. She came from a curious family that gave her, as Fitch observes, "conflicting values"; she had a talent for friendship and a high tolerance for the eccentric temperaments of artists; she had imaginative and unconventional tastes in literature; she maintained a long, apparently happy lesbian relationship with a woman who was herself a bookseller of some consequence; she was imprisoned in a Nazi internment camp and endured it with characteristic good humor. By comparison with the giants who were her friends, her life and its works were of no great consequence; but she was probably better company than most if not all of them, and surely she deserves a miniature but appropriately admiring biography--a book similar in tone and method to Living Well Is the Best Revenge, Calvin Tomkins' portrait of her fellow expatriates, Gerald and Sara Murphy. It is a pity that Noel Riley Fitch, who in some ways seems to understand her quite acutely, has chosen instead to smother her under under a cloud of only marginally pertinent material, with the unhappy result that she disappears in the mists of her own biography.