In February 1922, just on the day of his 40th birthday, James Joyce could breathe easy. Ulisesthe work to which he had dedicated seven years of his life, had finally been published. The novel, which today is a classic of modern literature, for a time received negative after negative from publishers, who considered the work inappropriate (in the US it was even banned for “obscene”).
The fate of Joyce and her novel changed when Sylvia Beach crossed her path, known in the literary field for running the Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company. James Joyce’s odyssey to publish Ulises it ended when he met her.
Sylvia was born in Baltimore in 1887, but spent part of her childhood in Paris, as her father, a Presbyterian minister, had been assigned to work in the American Church in Paris. After a few years itinerant she — she returned to the United States, came back and traveled through Europe, lived in Spain… —, in 1916 he settled permanently in the French capital and began his studies in literature.
His interest in books was not limited to the classroom and whenever he had occasion I wandered the streets of Paris, strolling between the warped shelves of the oldest bookstores and the street stalls with bargain books. Thus she met Adrienne Monnier, founder of La maison des amis des livres (The House of Book Friends) and a decisive person in Sylvia’s life.
Convinced by Adrienne, in 1919 he launched his own book store, Shakespeare and Company, at 12 rue de l’Odéon. The establishment soon became the meeting point for writers and would-be writers, the place to see and be seen.
The bookstore specialized in books in English and it was common to see Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein, Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway through its corridorsone of the many Americans who had settled in Paris fleeing the United States in the Prohibition years.
The lost generation, as Hemingway baptized the hopeless writers of the interwar period, found its place in this little corner crowded with books and paintings and run by a petite woman “with brown eyes, alive as those of a little animal, and cheerful as those of a girl”, as the writer described her in his book Paris was a party.
“My book will never come out”
In an interview given in 1962, a few months before his death, Sylvia Beach recounted how her friendship with James Joyce was forged (a relationship with lights and shadows) and how she became the editor of Ulises.
The same day they met at a party in Paris, the Irish writer, recently arrived in France, told her about his ambitious work and the constant obstacles he was facing trying to publish it. “We had a conversation and he seemed very interested in my bookstore, he asked me for the address and wrote it down. I had never seen anyone so interesting or funny, as well as sensitive”, he said in this interview broadcast on television on the occasion of the inauguration in Dublin of the James Joyce Tower.
“My book will never come out,” Joyce told Beach. The Irishman was deeply troubled by the news from the United States. The independent literary magazine The Little Reviewrun by editors Margaret Caroline Anderson and Jane Heap, had serialized a few chapters of Ulisesan affront to the oppressive morality of those years.
The controversy aroused among those who considered the content of the novel inappropriate triggered the ban on publishing the work in the United States when considering it “obscene”; and the possibility of finding any open doors for Joyce seemed remote.
One day, on one of her visits to the bookstore, Sylvia saw the brooding writer and offered him a solution: “Would you like me to publish Ulises?”, I ask. “I would like to,” replied the Irishman in a conversation recalled by the bookseller. Beach paid all the costs and kept nerves at bay as James Joyce added chapters, deleted paragraphs, and made last-minute changes. in the galley proofs of the thick manuscript of more than 700 pages.
Ulises it hit Parisian shelves on February 2, 1922, the same day as the writer’s 40th birthday. However, the novel was banned in the United States and Great Britain until the 1930s. Although censorship backfired: it increased interest in the book and made it smuggled across borderswhere the intercepted specimens were destroyed.
Endorsed by his readers, Joyce finally achieved her long-awaited publishing contract when in 1934 Random House offered her to publish the novelbeing the first authorized edition in the United States.
While Ulises became the most sought after book in Paris, Sylvia continued to head Shakespeare and Company. The economic crisis of the 1930s was the beginning of the end of the establishmentwhich ended up closing its doors during the Nazi occupation.
In 1941, Sylvia Beach was arrested and sent to a concentration camp, where she remained for six months.. Before being arrested, she had hidden all the books to protect them from German troops. After her captivity, she returned to Paris and lived in hiding until the defeat of the Nazi army, when she was freed by Hemingway, another incredible anecdote in the amazing life of Sylvia Beach.
Today, only the name remains of the bookstore. In 1951 the American George Whitman opened the Shakespeare and Company bookstore on rue de la Bûcherie, named after Sylvia Beachthe publisher without whom one of the masterpieces of universal literature would not have existed.
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Sylvia Beach, the editor without whom James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ would not exist – Forbes Spain
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