Interview with Keri Walsh and Sylvia Whitman

Letters of Sylvia BeachContinuing with the Bloomsday theme, here is a conversation/interview that was first published on the excellent site Maitresse between Keri Walsh, editor of The Letters of Sylvia Beach, Sylvia Whitman, the present-day owner of the legendary Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Company, and Lauren Elkin, the editor of Maitresse. They began their conversation talking about the “Lost Generation.”

Sylvia Whitman: People come here to Paris with their dreams and aspirations, ready to be inspired. That in itself makes for a very interesting atmosphere, because people are just coming at your with their projections and their ideas, and that obviously can also include disappointment, or cliché, or whatever, but I love it, I think it’s quite magical. 
And also– as with every cliché, there’s a reason behind it. There’s such an amazing, rich, literary history here, there’s just no doubt about it. 

Keri Walsh: Paris lives up to that. 

Lauren Elkin: But if there are all these people projecting their literary dreams onto Paris and everything, you’re sort of the screen– not that you’re a blank screen or anything, but you didn’t choose this heritage. The fact that we’re sitting here having this conversation is because your father projected this history onto you when he named you after Sylvia Beach. That’s got to put you in an odd position. 

SW: Actually, when I first came back in 2003, my dad wrote this piece, which is very nicely written and everything, but the headline was “Sylvia Beach is back in Paris.” And he handed it out to people in the shop when I was there. And I was mortified by this. So embarrassed. And he didn’t see anything wrong with it, he thought it was really funny, and he said, “well I named you after her, of course, this is just my way of celebrating you coming back and wanting to work in the bookshop.” So it meant something really different to him from what it meant to me. But I was mortified. I kept trying to get them back from customers who were walking off with them, saying “No! I’m not Sylvia Beach!” 

LE, to SW: You have a theatrical background, though; do you ever feel you have to draw on it to get into the role of doyenne of Shakespeare and Company? 

SW: Well– when you’re in bookselling, so often you’re able to hide behind a book, it’s not really you in the limelight. But there are a few moments when I’ve felt that way. Like when I had to introduce Paul Auster in front of 700 people, that was a really nerve-wracking experience, I had to draw on all my training.

KW: You have a background in theatre? 

SW: I didn’t ever think of going into bookselling, I just wanted to go into theatre– I was just obsessed. In school I did a lot of Oscar Wilde, and Chekhov, and Shakespeare — The Importance of Being Earnest, I played that many times– and then at university I did a lot of theatre. When I started at the bookshop, my plan was still always to go back to do theatre, but then I started really enjoying being in the bookshop, and Dad was like [imitating her father] “why do you want to go back to London and work in the theatre when this is a theatre, you could be a star… behind the till!” 

KW: Just like the first Sylvia. Her sister Cyprian acted in silent films, and they shared a theatrical sense of life. The interior of Shakespeare and Company was arranged like a stage set. Beach knew how to create an ambiance. A newspaper article from 1924 said that “Miss Beach’s bookshop is essentially a ‘character’ store, the brown burlapped walls, the grotesque Chinese goldfish, the pair of brass scales (just as tho books were sold by the pound, as they were in the olden days), and the feeling of old wood, homeliness, comfort, always clean without being shiny. But Sylvia Beach is the principal character.” 
Beach was always going to concerts and to the theatre. In 1904, she met the dancer Loie Fuller, who gave her a ticket to see her famous radium dance at the Moulin Rouge. Beach even costumed herself to sell books. She had these little Wildean velvet blazers made for herself, you know: in the pictures you can see her wearing them, along with decadent 1890s ties. She’s trying on the Wildean aesthetic to create this lifestyle. 

SW: The impression that I get of her bookshop (and certainly of ours as well), and what we have in many good, quirky independent bookshops is very much a theatrical atmosphere, because the type of people that come in are so extraordinary. Bibliophiles are such interesting people, and often quite eccentric– you get this real array, an extraordinary collection of characters. 

KW: I think you’re right; I haven’t encountered many spaces outside the theatre world where there’s this unique blend of tolerance and intimacy. It seems that Shakespeare and Company was one of these places. Sylvia Beach fondly recalled the days, before she opened her store, when she lived near the Palais Royal Theatre (“where the naughtiest plays in Paris were put on”) . She loved spending time amidst the acrobats and theatre folk. She was drawn to that carnival world, and so was Adrienne Monnier, who wrote beautiful essays about circus and cabaret. Her attraction to the theatre led Beach to value people as characters, rather than judging them according to their social status. 

SW: Also I remember thinking, when I was getting to know the way my dad had put the bookshop together, that he ran it a bit like a boat– 

KW: That’s another good metaphor. Life aboard ship. 

SW: He was the captain, and he always had his tea lady, and he always had a house mother, and he always had his crew, who all had their roles. And these roles would be taken by different people every now and then, someone would leave and then someone else would become house mother! Like a cast of characters. Especially the writers who would hang out in the shop. 
 I’ve met lots of people who have talked about making a film of her, of that era, but how difficult it would be, to have character, story, development– it would be too much! How could you? 

KW: I agree. There would be a lot of different elements you’d have to balance—her work for the Red Cross in Serbia, her friendships with Richard Wright and H.D., her relationship with Adrienne Monnier. But I have to admit that for me, Beach’s passionate admiration for James Joyce as a person and artist is still the central mystery of her life. I don’t find it surprising that she loved Adrienne Monnier, that makes perfect sense, but that she gave ten years of her life to Joyce in spite of such great odds and difficulties—I don’t fully understand it yet. If there’s a dramatic story to be told, if there is a play by Tom Stoppard or Peter Shaffer in this, that is the story. Understanding the motive for her all-consuming dedication to Joyce.

SW: That’s what I think is interesting about her memoir, outside of her relationship with all these writers. She’s quite polite about everyone, and you get the sense that there were layers behind that. Whereas the letters show more, don’t they. 

KW: They’re less circumspect. I think maybe because they were written on the fly, and were addressed to particular people. She wasn’t thinking of an audience. The tone is more insouciant than the one we find in her memoir Shakespeare and Company.

SW: She lets herself go a lot more in the letters, whereas in the memoir she’s quite restrained. 

KW: I agree. But even when I was re-reading the memoirs this week, I was struck by how well-written, how entertaining they are. She solves the problem of writing about this big cast of characters by giving everyone a little section of their own. She figured out how to write about this cast of characters. James Laughlin, the New Directions publisher who wrote the introduction to Beach’s memoirs, says he borrowed the style for his own memoirs. 

SW: She headed every section with a name, so it’s a series of vignettes, you know, like Bryher, and Hemingway, and he borrowed that style. 

KW: I know she didn’t write very much, and that’s a pity, but what she did write is lovely. She gave us some of the most vivid anecdotes we have about Joyce. I love her stories about how he was afraid of dogs and would cower during thunderstorms. It’s just so funny and endearing, what she captures. 
Without airing people’s dirty laundry, she still gives something that feels personal and honest, that isn’t the canned answer. She goes off-script, but without violating people’s privacy. 

SW: She seems to pick a very simple moment with someone that gives us a really good understanding of that person. It’s very subtle. 

KW: Exactly, like when she meets Joyce, she recalls telling him the name of her bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. He takes out a pen and paper to note it down, and it makes her sad to see him holding the book so close to his eyes, because of his failing vision. Also I love her letters to Robert McAlmon, who’s this walking party, a charismatic wastrel. She liked him very much but worried about the way he squandered his talent. She wrote to him on one of his world tours, “That’s funny about your starting an American colony there. I didn’t see that in the Tribune. But you always do seem to found a new settlement wherever you go. And bars soon spring up. Anyhow Paris has never been as much fun as when you were here.” 

LE: What I was surprised by was the degree to which Sylvia relied on her family and friends to get the shop up and running– her mother of course provided the funding, and she kept writing to her sisters to send books, and she talks so much about how much guidance she received from Adrienne on how to be a bookseller, not to mention administrative assistance. I had this idea of Sylvia Beach as this forceful woman with a vision, but the letters reveal something quite different. 

SW: I think a lot of people have that idea of her. She gives this impression of having done so much, and you just never imagine any moment of weakness starting out, because she accomplished so much. 

LE: Yes, and the letters really highlight what a collaborative effort her bookshop was. So I thought I would ask Keri to talk about the role of the network for Sylvia and her cast of characters, and Sylvia, if you could talk about how that collaborative idea comes into play at the present-day Shakespeare and Company? 

KW: One of the reasons I’m glad the letters are out there is they show us how folksy and lively and impromptu everything was. Her bookstore was built on family and friendships rather than on any kind of business model. One thing her letters reveal is just how charming and witty Beach really was. Sometimes I think that in the biographies of other people, Beach tends to come across as this kind of hardworking, administrative schoolmarm or something. But she didn’t find herself at the spiritual heart of modernist Paris because of good shorthand skills. She led with personality and vision.

Sylvia Beach was very gracious, always looking to credit other people for their role in her successes. Sometimes that gets lost in literary biographies, because great writers tend to be megalomaniacs. But Beach wasn’t a writer, and she wasn’t a megalomaniac either. She was always writing thank you letters to people, and making everyone feel part of the enterprise, and being very diplomatic, and coaxing people into things; I think of her primarily as someone with extraordinary social skills. Someone described her shop as a “merveille”– it was a place where people felt good. She listened to people and took care of them. The person she owed most to, I think, was Adrienne Monnier. She helped her navigate the red tape of doing business in a foreign country, and taught her how to run a bookstore, and advised her about publishing and translating.

LE: It gives us a new way of thinking about the relationships between these writers. You often see these really cheesy articles written about Literary Paris in the 20s but what they don’t explain is– how did all these people supposedly know each other? As the myth goes, they all hung out together at La Coupole or something. But it’s a very superficial reading of the actual relationships between these people, which were maintained through this network of letters and dinners, that we see Beach helping to facilitate. 

SW: Also, like the so-called Beat generation, they didn’t know that they were supposed to be a “generation.” They had no sense of themselves as a group. These terms came much later, and were projected onto the past. 

KW: [to SW] And so what do you have to say about teamwork in your shop? 

SW: Well, I’ve always felt how lucky I was to come into a bookshop that was already established, that had a name, a clientele. Particularly in France, which is quite a bureaucratic country as we know, I think it must be such a headache to start something up. So it’s extraordinary that she managed to get everything together. You really would have to rely on someone like Adrienne Monnier for advice. So I often reflect on that, on how difficult it must have been for her, or even for George [Whitman] to start up. I definitely think that in the bookshop where it is very much a community, you have to have a small community of people who are running it. It’s not very difficult to do that in an intimate bookshop. Most of the people who work there are not punching out at 5 o’clock. They’re actually really interested in meeting writers, in writing a review for a book they just read. It’s such a milieu full of passionate people. They do tend to be very dedicated. 

KW: We talked about the parallels to the theatre, and to the ship, but the other one is the alternative university, people can learn from each other, speaking to each other, having these exchanges– 

SW: That was very important for Sylvia Beach as well– 

KW: Yes, to be this Common Reader. There are just so few places in the world like that, but this place has that feeling, that lovers of books are here because they want to talk about them. 

SW: My father’s always been really loud about that– that the first floor’s not commercial, it’s for people to sit and read, that’s why we have chairs everywhere, that books are one of the most democratic things in the world, and anyone should be able to have access to books. 
That sounds a bit like Google, doesn’t it, what I just said! I just fell into the trap! 

KW: I think it’s not a cliché, because it’s the easiest thing in the world to be snobby about books. But we have to continue what Sylvia Beach did, which is to think that the next James Joyce could be coming in from anywhere, not necessarily from an Ivy League school or from Oxbridge. You have to look at everyone as a potential talent, or a potential reader. And remembering that, and having faith in the world, so few of these spaces exist. I was at another one recently, the Brecht Center in New York. I went to see a production of Antigone there, and it’s right on the West Side Highway, it’s the weirdest location, and they have this 30s style Brecht Forum banner and once you go in there, it’s all these free books– 

LE: Free books? 

KW: Yes, and reading groups, where you can study Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit over the course of ten weeks, with other people who just feel like reading it! And I thought to myself, this is one of the coolest places I’ve seen. And I also love Bluestockings bookstore in New York. These kinds of intellectual spaces are unusual. 

SW: That’s something that I feel Dad was very influenced by Sylvia Beach– in terms of being a library, and very open to people, also this idea of what you were saying about the next James Joyce being from any kind of background. Some of the people he’d have coming in were sort of phony, but he didn’t care, because they were saying that they were writers, and they had self-published something, and so he was like “Come in, come in! Here’s my bed!” 

KW: The world doesn’t treat writers like this, I think that’s why people love Shakespeare and Company, where they say “this is our priority: art!” 

SW: France does that too, isn’t that true? Writers have this god-like status here. Paul Auster, for example, who spends a lot of time here, he’s always commenting on this. He can’t get over the fact that– 

LE: He’s like a rock star here. 

Yes! He can’t get over the fact that writers are sort of worshipped here. 

LE: The government gives a serious amount of subventions [grants] to writers… 

KW: Even international writers? 

LE: I don’t know, I haven’t really looked into it. 

SW: Maybe you have to be writing in French, I presume… 

KW: So many people– actors, musicians– say France is where they come to feel good about themselves as artists, and this was true for Joyce too. Beach wrote to Harriet Weaver that French writers embraced Joyce with open arms, and he never felt that he could get that kind of reception in Ireland. 

LE: There’s this funny moment where she says to Richard Wright, I think, “sorry that that little bookseller made you sit down and sign books, all the French writers know to say no!” Because today it’s just the opposite– they make writers sit for hours and sign books! 

SW: They do! It’s really weird, they don’t even do any readings! 

LE: They sit the writer down at a table with a stack of books and people queue up. 

KW: It sounds so boring. 

LE: It’s kind of changing now– now, of course, the trend is for, like, textes et voix—having actors come in and read the texts— 

KW: That is such a good idea. 

SW: They did a lot of that at Paris en Toutes Lettres. 

LE: Yeah, exactly. And for Festival America this year they’re planning on doing a lot more of that as well… that’s really the direction that French readings are going in, I think. That’s what I wrote about in the Five Dials piece [for which I interviewed Sylvia last year], about this new “eventiness” on the literary scene in France, the turn toward combining different arts together, to make it more interesting and dynamic for the public, rather than just, like [miming a writer about to sign a book] “to whom?” 

LE [to SW]: Do you want to tell us a little bit about Paris Magazine? It looks great, especially the cover. 

KW: Very stylish. Are you doing another edition? 

SW: We’ll see… it’s an experiment. 

KW: Who’s the primary editor? 

SW: Fatema Ahmed, who was at Granta for 10 years. 

KW: So it may continue… 

SW:… to be discussed. 
It’s funny because Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who’s a close friend of ours, over the last few years he’s been asking us a lot– every time I see him– he gets into a fury, “why are you wasting time, it’s so logical to have a publishing house, you’ve already got a bookshop!” He actually gets annoyed. He says “All you’ve got to do is publish one book a year, you don’t have to publish a whole catalog!” and distribution is actually really easy now, these big companies that you can just sort of loop in with, and for him it’s sort of very black and white. 

KW: I always felt that way reading Sylvia’s letters. I kept thinking like a business person, wishing she would take advantage of the momentum she had created. I thought to myself, “OK, Sylvia, you just published Ulysses, and now you’ve got the world’s attention, quick, now publish Lady Chatterley’s Lover! 

SW: I’m so surprised that she didn’t. But she was really a one-man show, though, wasn’t she. 

KW: All I can think is yes, she was obviously the kind of person who worked from love, and she didn’t love Lady Chatterley’s Lover, that’s for sure. I think the book just put her off. But it’s interesting because it goes to show the extent to which she wasn’t thinking about profit. It obviously would have been a great business move to publish Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or to publish some more great modernist works– 

SW: Henry Miller applied to her, didn’t he? 

KW: And William Carlos Williams sent her a manuscript. She didn’t make the strategic moves that would have made her rich. And that’s one of the reasons I love her. 

LE [to SW]: So then what was the impulse to do a literary journal? 

SW: I do feel very interested in that idea, and I really see exactly why Lawrence says it’s such a good idea; he feels that independent bookshops like this are very much a space where things are happening, and you can tap into a certain energy. The only reason he published Howl is because Ginsberg read in the bookshop and people went wild. And he didn’t want to be a publisher before that, but he felt like this had to be out there. And so I think that’s really inspiring. I love the format of City Lights, you go there and they have a mezzanine with the publishing house on the first floor, you can hear them practically editing while you’re looking at an amazing stock of books, it’s such an interesting space! 

KW: It’s like being in a butcher shop when the sausages are being made. The books are being made to order as you buy them! 

SW: Yes! 

KW: There are few enough places like this that could introduce a writer to the world, and the world would listen. And it’s nice to use that voice that you have to present people to the public. 

LE: Is there anyone you’re really excited about in the magazine? 

SW: It’s such a weird mix of things, which we did on purpose– we thought that represents what the bookshop is. We’ve got different voices, something that’s kind of like Lydia Davis from Jesse Ball, and a note on reading from Jeanette Winterson, and a new poem translation from Ferlinghetti– so it’s a real mix of people you’ve never heard of next to established writers, poetry, to something completely random. I love the Tumbleweed biographies [“Tumbleweeds” is Shakespeare and Company slang for the writers who pass through the bookshop and stay the night]– I put a lot of work into that, and contacted a bunch of the Tumbleweeds who used to stay in the bookshop in the 50s and 60s, and had a real moving encounter with each of them. So that’s probably my favorite, because there’s so much history behind that. 

LE: It’s funny, Sylvia Beach had her “bunnies,” and you have your Tumbleweeds. 

SW: I call them the Troubleweeds, when they get drunk. 

KW: I love the idea of putting established and unestablished writers together, because trying to break in is hard, and there are so few journals where Jeanette Winterson could appear alongside someone you’ve never heard of. I can’t even think of one. 

SW: To me it feels totally the normal way to do it. But it’s true it’s not very common. 

KW: If you wanted to go on with the revue it seems like that could be one of its unique strengths.

LE: So I guess to wrap up we can come back to this idea of comparing Sylvia Beach’s literary Paris with Sylvia Whitman’s literary Paris– how has it changed? You’ve probably been asked this a thousand times. 

SW: I think that goes back to what we were talking about in the beginning– I come across a lot of people here who are hopeful Hemingways, and aspiring Kerouacs, and they come with these dreams and aspirations, and it does put into question what the scene is now, it makes you compare it — 

[We are interrupted because a customer has found a first edition Henry Miller in the outside bin under a tarp. “It’s a mistake,” Sylvia tells Lauren, who is working at the till and has come in to ask why they’re selling a first edition Henry Miller from under a tarp. “It must be from upstairs. It’s not for sale.” She comes back in and shrugs. “That happens a lot.”] 

SW: People come as if that world of the 20s still exists, and inevitably they find that it doesn’t, and I think we really romanticize how it was, don’t we? But I find it an interesting question, that we’re often asked, and I never know how to answer it, because we’re still discovering what’s happening now. The internet, and our different attitude toward traveling– those things have really transformed the way we think about movement, and where people physically are. Even early in the early 50s, there must still have been this sense of “I’m in Paris,” which was a big deal, and “I’m going to call up these people”– Ferlinghetti told me when he first came here in the 40s he telephoned Gertrude Stein! And said “I’m an American in Paris, can I come and see you?” and he went round. And he would do that now. 

There’s still a sense that if you have a friend of a friend who’s a writer here you might drop them an email. But you’re not going to cold call Mavis Gallant or Nancy Huston to say “Hi, I just moved to Paris, can I come and see you?” 

KW: There’s also that socio-economic component, which is that it was advantageous for Americans to be here in the 1920s, because of the exchange rate. You could actually come here to save money, and it was the same with the people who came on the GI Bill, those were people from across the class spectrum of America, who could come and actually make a life in Paris– 

SW: That’s Ferlinghetti and my dad, they were both on the GI Bill. 

Absolutely, and it’s a totally different story from now, I mean, I imagine if we polled the Americans who are here now they were be largely college-educated, middle class people. And so it might be interesting to think where aspiring artists can afford to live. 

SW: Well look at Paris— the artists are going out to Montreuil— 

LE: Or Berlin. 

SW: Or Berlin, yeah, that seems to be where a lot of things are happening, it’s a lot cheaper for the space that you get. I think now we’re onto a different level now, with blogging and twittering and the internet. But it’s so new, we still have yet to discover what kind of an effect that’s going to have on writing. 

KW: Writing the history of the present is so hard. People keep asking me, what are the comparable artistic communities to the 1920s and I say I don’t know. We’ll see in 20 years. 

SW: I guess now it revolves around the N+1 or McSweeney’s … there are still trends and groups, but it’s not as strong and striking as the modernist movement… But then as we were saying before, they weren’t really a group. We’re talking about them even now as if they felt themselves to be a group. 

KW: And one thing I think is really interesting about Sylvia Beach is how she didn’t conform to any of the stereotypes of 1920s Paris. She wasn’t a drinker, she wasn’t having multiple love affairs, she was discreet— even though she was a bohemian— 

LE: She was a cross-dressing lesbian… 

KW: Ok we’ll give her that. But maybe one reason she’s so beloved is because she domesticates that figure in a way that makes it much less threatening for people, because she still conforms to most of our ideas of decency or good behavior, as opposed to somebody like Anais Nin or Simone de Beauvoir who are living these really challenging lives, polyamorous, incestuous. Beach never did anything like that. 

SW: And that’s perhaps why she was such a good bookseller, to use a word that you used before, she’s diplomatic, and very grounded. Writers often have difficult egos, difficult personalities, and she managed to deal with all of that by being this kind of neutral force. 

KW: And it’s funny to think of the people she kind of clashed with, like Gertrude Stein, I think Stein perceived her as a threat, this rival American woman down the road who had this public salon, which was quite different from Stein’s private, elitist one, sometimes even anti-feminist one. Beach once commented that she and Monnier didn’t practice the “cruelty to wives” that they observed at Stein’s. So we’re back to this idea of truly trying to have a space that’s open to people along different lines of gender, race, and class. 

LE: But finally she loved her male writers, Sylvia Beach, and did most of her promoting for them… just think of that scene Beach describes, with Hemingway and Stephen Spender doing a double reading in 1937 at a table littered with bottles of beer and whiskey. 
So macho. I love that image, though!

SW: Me too, I love it! 

LE: Maybe we can get Martin Amis and Nam Le to split a bottle of whiskey at the festival this weekend. 

SW: I don’t think that would be difficult to arrange. 

KW: This is what I was so grateful to Jeanette Winterson for, because the Times Literary Supplement reviewer wrote “Sylvia Beach loved her blue-eyed boys.” True. But I love how Jeanette Winterson came back with a piece in the Times reminding everyone about “Her French lover, Adrienne Monnier.” We can’t fall into the idea that Beach wasn’t really a Left Bank lesbian because she didn’t talk about her sex life in her letters. And I love how Winterson broke the silence and came out and said, come on, with Sylvia Beach, we’re talking about a major chapter of gay history. 

[At this point we brought the chat to an end; Sylvia had to get back to last minute work for the festival, and Keri had left her husband writing upstairs in the bookshop. Sylvia Beach would have approved.] 

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