July 2, 2010
A particularly satisfying moment in James Joyce’s Ulysses occurs in the third episode of the novel, when Stephen Dedalus, unhappily sharing living quarters in a Martello tower in Sandycove with the irreverent Buck Mulligan and miserably holding down a teaching position in a private boys’ school in nearby Dalkey, recalls his sojourn in Paris cut short by a summons to his dying mother’s bedside back in Dublin almost a full year earlier: “My Latin quarter hat. God, we simply must dress the character. I want puce gloves. You were a student, weren’t you? Of what in the other devil’s name? Paysayenn. P.C.N., you know: physiques, chimiques et naturelles. Aha. Eating your groatsworth of mou en civet, fleshpots of Egypt, elbowed by belching cabmen. Just say in the most natural tone: when I was in Paris, boul’ Mich’, I used to.” In light of Stephen’s self-inflating assertion at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—“I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”—this self-deprecating musing on the bohemian pose he struck in Paris is truly refreshing, as he finally shows a capacity to look at himself with a healthy measure of the irony with which Joyce (the artist as an older man) viewed his quasi-autobiographical character in A Portrait.
I was thinking of that moment, among others in Ulysses, during a recent visit to Paris in which I walked a few miles in the footsteps of both the fictional Stephen Dedalus and the real-life expatriate Joyce himself. Probably the best account of Joyce’s several periods of living in “the city of lights” is Richard Ellmann’s magisterial biography of Joyce first published in 1959 and revised in 1982. He devotes parts of two early chapters to Joyce’s first two visits to Paris, several weeks in December of 1902 and then a period from January to April of 1903 which ended abruptly when the artist as a young man received a dismaying telegram from his father: “MOTHER DYING COME HOME FATHER.” These visits provided Joyce with the raw material for Stephen’s recollection of his quickly aborted career as a French medical student as well as for Stephen’s obviously inauspicious start as an expatriate artist.
Introducing Joyce’s next extended visit to Paris, which began in July of 1920, Ellmann writes matter-of-factly: “He came to Paris to stay a week and remained for twenty years.” (Between 1904 and 1920, Joyce had lived variously in Pola, Rome, Trieste, and Zurich.) And that is the point where I really began to trace a few of the steps taken by Joyce—in particular the steps he took relative to the publication, in 1922, of what he called his “damned monster novel”: Ulysses. Specifically, I became intrigued by the story of how Ulysses came to be published by a small bookshop in Paris, Shakespeare and Company, owned by one Sylvia Beach.
Miss Beach (as Joyce always referred to her) has told the tale herself, with simple elegance, in a memoir titled Shakespeare and Company (1959). American born and bred, Beach opened her English-language bookstore and lending library (supported by patron subscription) in 1919 in a former laundry at 8 rue Dupuytren in the heart of Paris’s Left Bank. In 1921, she relocated to a larger space nearby at 12 rue de l’Odéon. At that address she became the center of a literary and artistic coterie that included expatriate American writers Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, photographer Man Ray, and pianist-composer George Antheil. (The dynamic within this circle of friends and acquaintances has been engagingly detailed by Noel Riley Fitch in his book Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties.) But for Beach herself, the history of her bookstore revolves around her relationship with James Joyce, her literary idol before she met him and the focus of much of her energies after she approached him timidly at a dinner gathering hosted by mutual friends: “Trembling, I asked: ‘Is this the great James Joyce?’ ‘James Joyce,’ he replied. We shook hands; that is, he put his limp, boneless hand in my tough little paw—if you can call that a handshake.”
Beach’s account of her friendship and interaction with Joyce is rich in detail: “Joyce’s voice, with its sweet tones pitched like a tenor’s, charmed me. His enunciation was exceptionally clear. His pronunciation of certain words such as ‘book’ and ‘look’ and those beginning with ‘th’ was Irish, and the voice particularly was Irish.” Just as rich is her account of her bold offer to publish Ulysses on the speculation that she would sell a sufficient number of advance subscriptions to book collectors and devoted readers to warrant the printing of 1000 copies of the first edition. William Butler Yeats was foremost among Irish writers to order a copy; George Bernard Shaw declined to do so, concluding a very witty letter by explaining, “I am an elderly Irish gentleman, and if you imagine that any Irishman, much less an elderly one, would pay 150 francs for such a book, you little know my countrymen.” With its many twists and turns of plot, subplot and counterplot, Beach’s telling of how she managed to see Ulysses into print—months later than promised to her subscribers but still in time for an advance copy to be delivered to Joyce’s flat on the morning of his 40th birthday, February 2, 1922—testifies not only to her determination and her ingenuity but even more to her unflagging belief in James Joyce as literary artist.
For me, then, 12 rue de l’Odéon, the address of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop that Joyce frequented on almost a daily basis in the early 1920s, was an essential site of pilgrimage during my visit to Paris. The site is currently marked by a simple plaque that reads: “En 1922, dans cette maison, Melle Sylvia BEACH publia ‘ULYSSES’ de James JOYCE.” While the façade of the shop has changed dramatically, Joyce himself might be pleased, and amused, that the space is now a women’s clothing shop; after all, in the eighth episode of Ulysses, he has Leopold Bloom dally admiringly before a display of women’s silks in the windows of Brown Thomas on Grafton Street in Dublin: “Perfume of embraces all him assailed. With hungered flesh obscurely, he mutely craved to adore.”
Sylvia Beach managed to maintain the Shakespeare and Company bookshop until 1941, coincidentally the year of Joyce’s death in Zurich, where he had returned at the outbreak of World War II. Ultimately, the shop was forced to close during the German occupation of Paris, with the decisive moment being Beach’s rejection of a German officer’s request to purchase her last copy of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which had been published in 1939. Her memoir concludes with the liberation of Paris by American troops and specifically with Ernest Hemingway, “in battle dress, grimy and bloody,” overseeing the elimination of German rooftop snipers from rue de l’Odéon.
And yet Shakespeare and Company lives on in Paris in the name of another bookshop of legendary stature. This one is located on the Left Bank of the Seine almost directly across the river from le Cathédrale de Notre Dame. Owner George Whitman, another American expatriate, opened it as Le Mistral in 1951 but changed the name to honor Sylvia Beach’s memory and legacy after her death in 1962. In large part because of the Joycean association (albeit once-removed), it too has become a place of pilgrimage for literary-minded visitors to Paris. But it also has a unique history and character and charm of its own (including a dozen or so stations where travelers may bed down at night for the price of an hour’s work in the shop). I enjoyed a sojourn in its restful second-floor reading room, reacquainting myself with We’ll to the Woods No More, Stuart Gilbert’s translation of Edouard Dujardin’s novel Les Lauriers Sont Coupés, which Joyce credited as the precursor for the narrative technique of “interior monologue” that he employs in much of Ulysses. But that is a story for another time.
Thomas O’Grady is Director of Irish Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He will be offering a course on James Joyce in the Fall semester of 2010.