As a student of Modernist literature, reading through Sylvia Beach’s memoirs gives a glance into the most human characteristics of some of the seemingly inhuman titans of the era. But as a mere lover of books, these memoirs illustrate a fantasy that can only reach such inconceivable proportions after nearly a century of nostalgia. To think that on any given day Beach might have expected a visit from Paul Valéry, André Gide, James Joyce, Ford Maddox Ford, Jules Romain, or Ernest Hemingway (among others), inspires nostalgia in any reader familiar with the works of the aforementioned authors.
It’s clear that the literary phenomenon which occurred in Paris after World War I is distinct and could not hope to be recreated. American and European authors flocked to Paris to be a part of the cosmopolitan milieu, and Sylvia Beach in her shop “Shakespeare and Company” had the opportunity to befriend and promote the artists whose works would further the Modernist movement throughout the 1920’s.
Beach’s most obvious personal connection was with James Joyce, whose work she deeply admired, and the sole writer that Shakespeare and Company published. The memoir Shakespeare and Company seems like required reading then for any Joyce Scholar, as it gives firsthand account of a friendship with the elusive author, whose novel Ulysses is considered the quintessential Modernist text.
Outside of illustration’s of Joyce’s personality and dispositions, what I found most enlightening in Beach’s memoirs was her descriptions of the author’s daily routines and interactions. It’s difficult to imagine Joyce taking a break from Finnegan’s Wake in order to bring a group of friends to the opera to see John Sullivan as William Tell; or Leon-Paul Fargue making Joyce, Beach, and A. Monnier wait for an hour in a taxi while he stayed in bed writing a poem about cats, but such are the mundane details which can only be recalled by a person who lived in a time and place one never hope to duplicate.