The Paris Bookseller is the latest novel by KERRI MAHER, author of The Kennedy Debutante and The Girl in the White Gloves.
As AKINA HANSEN writes, it’s a compelling story about the woman behind the original Shakespeare and Company bookshop – Sylvia Beach.
In the 1920s an influx of American writers, referred to as the Lost Generation, arrived in the city of Paris. Dispirited by the destruction of World War I, these writers sought refuge from their increasingly conservative and divisive home in the ‘States’.
At the time, the city of Paris was a bohemian epicentre that welcomed and nurtured modern liberal ideas and arts. One such place that held significant status as a haven for artists was Shakespeare and Company, an English bookstore and lending library that would go on to make history for publishing the first edition of James Joyce’s book Ulysses.
The Paris Bookseller by author Kerri Maher, follows the remarkable beginnings of Shakespeare and Company and the woman behind it – Sylvia Beach.
‘Sylvia Beach’s story is actually one I’ve been carrying around with me since college,’ Kerri shares.
When Kerri was an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley, she was enamoured with the writers and subculture that came out of the 1920s – fortuitously she stumbled upon Sylvia’s memoir at a college bookstore and when she realised it featured the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F Scott Fitzgerald, she was immediately drawn to Sylvia’s story.
‘It kind of went into my brain as “good to know”, and it’s actually remarkable to me that it took me this long to realise that she deserved her own novel,’ she says.
In 2019, Kerri revisited the story of Sylvia Beach two decades after first stumbling upon her memoir in college.
‘You know, sort of understanding her story again, from the perspective of 25 years after reading her memoir, for the first time, I think I was able to sort of really understand what she was up against a lot better.’
She visited Paris in August of 2019 and ‘through the magical algorithm that is Airbnb’ James Joyce’s flat was advertised in the area she was hoping to stay. James Joyce and his family had borrowed the flat from a French poet named Valery Larbaud and lived there in 1921 while he was writing Ulysses.
In a fortuitous turn of events, Kerri ended up staying there and immersing herself in the streets that Sylvia Beach, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce would have frequented.
Strong female figures are a mainstay in Kerri’s fiction – she is the author of two other historical fiction novels, The Girl in the White Glove, and The Kennedy Debutante, which look at the lives of Grace Kelly and Kathleen Kennedy respectively.
‘I think, in the case of each of these three women, Kit Kennedy, Grace Kelly, and now Sylvia Beach, there’s always something about their story that feels very compelling and even modern to me.’
The Paris Bookseller follows the early life of Sylvia Beach – from making the leap to move permanently from America to Paris, through to her successful career as a bookseller and publisher, and dives into her personal relationships.
‘I discovered that she was a lesbian and in a very long marriage-like partnership with a woman named Adrienne Monnier, who owned the French language bookstore and lending library across the street from hers on the rue de l’Odeon. Adrienne’s store was really the inspiration for Shakespeare and Company,’ Kerri tells me.
Adrienne’s bookstore, La Maison des Amis des Livres and Sylvia’s Shakespeare and Company formed a unit that they referred to as Odeonia, which ultimately brought like-minded artists and book lovers together.
‘I think Odeonia was kind of safe because it was two women who were a couple, they were a lesbian couple, and they themselves were living an alternative lifestyle. So, I think that predisposed both of them to be open and welcoming to people of all walks of life; all colours, all creeds.’
In 1791, following the French Revolution, homosexuality was decriminalised and, according to Kerri, this in turn contributed to a more tolerant culture.
‘Paris had always been kind of a bastion for same sex couples, cabarets … you know, gay cabarets, and everything flourished in Berlin, but they had to be underground in a way they didn’t have to be in Paris.’
Over the course of her novel, we follow Sylvia and her blossoming relationship with Adrienne, which, interestingly, isn’t met with any confrontation.
‘One of the things that I intuited, but I had to research to make sure, was that Sylvia and Adrienne were able to live fairly openly, perhaps not openly in the way that we would think of it today as there were different social mores. But the concept of the closet didn’t really come into being until the ’30s.’
The Paris Bookseller is set on a backdrop of significant social and political change, spanning from 1917 to 1936 – with the likes of the suffragette movement, prohibition, and the great depression informing this book.
Sylvia Beach’s story is compelling and inspiring, particularly when we consider the period in which she lived
When the National Prohibition Act took effect in 1920 – prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages – it marked a significant period of regulation and censorship in America.
Between 1918 and 1920, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, the editors of the literary magazine The Little Review partly serialised Ulysses. The two women were subsequently charged with obscenity under the 1873 Comstock Act due to the descriptions of intimate scenes in the novel and stood trial and were found guilty in 1921.
Ironically, the book was banned to ‘protect’ women and their delicate sensibilities, yet it was in fact women who led the campaign to get Ulysses published – with Kerri noting, ‘the people who were really willing to put their livelihoods and reputations on the line were women.’
‘Although this novel was written by a man, they all saw it as the future of literature, you know, the internal monologue style, the candid frankness with which he represents all bodily functions, all of that was startling to readers and exciting and new. These women really embraced it and they made it the future,’ Kerri says.
In The Paris Bookseller, the banning of Ulysses inspires Sylvia to fight against censorship and, over the course of the novel, we follow her journey as she navigates her demanding personal and professional relationship with Joyce and, in turn, Ulysses.
Sylvia Beach’s story is compelling and inspiring, particularly when we consider the period in which she lived – in America the 19th Amendment had only just taken effect in 1920, giving white women the vote just a year prior to Sylvia’s publishing endeavour.
As Kerri points out, ‘We don’t expect women from 100 or more years ago to be living independently, entirely on their own away from their families of origin, creating a whole new life for themselves overseas, starting a business, two businesses: the bookstore as well as the publishing arm of Shakespeare and Company. And so her story, I think, is inspirational to women of all times.’
Sylvia was indeed an inspiration to many women, and her legacy continues to live on in the minds of those like Kerri who understand the significance of independent bookstores and libraries.
‘This novel is my love letter to independent bookstores,’ she tells me and, importantly, adds that, ‘Shakespeare and Company was as much a library as a bookstore. So, in addition to readers taking away the importance of bookstores, I would also like for them to take away the importance of libraries as meeting places of writers, readers, children, librarians and people of all ages and colours who can read for free.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I’ve lived on both coasts, and currently call Massachusetts home. I live near Boston, and love all the museums and long, leafy walks this part of the world provides, but if you ask me where I’m from, I’ll always say California.
I live in Massachusetts just west of Boston but I’ll always identify myself as a California girl because my parents are native Californians and live there still, and I spent the formative years of sixth grade through college in the state. But the truth is, I’ve actually lived more of my life on the East Coast, which is still partly my parents’ fault for living the first eight years of my life in Dover, MA.
I also lived for six years in Brooklyn, NY, where I ate really well, and cheaply, and shopped at awesome thrift shops (sigh; I still miss it sometimes). During those New York years, I also got my MFA at Columbia, and my first teaching gig as a grad student instructor in the Undergraduate Writing Program there. I taught writing for eight years, starting as a grad student, then as a lecturer at Fairleigh Dickinson University in NJ, before moving to MA and having a baby and changing my life yet again.
These days, I write full time and hang with my daughter Elena. Together, we love taking advantage of everything the Boston area has to offer–trips to the Museum of Fine Arts, apple picking, traipsing around the Boston Common, and soaking up the history in Concord and Sturbridge Village.