It was hard not to feel that Paris was the place.
My response to The Paris Bookseller has been complicated.
I was keen to read it thanks to the blurb which told me it had a Paris setting, a bookshop and Sylvia Beach. That should have been enough. But it wasn’t. The writing was dull and pedestrian, the dialogue was clunky and the romance came across as being sensational rather than realistic. ‘Show not tell’ was not a part of Maher’s repertoire, which meant that I never really engaged with any of the main characters. The famous writers and artists who were a part of Sylvia’s scene never came to life either. They simply wandered in and out the store randomly.
So why did I persist?
I read The Paris Bookseller because it was my August book club choice with the added bonus that it also fitted into Paris in July, however that was the other thing that was missing from this book. Paris. I never once felt like I was in Paris or Europe or the 1920’s. Which is a shame as Maher acknowledged at the end of the book the time she had spent in Paris researching and writing. There were some internal descriptions of Shakespeare & Company and Gertrude Stein’s salon that showed how well researched this novel actually was but Paris itself was just a few addresses and sites.
So really, why did I keep going?
Sylvia and her bookshop and those heady, exciting days in the 1920’s when Paris was alive with literary, artistic and creative life is one of those epochs I love to read about. In this case, the early days of the bookshop was also the time that Sylvia first met James Joyce, which led to her being the first publisher of Ulysses. Fascinating stuff. I didn’t know that Joyce was such a selfish dick!
Maher included a few excerpts from letters between Sylvia and her family and friends, which were fascinating glimpses into the real woman.
I believe that Maher was also trying to show that censorship, prohibition, the curtailing of freedoms such as speech and association, as well as the politics of morality have been a part of American life for a long time. The letters she included from Sylvia’s family and friends back in the US highlighting the ‘moral handwringing‘ that was in evidence in the 1920’s, often read like letters that could have been written in 2022.
Despite the nondescript writing, I ended up finding The Paris Bookseller rather captivating, purely thanks to Sylvia Beach. If you’re after an undemanding, easy to read book for your next holiday and you enjoy historical fiction, then this is the book for you.
What I Found:
- Adrienne Monnier, Beach’s partner for most of the novel had a sister called, Rinette who was married to the painter Paul-Émile Bécat.
- Beach commisioned the portrait of Monnier (below)) and two years later one of herself.
- They were in her possession until she died in 1962.
- They are now part of the Princeton Universtity collection.
- Born Nancy Woodbridge Beach in Baltimore, Maryland (14 March 1887 – 5 October 1962).
- On 15 November 1915 Adrienne Monnier’s French bookshop opened – La Société des Amis du Livre, The Society of Friends of the Book.
- Monnier published her own French-language literary magazine Le Navire d’Argent, The Silver Ship.
- She also published the French translation of Ulysses.
- Sylvia and Adrienne separated in 1937 but remained good friends until Adrienne’s suicide in 1955.
- Monnier stayed open during the entire Occupation of Paris, but Sylvia closed her bookshop in 1941 and never reopened.
- After Sylvia’s death, her sister Holly arranged for Sylvia’s papers, letters, journals and portraits to be entrusted to Princeton University.
Favourite Reading Moment: Ezra Pound’s handyman skills. He regularly appeared, with screwdriver in hand, to repair the many secondhand chairs and tables that Sylvia had littered around the bookshop.
- Earlier this month I read Dark Palace by Frank Moorhouse which was set in 1930’s Geneva at the League of Nations.
- At one point, Joyce asked the League to help him get his daughter, Lucia, out of France and into a clinic in Switzerland to help her with her mental health issues. The League was unable to help. Joyce died soon after in 1941 Zurich while Lucia remained in various asylums until her death in 1981.
- It was rather sad to see how the young, vivacious teenage Lucia portrayed in The Paris Bookseller ended her days.
- Sylvia Beach | Shakespeare and Company (1991)
- Noël Riley Fitch | Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation (1983) – maybe, maybe not. The reviews are varied.
- James Joyce | Ulysses (1922) – one day!
- Keri Walsh | The Letters of Sylvia beach (2010)
Favourite or Forget: Curiously, even though I skim read most of the book, I will always remember what I learnt about Sylvia, James Joyces and the birthing pains of Ulysses. This story got under my skin.
Title: The Paris Bookseller Author: Kerri Maher ISBN: 9781472290779 Imprint: Headline Review Published: 25 January 2022 Format: Trade Paperback Pages: 319 Dates Read: 11 July 2022 - 23 July 2022
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.