Autobiography – Sylvia Beach

In which we are intellectual, possibly.

I found Sylvia Beach’s autobiography (in the Faber&Faber 1st ed.) at a second-hand bookshop last Saturday, so that’s been my main read this week. In case you don’t know who SB is, I’ll enlighten you. She was an American who came over to Paris after WW1 and sort of never left. She started a bookshop called Shakespeare & Company, to provide the French with a place to get hold of contemporary writing in English and to provide a similar service to the English-speaking writers in more or less voluntary exile in Paris at the time – the so-called «Lost Generation», Joyce, Pund, Hemingway and so on. In the process she also managed to publish Joyce’s «unpublishable» Ulysses (it was banned in the States and the UK already, due to some excerpts that had been published in literary magazines), and as such should get a posthumous medal for outstanding services to humanity.

The book is very interesting in its first half, which is properly autobiographical. Unfortunately, by about half-way through it turns into something so much like pure name-dropping that it gets excessively repetitive. The bookshop was the meeting point for so many intellectuals in Paris at the time, and in order to not leave anyone out, SB gives 1-3 pages to each person, which leaves room for little more than a variation on «X is a very good writer/painter/composer and I very much enjoyed his/her work NN. He/she first came to the shop in 19?? and we went to lunch at such’n’such with Y, Z and Joyce.»

To counter all this intellectualism, I spent a couple of very childish hours rereading the five Ole Alexander books by Norwegian children’s book writer Anne-Cath. Vestly. I haven’t read them since I was a kid, in fact, I don’t suppose I’ve ever actually read them, I probably had them read to me. I also remember occasionally listening in when my parents read them to my brother, who would have been 4-ish, so I’d have been 11-ish. Anyway, they made an excellent movie from the first two books about two years ago, and I’ve been eying the books on the shelf occasinally and thinking I’d reread them. So I did. They’re still brilliant, though a mite too much directed at four- to five-year-olds even for me.