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A Friend in the House of Books

From Brick 86

Brick 86

I saw in front of me a girl with a round, rosy face, with blue eyes, with blond hair, who, it appeared all at once, had just entered the service of literature as others decide to enter the service of religion. . . .

— Jules Romains on Adrienne Monnier

Sylvia Beach said that she had three loves: Shakespeare and Company, James Joyce, and Adrienne Monnier. For mysterious reasons—perhaps because she wrote in French, perhaps because in the age of high modernism she preserved the habits and demeanour of the nineteenth century—Monnier was passed over for the international fame that went instead to the women she inspired: women such as Beach, Gisèle Freund, and Janet Flanner. Monnier was, in the self-assured title she chose for her advertisements, Directrice of her French-language bookstore, La Maison des Amis des Livres. To the writers who gathered there, including Paul Valéry, André Gide, James Joyce, and Valery Larbaud, Monnier’s bookstore on the Left Bank was the heart of literary Paris. Without her example, Beach’s Shakespeare and Company would never have existed. Monnier taught her how to run a business, how to deal with French bureaucracy, how to manage cantankerous people. Beach never made an important decision without first consulting her.

Monnier’s emergence as a force in French letters was in some ways as remarkable as Rimbaud’s four decades earlier. She had no connections, no serious university credentials—only a mother who encouraged her to read and a father who entrusted her with a small settlement won after an accident, which was just enough capital to start her business in 1916. Three years later, Sylvia turned up on Adrienne’s doorstep in quest of an education in modern French verse:

One day at the Bibliothèque Nationale, I noticed that one of the reviews—Paul Fort’s Vers et Prose, I think it was—could be purchased at A. Monnier’s bookshop, 7 rue de l’Odéon, Paris VI. I had not heard the name before, nor was the Odéon quarter familiar to me, but suddenly something drew me irresistibly to the spot where such important things in my life were to happen.

Monnier was delighted to learn that Beach was an American, but then quickly, perhaps sensing that Beach was no dilettante, snapped into the mode of a rigorous, disciplined tutor. Beach reports that Monnier informed her: “In modern French writing I was only a beginner, but a good beginner. . . . We agreed that I must go on with Jules Romains, whom I had begun reading in America, and she offered to help me with Claudel.” By 1921 their bookstores stood across the street from each other on the rue de l’Odéon, and for more than two decades, they presided together over the Anglo/French literary exchanges of the Left Bank.

Ephemera discovered in Monnier’s desk drawer after her death trace a life lived for art, telling the story of her long friendships and service to the Parisian world of letters: a copy of Le Navire d’Argent, the journal she founded and ran for two years in the mid-1920s; a snapshot of Robert McAlmon, an old expatriate friend; a letter from Jean Paulhan at the Nouvelle Revue Française; typed and handwritten drafts of essays on the painter Henri Michaux, whose work she exhibited at her bookstore; and a girlhood notebook dating back to 1904, with her favourite poems carefully copied out. In her desk also lingered the presence of two of Monnier’s great loves: in the joint prospectus advertising their two shops (with the promise of a 10 percent discount for subscribing to both lending libraries), Monnier’s personal and professional fortunes are married to Beach’s; and Monnier’s relationship with photographer Gisèle Freund, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, is preserved in Freund’s photograph of Monnier draped langorously across her bookshelves. Their affair with Freund, which began when Beach was travelling in the United States in 1936, shook but never entirely shattered the partnership of Beach and Monnier.

Beach came from a proper Presbyterian minister’s family, always anxious to keep up appearances. The Monniers were a down-to-earth, close-knit clan with a rural background, and Adrienne’s parents came to see Beach as an adopted daughter. In later years, after a lifetime of working and travelling together, Beach cared for Monnier when she suffered from the physical and psychological disturbances caused by Menière’s disease. At last, despairing of her health’s return, Monnier overdosed on sleeping pills in 1955. Beach wrote to Harriet Weaver: “I’ve a queer feeling about Adrienne—that not only is she gone but I’ve gone away myself somewhere.”

For those familiar with the more playful snapshots of Sylvia Beach’s American crowd—Trenton pianist George Antheil scaling the outside wall of Shakespeare and Company to break into his apartment from the balcony, Hemingway planting his stern soldier’s boot on the table to “liberate” the shop in 1945—the photographs taken on Monnier’s side of the street reveal a greater sobriety, a more judicious gathering of intellects. Shakespeare and Company split the difference between social club and literary mecca. Beach called her patrons her “Bunnies” (from abonnées, the French for “subscribers”), and they were a ragtag, holiday-making crew. She welcomed not only serious writers, but also her New Jersey girlfriends, their children and pets. The atmosphere Monnier cultivated across the street was altogether more hallowed and grown-up. Monnier’s clients were living their everyday lives in France; as students, editors, doctors, teachers. They were tired from the First World War, their money didn’t stretch so far, and they were accustomed to hardships. For them, there were no getaways to New England or California, no reprieves from the grey winters, gathering war clouds, endless strikes, and finally, the Occupation. Perhaps that’s why Monnier’s French writers were tamer, less iconoclastic than Beach’s experimentalists bent on “making it new.” Sylvia Beach reflected on the differences between their two establishments that extended right down to interior design: Monnier “wants me to have that hard battleship grey that she has in her place—but never a-bit, say I! I’m going to have a paint called ‘Matolin’ . . . and some beige and yellow.”

While Beach found fun in capers and antics, Monnier held the literary punks at bay. She wrote a revealing essay about her concerted effort to resist the charms of André Breton, ringleader of the Surrealists, perhaps because she valued her friendship with one of his chief critics, Léon-Paul Fargue. All nuance, subtlety, and discretion, Monnier nonetheless delighted in the liveliness of the barbarians across the street, always happy to be drawn into their childish, gymnastic world. When she was photographed walking down the Rue de l’Odeon beside James Joyce or sitting on a stoop with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Monnier, in her peasant dress with its hood and long skirt, always looked as though she had wandered into the Jazz Age straight from a Millet canvas.

La Maison des Amies des Livres sometimes seemed like a gentlemen’s club—the photographs that lined the walls were all of men—but Monnier was a feminist in her own way, not only in the position she carved out for herself in the patriarchal world of French letters, but in her essays. In “Lust,”she gently teased Valéry for the invisibility of women in his writing, except as muses and mythological creatures. She celebrated the achievements of women artists, from Marie Laurencin to Liesbet Sanders to Colette, who was one of the few people who intimidated her: “Colette is a woman who has a horror of being disturbed. For my part, I have a horror of disturbing—a Colette above all. I love to give pleasure, but I cannot imagine how one can give pleasure to Colette when one is not a flower or an animal, a taste or a scent, a color or music.”

Monnier loved English writers as much as Beach loved French ones. In describing Beach, she quoted from a favourite American poet, Walt Whitman, calling her “young, friendly, fresh, heroic . . . electric,” and in her notebooks she copied out poems by Emily Brontë and YeatsIt was at the crossroads of their two poetic traditions, French and English, that Beach and Monnier undertook one of their most influential joint works, the first French translation of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which appeared in Monnier’s Le Navire d’Argent in 1925. For its first French appearance, Beach and Monnier deleted the epigraph from Dante, and in keeping with Prufrock’s stilted temperament, they wisely chose the formal “vous” for the famous first lines of the poem: “Allons alors, vous et moi” (“Let us go then, you and I”). Their translation reminds us that “Prufrock” is a poem that is deeply at home in French, inspired by the decaying urban scenes of Baudelaire and the Symbolist verse of Jules Laforgue. This provenance is especially apparent in the poem’s more hypnotic, undulating passages. The lines that follow Prufrock’s “hundred indecisions” lose very little in their French adaptation and scarcely seem to require translating at all: “Temps pour vous et temps pour moi, / Et temps encore pour cent indecisions, / Et pour cent visions et revisions, / Avant de prendre un toast et un thé.” Monnier remarked on the ease of rendering the poem, even though she lamented the necessary loss inherent in the process. For Eliot and others, she named the status of “poor translated poet” as a kind of exile. And indeed, there are passages that utterly resist the move into French: the alliterative noise of Prufrock’s “Do I dare?” hardly comes through in the French “Oserai-je?,” nor is the translation “Est-ce le parfum d’une robe / Qui me fait ainsi divaguer?” a satisfying substitute for the jangling rhythm of “Is it perfume from a dress / That makes me so digress?” Both in what the poem captures (that entrancing, prolonged French sound of the narrow streets that seem returned to their native habitat when they become “des rues étroites”) and for what it loses (those plosive sounds, that distinctly English self-deprecation, the deflationary effect of Eliot’s light rhymes), their translation reveals the poem’s origins and allegiances in a new, Parisian light.

Reading Monnier’s essays, which range in subject from Beowulf to Mexican art, one is struck by the confidence she had in her taste, and the subtlety, wit, and depth of her remarks. Though she was a reader of the most difficult and esoteric works, she was also free from snobbery, ranking Josephine Baker or a virtuoso trapeze artist alongside Shakespeare. There’s a playfulness and shape to the argumentation of her essays that recalls Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: Monnier charts the movement of her thought, considering and reconsidering points, airing objections and then meeting them. She also has a sly wit, a sort of parody of the dry reviewer, when she talks about her “duty” to see the nude women in all of Paris’s different cabarets or plays down the great joy of the war’s end in 1945, writing with scarcely suppressed jubilation that “this month of May was truly loaded with happy events; let us not talk about the peace in Europe, which is naturally the most happy, but let us remain people of letters.” Monnier’s desire to remain a “person of letters” under any circumstances was the key to a sensibility that was eminently unpuritanical—always seeking aesthetic pleasure but never shying away from ethical or political concerns. During the Second World War, she hid Arthur Koestler in her apartment while he was planning his escape from France, and she interceded for Walter Benjamin with the French police, leading him to note in a letter that “I am in Adrienne Monnier’s debt. . . . She was indefatigable in her efforts on my behalf and absolutely determined.”

Monnier is perhaps at her most engaging in her essays on performance. When attending the circus she immerses herself utterly in the show and then searches for the language that will allow her readers to feel something like what she felt in the crowd. She calls the circus “the most vital of all spectacles,” and remembers that it was Jean Cocteau who first got the literary world lining up for tickets around the year 1922. She asks: “And what is so noble as the hand of the gymnast, who stands up absolutely straight after his stunt, with his palm open like the very symbol of work and its fulfillment?” Sensitive, also, to the emotional complications of such extreme vitality, she acknowledged the “tragic side of the circus,” its tawdriness, the hard lives of its performers, the risk of injury and death. She sees the circus as a way of managing human pain, especially for hard-working people, recognizing the workings of Aristotelian catharsis wherever they were to be found “. . . there they can see suffering, rather than suffer.”

In her essay on Maurice Chevalier, Monnier makes fun of herself and her theatrical susceptibilities while still defending the rights of that ineffable quality, charisma. Well aware that in writing about France’s most prominent music hall star, she is approaching what some might see as a guilty pleasure, she builds up to the confession of her infatuation slowly. She remembers writing in a letter to a friend, “I tenderly love X, Y, Z, and even Chevalier.” Whether she’s describing Peggy Ashcroft (“she has a way of laughing that makes you shiver”) or Brando (“it is Shakespeare who yields to the actor and abandons his Antony to him”), all of Monnier’s writings bristle with this erotic energy, this sense that here was a critic composed equally of body, heart, and mind. To rediscover her writings from the first half of twentieth-century Paris is to find—as the name of her bookstore promised—an intimate new friend in the house of books.

Keri Walsh is the editor of The Letters of Sylvia Beach, published by the Columbia University Press in 2010. She is an assistant professor in the Literature Department at Claremont McKenna College in Los Angeles.

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