“Such Friends”:  100 years ago, December 7, 1921, La Maison des Amis des Livres, 7 rue de l’Odeon, Paris

There’s definitely a buzz.

More than two hundred people are crowding into two rooms in this small bookshop to hear French poet Valery Larbaud, 40, lecture and read from Ulysses, the latest work by Irish ex-patriate novelist James Joyce, 39.

Invitation to Ulysses reading

[Photo courtesy of Glenn Johnston]

This shop is owned by Adrienne Monnier, 29, whose partner, American ex-pat Sylvia Beach, 34, the owner of Shakespeare and Company across the street, is publishing Ulysses because no major publisher in America or England will touch it.

Publication date was supposed to be this autumn. But Joyce has been delayed by several bouts of bad health. His constant revisions are frustrating the printers. Those who have subscribed to get the first copies are getting restless. They want Ulysses!

So Beach and Monnier have organized this reading to placate impatient subscribers and promote the book among the French. At this point, they are hoping to bring it out on Joyce’s 40th birthday, next February 2nd.

Larbaud, who is not only a friend but a huge fan of Joyce, has been working for days in the back room of the shop with a bilingual Sorbonne music student, Jacques Benoist-Mechin, 20, to translate passages Larbaud can read to the crowd.

That’s what’s making Larbaud nervous. Although he has given talks here many times, never to a crowd this big. And never a reading with so much…well, sex in it.

In the invitation to the event, Beach and Monnier warn,

Certain pages have an uncommon boldness of expression that might quite legitimately be shocking.”

They don’t mention that a New York City court has already found excerpts to be obscene.

Waiting in the dark room is American ex-pat artist Man Ray, 31, even though he doesn’t understand much French. One American who is not here is the poet Ezra Pound, 36. He brought Joyce and his family to Paris over a year ago and promoted him and his work to all the right literati. Now he feels side-lined by the attention Beach’s upcoming publication is getting.

Monnier gives Larbaud a glass of brandy to calm his nerves. On his way to the little table in front of the crowd, he steps behind the screen which is hiding Joyce from the audience to admit to the author that he is going to leave out a few lines.

He begins his talk by reviewing the life and previous writings of the Irish author. Larbaud links the earlier novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the short story collection Dubliners to this latest work and tells readers that the key to understanding Joyce’s Ulysses is to keep Homer’s Odyssey in mind.

Larbaud then reads translated parts of the “Sirens” and “Penelope” sections of Ulysses and is met with wild applause. At the end, Larbaud goes behind the screen and brings out Joyce, kissing him on both cheeks.

Joyce blushes.

Adrienne Monnier and Sylvia Beach

“Such Friends”:  100 Years Ago… is the basis for the series, “Such Friends”:  The Literary 1920s. Volumes I and II covering 1920 and 1921 are available as signed copies at Riverstone Books, Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, PA, and in print and e-book formats on Amazon. If they can’t get it to you in time for gift giving, I can. Email me at kaydee@gypsyteacher.com.

In January and February I will be talking about the centenary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses at the Osher Lifelong Learning programs at Carnegie-Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.

Manager as Muse, about Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins’ relationships with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, is also available on Amazon in both print and e-book versions.

If you want to walk with me through Bloomsbury, you can download my audio walking tour, “Such Friends”:  Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group.

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