Sylvia Beach, just turned 34, American ex-pat owner of this bookstore, Shakespeare & Co., knows that she has to be the one to bring the bad news.
She has received a clipping of an editorial in last month’s New York Tribune stating that the court has ruled that excerpts from Ulysses, the work in progress by Irish novelist James Joyce, 39, her friend and customer, are officially, legally obscene.
Sylvia Beach and James Joyce
And the “melancholy Jesus,” as she calls him, has just walked into her store.
Joyce has been working on this novel for over six years now, and the late nights in a dimly lit room have severely affected his eyesight. He says he is now writing the last two sections and will be finished by May. Sylvia is dubious.
Recently he received a briefcase, sent from his previous home in Trieste, Italy, containing 12-year-old love letters between him and his partner and mother of his children, Nora Barnacle, just turned 37. This will help him to write the ending he has planned.
Despite the efforts of his benefactor in New York, lawyer and art collector John Quinn, 50, to get a major publisher to bring out a private edition, the only place excerpts of Ulysses have appeared is in The Little Review. And now the magazine’s publishers have been fined and prohibited from publishing any more.
After reading the clipping Joyce says,
My book will never come out now.”
What disturbs him even more is that, according to the editorial, the defense that Quinn had used in court was that his manuscript was incomprehensible to the average reader and disgusting. But not obscene. Because most people couldn’t understand it anyway, what was the point in suppressing it?
The judges didn’t agree. And they had recently punished a publisher in another obscenity case with a choice between a $1,000 fine or three months in prison. So the Little Review publishers take them seriously.
Sylvia felt for Joyce. His short story collection, Dubliners, had been rejected by 22 publishers before being brought out by Grant Richards Ltd. seven years ago in London.
What could she do to help? Does she know any publishers here? Her partner, Adrienne Monnier, 28, who owns a French language bookshop a few blocks away, has been bringing out Les Cahiers des Amis des Livres, a series of French writing and translations, for almost two years now. She works with a printer in Dijon and knows about typesetting and production.
Quinn had talked to Joyce about creating a private, high quality edition to sell for $10. Sylvia is thinking that she could have three different versions, of varying quality, and charge twice that much for a signed limited edition.
If she sets up a subscription scheme to get orders in advance, Sylvia figures she could pay the printer in instalments. And she could also hit up her mother and sisters for more family money to cover expenses.
Sylvia knows little about publishing, but she knows how to sell books. Not only is she fond of Joyce, she loves his work and has read enough of this novel to know that it will be one of the most important works published in English this decade.
Beach turns to Joyce and says,
Mr. Joyce, would you let Shakespeare & Co. have the honor of bringing out your Ulysses?”
“Such Friends”: 100 Years Ago… is the basis for the series, “Such Friends”: The Literary 1920s. Volume I, covering 1920, is available on Amazon in print and e-book versions. For more information, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This summer I will be talking about The Literary 1920s in 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 formats.
If you want to walk with me through Bloomsbury, you can download my audio walking tour, “Such Friends”: Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group.