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  • Foto do escritorDirce Waltrick Do Amarante

"'Your friend if ever you had one': letters from Sylvia Beach to James Joyce": a review by Dwa

Atualizado: 17 de fev. de 2022

“Your friend if ever you had one”: letters from Sylvia Beach to James Joyce: a review by Dirce Waltrick do Amarante*

Ursula Zeller is on the left, Ruth Frehner on the right

On April 29, 1927, the American Sylvia Beach (1887-1962), owner of the famous Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company and responsible for the publication of the now centennial novel Ulysses, by Irish writer James Joyce, wrote the following letter to him:

“I have thought over the question of your finances. I am quite unable to think of them clearly in your presence on account of the spell cast by your genius and the slowness of my arithmetic.

You said you had only 9000 francs a month to live on and then I reminded you that Ulysses had brought you in 125 000 since last August. It makes about 12 000 francs a month doesn’t it, which added to 9000 makes about 21 000 francs a month. You didn’t consider Ulysses royalties important enough to mention. But it would have been more sportsmanlike of you to own up to spending this considerable amount of money than to tell a lot of cock-and-bull stories to me who is your friend if ever you had one. You are the greatest writer who ever lived but even Pound has more sense. Do go to the moneylender. The Bradleys cannot get a more false notion of your circumstances than you yourself have. And what does anything matter?

With kindest regards

Your very sincerely

Sylvia Beach”.

Sylvia Beach and James Joyce

From this letter comes the title of the book, published in late 2021 by Brill/Rodopi and edited by Ruth Frehner and Ursula Zeller, “Your friend if ever you had one”: letters from Sylvia Beach to James Joyce. The volume brings the publisher's letters to its author and an extensive bibliographical and critical apparatus, between texts and notes, signed by the organizers, which sheds light not only on the relationship between Joyce and Beach, but also on the relationship between the writer and other friends who were also instrumental in his career. Among these friends, Adrienne Monnier (Beach's partner), Paul Léon, Ezra Pound and Harriet Shaw Weaver, responsible for the publication of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the great patron of the writer. Weaver gave Joyce the financial conditions he needed to keep writing; she often forged copyrights from book sales to deposit amounts to him to support his family.

Joyce's financial life is the subject of many letters, the writer was a spendthrift: he traveled first class (while Beach and Monnier went third class), stayed in luxury hotels, dined in good restaurants, gave expensive gifts to friends, and so on. Therefore, it was not uncommon for him to write to Beach asking for money. In one of the letters, the editor calms him down, telling him that he would not need to stress out on his vacation, as Ms. Weaver, with whom she was always in contact, had appeared again with “forty-seven thousand francs! What a remarkable woman!”, but Beach is not far behind.

Joyce and his future editor met in the summer of 1920 at a party. At the time, her bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, had been open for a year and Beach was already well-known among local and foreign writers, many of whom were Americans who had moved to Paris, such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound. It was in 1921, however, knowing the difficulties with the publication of Ulysses, that Beach decided to ask him: “Would you let Shakespeare and Company have the honor of bringing out your Ulysses?”. She says in her memories, Shakespeare and Company, that “he accepted my offer immediately and joyfully. I thought it rash of him to entrust his great Ulysses to such a funny little publisher. But he seemed delighted, and so was I”.

From its publication on February 2, 2022 until May 1930, the novel reached its 11th edition with twenty-eight thousand copies in print. From then on, Beach no longer handled the book's sales, but continued to help Joyce, now also with his new title, Finnegans Wake.

As a matter of fact, on February 2, 1922, it was Joyce's 40th birthday and Beach wanted to give him the publication of Ulysses as a gift. She managed to get Maurice Darantière, responsible for printing the book, to send her two copies: one she gave to Joyce and the other she placed in her bookstore window and soon many readers and curious people were there to see the book that was already causing a stir in literature.

Joyce celebrated the arrival of Ulysses with a playful poem for his publisher: “Throngs about her rant and rave// To subscribe for Ulysses/ But, having signed, they ponder grave. /Then to Sylvia let us sing/ Her daring lies in selling [...]”, as we can read in some lines of the poem.

In the ten years that Beach spent at the head of Ulysses' publication, she was not only Joyce's editor, she was also his secretary, confidant, stockbroker, accountant, among many other roles, as can be seen in the letters she sent him and contained in that volume.

On June 26, 1923, Beach describes in detail to Joyce, who was in London, an apartment she found, at the writer's request, in Paris for his family: “[...] first floor above the entresol! A superb a princely apartment five thousand & five hundred frs a year. Large Salon – dining room – small salon – kitchen on the front – large bedroom and 2 other bedrooms almost as large at the back […]. Large fireplaces very long windows. You could use the big room at the back as a cabinet de travail”.

But in another letter a few days later, Beach says that Giorgio (Joyce's son) went to see the apartment and thought that maybe his parents wouldn't like it very much because “it isn’t modern”, besides, he was “feeling rather disgusted with this town just now after his disagreeable experience at the bank and he says you might all just as well move out to Africa if he doesn’t find a perfect flat here”.

In a letter written in July 16, 1924, Beach reports to Joyce a discussion she had with Ulysses's French translators, a young man named Jacques Benoit-Méchin, who translated in collaboration with Léon-Paul Fargue. For her, seed cake, which appears twice in the novel, should have been translated gâteau aux amants, but Fargue, according to Beach, didn't like the idea. And continues: Adrienne thinks “’brioche’ has to do with it if you agree. Fargue paid a great visit to a friend whose wife is a baker, but he couldn't find anything in her repertoire that matched a seed cake.”

The letters reveal how important Beach was in the Joyce's lives. After all, she ended up like other friends of the writer, also worrying about the well-being of his entire family.

If all these functions were not enough, Beach had to deal with the countless “revisions” of the book made by Joyce, in fact, the writer did more than revisions, according to his scholars, “he was an inventive rewriter of the same material” and this delayed the work and entailed extra costs, paid by Beach. In addition, the publisher still had to face the constant censorship suffered by the book, which began even before the full publication of the work under her responsibility. Beach was aware of the problem Ulysses created for Little Review's editors in the United States, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, who were publishing fragments of the novel in their magazine. Both were prosecuted and sentenced to a fine of $50 each for publishing “obscenities”. This was just the beginning of a messy publication and distribution that, if not for the support and dedication of Sylvia Beach, could have failed.

The tumultuous story of Ulysses has yielded a few books, perhaps the best known being Bruce Arnold's The Scandal of Ulysses.

The correspondences between Joyce and Beach were exchanged during his or her summer vacation, so there aren't many, but they are intense. In her memoirs, Beach remembers that most of the letters she received from Joyce were, of course, written during her summer vacations or during his own travels. He always demanded “see you tomorrow”, “express”, “on return mail” responses. As a rule, he was in need of money, and when he wasn't, he usually got some through Myrsine, the bookstore employee.

In fact, Joyce didn't like it much when Beach and Monnier walked away, and as she remembers, “As the time for our departure approached, he would sink into a state of panic until, at the last minute, he would come out with whatever he called his 'shopping list' – in which he listed everything I should do before leaving town.” Beach did not disappoint him and only decided to walk away from Ulysses' publication because her intermediation was blocking Joyce's negotiations with other publishers. From then on, Paul León, a Russian Jew “fascinated by Joyce's creative process,” assumed this role.

In the book, there are also correspondences sent to Paul Léon from Beach, in which she fills him in on the editorial history of Ulysses and other books she was working on. She also sends him letters to Joyce that were still addressed to her bookstore. One is a letter from Yeats, which Beach forwards to León, commenting that Joyce had reasons not to accept Yeats's invitation to join the Irish Academy of Letters, which he declined, stating: “I see no reason why my name should have arisen at all in connection with such an academy”. But for Beach, as he says in the letter, "it wouldn't hurt to accept, and that could be the first step towards lifting the censorship of Ulysses."

Beach was still attentive to Joyce's career and the writer was aware of it. Even after breaking up with the editor, he knew that "all she ever did was to make me a present of the ten best years of her life".

Part of the letters that make up the volume, along with other documents, were donated to the James Joyce Foundation in Zurich by Hans Jahnke, son of Asta Osterwalder Joyce, second wife of Giorgio Joyce, son of the writer.

*This text was originally published in Portuguese in the Brazilian newspaper "Folha de São Paulo":

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