Books

An American woman, a Paris bookstore, and a controversial book that changed literary history

Boston-based author Kerri Maher’s latest novel 'The Paris Bookseller' is based on the real-life story of Sylvia Beach who founded an iconic bookstore in Paris over a hundred years ago.

By Neha Kirpal

Shakespeare and Company, an iconic bookstore founded in Paris in 1919 by American publisher Sylvia Beach, went down in history for being a hub of famed writers and artists, from Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein to Jean Cocteau and Andre Gide. Beach also made a lasting contribution to literature by daring to publish her friend James Joyce’s Ulysses after it was banned in an obscenity trial in 1921, even if she had to risk her own reputation.

This episode from the past century is the basis of Boston-based author Kerri Maher’s latest novel, The Paris Bookseller (Hachette, Rs 799). Maher, who holds an MFA from Columbia University and was a writing professor for many years, traces Beach’s literary life and personal relationships, including with her long-term lover Adrienne Monnier, a French writer and publisher who was one of the first women in Paris to found her own bookstore.

“I had been carrying Sylvia’s story around inside me since I was 20 years old,” Maher shares. That was when she read an old used paperback version of Beach’s memoir also titled Shakespeare and Company. She was charmed by Beach’s recollections of her bookstore and the famous writers and expatriates who frequented it, and also fascinated by her account of publishing Ulysses.

Though The Paris Bookseller is a work of fiction, Maher stays true to historical facts, including the openness of gay lives in the postwar years in France. Same-sex relations had been decriminalized since the French Revolution, and Paris had been a haven for gay lovers for more than a century, she writes in the author’s note.

Maher’s first work of historical fiction was The Kennedy Debutante (2018). After writing her second novel The Girl in White Gloves: A Novel of Grace Kelly (2020), she recalled Beach’s story and thought, “If anyone deserves the biographical fiction treatment, it’s her!”

It was more than 25 years after reading her memoir for the first time that Maher finally had the opportunity to write Beach’s story. “Truly, I don’t think I could have written this novel earlier in my life; I needed to have lived and loved and written all that I’d written to truly appreciate the ups and downs of Sylvia’s remarkable life,” she says. 

As the title aptly suggests, the book is filled with some rich and beautiful descriptions of the French capital.

It was more than the flickering gas lamps that illuminated the city after dark, or that ineluctable, glowing white stone from which so much of the city was built – it was the brilliance of the life burbling in every fountain, every student meeting, every puppet show in the Jardin du Luxembourg and opera in the Théâtre de l’Odéon.

© The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher

Maher travelled to Paris in the summer of 2019 during the early stages of her research for the novel. “But retracing Sylvia’s steps up and down the Rue de l’Odeon, exploring her neighbourhood, eating exquisite French meals (with a good friend of mine, just like Sylvia would have done!), drinking Parisian coffee that I made in my tiny rented apartment kitchen, visiting the Rodin Museum and Sacre Coeur and the D’Orsay, and walking all over the city till my legs ached… all of that really helped me feel into what it would have been like to be Sylvia, an American who couldn’t believe her luck to call Paris home,” she tells eShe.   

Needless to say, Joyce’s Ulysses, which according to many is the most important novel of the 20th century, is an essential part of the book’s story. “I was surprised to discover that it wasn’t Joyce or the novel that was on trial in 1921; in fact, Joyce hadn’t even finished the novel at that point,” says Maher. She found that the people found guilty in the 1921 trial were the two female publishers of The Little Review, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, who had committed the crime of publishing work that the court found “obscene”.

Kerri Maher

Anderson and Heap, who lived near the bohemian Washington Square neighbourhood, were also known to be romantic and business partners. Further, Joyce was Irish, and there was a strong anti-immigrant feeling among America’s ruling class at that time. “If the publishers of The Little Review had been straight white men who lived on Park Avenue, would Ulysses have met with the same fate? If its author had been someone more like Mark Twain, could it have squeaked by unnoticed? Thus, it’s hard not to see the censorship of Ulysses through the lens of misogyny and xenophobia,” Maher avers.

As is expected, a “ton of research” went into putting this book together. “Noel Riley Fitch’s incredibly detailed and footnoted biography of Sylvia was extremely helpful in fleshing out the book’s notable writers”, especially because Maher needed to see them through Beach’s eyes.

Fortunately, she had already read books by and about many other characters, like Ernest Hemingway, whose A Moveable Feast she had devoured as a young person in Paris. She also read the published volumes of Beach’s letters, including one entirely devoted to her correspondence with Joyce.

Apart from that, she read much of Adrienne Monnier’s translated biography, as well as Margaret Anderson’s memoir from this time. Since Monnier and Anderson also interacted with the same writers and artists as Beach, their perspectives as fellow female publishers and booksellers also helped Maher bring personalities like Ezra Pound and James Joyce to life.

Maher draws inspiration from all sorts of books, writers, artists and visual art, especially painting. “In the world of literature, I’m inspired by all sorts of writers, especially women writers like Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, who wrote novels that are still read today, and who made their living as writers at a time when women were only deemed worthy of household work,” she says.

Kerri Maher with the Spanish version of The Paris Bookseller

Further, she is in awe of the writing of Modernist writers like Joyce whose novels and poems truly remade the world after World War I and shaped all of literature that followed it. Maher has read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald more times than any other book. “I just love its urban sophistication and the fact that it illuminates my favourite decade of the 1920s,” she says.

Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth was also formative for her, as the first book she read as a teenager that showed her it was possible to learn a lot from a novel while still getting swept up in a great story, she says. Lately, she also loved Writers and Lovers by Lily King, Seven Days in June by Tia Williams, and Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner.

Talking about what draws her to the medium of historical fiction, Maher says that she loves learning about moments from the past, and the important but often unsung heroes of those times. “I also love finding the spaces in the historical records where my imagination as a novelist can fill in the gaps and create narratives that are fun for me and for readers to follow,” adds Maher, who lives with her daughter and dog in Boston, Massachusetts.

Her upcoming historical novel based in Berkley releases next year. Like The Paris Bookseller, it stars “some amazing feminists who did remarkable work” – but this time, it’s set in 1970s Chicago and about an entirely fictional cast of characters.

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