The Paris Bookseller tells the true story of Sylvia Beach, who – through her legendary Paris bookstore, Shakespeare and Company – was the first person to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses, in 1922. Kerri Maher’s novel follows the many ups and downs of the classic’s publication, and the long romantic partnership of Sylvia and fellow bookseller, Adrienne Monnier.
This is Maher’s third work of historical fiction – she wrote about Kick Kennedy in The Kennedy Debutante, and Grace Kelly in The Girl in White Gloves – and she has clearly found her niche. The Paris Bookseller isn’t bogged down with unnecessary detail, nor does it over-explain the relevance of every figure we come across; Maher’s focus is always on Sylvia’s emotional journey. Aside from a handful of famous characters who are particularly important to her story – James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemmingway – the literary stars who pop in and out of Shakespeare and Company are there to provide the shop and the novel with artistic ambience.
There are two main plot threads in The Paris Bookseller: the romance between Sylvia and Adrienne, and the many travails surrounding the publication of Ulysses. The first of these is the least exciting, but it’s not exactly Maher’s fault; from her afterword, it seems that all the drama between Sylvia and Adrienne took place in the period after the book is set. During the years covered by the narrative (1917-1936), Adrienne supplies an inexhaustible wealth of emotional and financial support to her beloved without ever showing resentment that so little seems to flow in the other direction. That there’s no overt homophobia in the novel is refreshing (perhaps the most interesting historical fact here is that France decriminalised homosexuality in 1791, more than 150 years before the UK), but the overall lack of drama in the relationship between the two booksellers makes the passages focused on them a bit flat.
Those passages are outnumbered by those centred on Ulysses, however, and they are far more absorbing. Maher paints a vivid, complicated portrait of the legendary author, James Joyce: a deeply charismatic person capable of great sweetness and extreme selfishness; a man struck by a succession of debilitating ailments who still managed to publish some of the most revered writing of all time – and was not always gracious to those who helped him along the way. Over the course of the story, Sylvia’s initial idolatry of the author slowly turns to resentment as his egocentrism starts making her life a misery (the one real conflict between our central couple is that Adrienne understands Joyce’s dark side far earlier than Sylvia does), and then she finds a healthier middle ground in her approach to him.
Our heroes are people, just like us, with their own flaws and disappointments and insecurities; being a tremendous talent in one area doesn’t automatically make them a wonderful person all-round. Although Maher’s novel follows its heroine between the ages of 30 and 49, a significantly later time of life than the majority of other works of the genre, Sylvia’s evolving attitude towards Joyce makes The Paris Bookseller feel like a compelling coming-of-age tale, in addition to an impressive piece of historical fiction.
The Paris Bookseller is published by Headline Review on 11 January 2022