Thursday, June 03, 2010

Laughlin on the Beach

When I packed up ninety percent of my books this winter in homage to the gods of real estate (Surely blandness and beige shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Dull forever.), one book I was careful to leave on the shelf was James Laughlin's odd semi-memoir, The Way It Wasn't. For someone who writes regularly about books--and has a soft spot for literary gossip--the book's alphabetical entries on authors are indispensable: if a twentieth-century author had even a whiff of the modern about him, Laughlin was on the scene, friend and publisher, and the book, drawn from his jottings and notebooks and files, reflects that familiarity.

I drew on Laughlin the other day in writing about the Quarterly Conversation's Anne Carson contest (enter now!); today I'm back for another figure I happened to as I flipped through looking for Carson: Sylvia Beach,friend, supporter, and publisher of moderns and founder of the Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company. I've written a couple of times recently about the many pleasures offered by the collection of Beach's letters that Columbia University Press recently published, so it seems right to add to that Laughlin's portrait of her:
Sylvia was a birdlike little figure but she had the strength and energy of a racehorse. She was a chain-smoker and constantly in motion. I remember that quickness of movement as she darted about the shop, the brightness of eye, the sense of humor (she loved puns) and her gift for repartee. Never a dull moment at Shakespeare and Company.
As a former bookseller, I fixate on that image of Beach perpetually in motion: even after more than a decade in an office job, I find I still move with the speed drummed into me in retail, zipping around the cubicles as if I have a customer at the counter who needs a book right now.

After that description, Laughlin digresses a bit, turning to Gertrude Stein, a customer and friend of Beach, but the anecdote he relates is so good as to stand as a Tristram Shandy-worthy point in favor of digression in general:
All went well until Sylvia published Ulysses. Then a freeze descended and "the flowers of friendship faded friendship faded," to quote the famous Stein poem. I can vouch for this anecdote. I had experience with the literary monolith. The summer that I was working for her at Bilignan, her place in the country, all was going well till she caught me reading Proust. She was deeply offended. "J," she asked, "how can you read such stuff? Don't you know that Proust and Joyce copied their books from my Making of Americans?"
Having allowed myself to get sidetracked by Stein, it seems proper to give Beach the last word. She barely mentions Laughlin in her letters, so the obvious way to close is no good. Instead, I'll offer this charmingly playful note to Ernest Hemingway from August 8, 1923:
Dear Hemingways, How is the Book coming on? How is the group of Feather Cats standing the heat? Is it going to Anastasie's Stade this Saturday? We have a thatched cottage all to ourselves except for some cows in the next room. Our door opens into a field where we brush our teeth and everything. Adrienne sends her best love with mine
The "Book" seems likely to have been The Sun Also Rises; I trust it was coming on well.

1 comment:

  1. Curious he should have left the crucial word out of that famous Stein line -- it's "before the flowers of friendship faded friendship faded", making it a beautifully balanced full sentence, not just repetitive Steinese. But then I suppose it wouldn't serve here, where evidently the flowers suffered an interruption but the friendship survived.