‘While Beach found fun in capers and antics, Monnier held the literary punks at bay’
Sylvia Beach said that she had three loves: Shakespeare and Company, James Joyce, and Adrienne Monnier. For mysterious reasons—perhaps because she wrote in French, perhaps because in the age of high modernism she preserved the habits and demeanour of the nineteenth century—Monnier was passed over for the international fame that went instead to the women she inspired: women such as Beach, Gisèle Freund, and Janet Flanner. Monnier was, in the self-assured title she chose for her advertisements, Directrice of her French-language bookstore, La Maison des Amis des Livres. To the writers who gathered there, including Paul Valéry, André Gide, James Joyce, and Valery Larbaud, Monnier’s bookstore on the Left Bank was the heart of literary Paris. Without her example, Beach’s Shakespeare and Company would never have existed. Monnier taught her how to run a business, how to deal with French bureaucracy, how to manage cantankerous people. Beach never made an important decision without first consulting her.
Monnier’s emergence as a force in French letters was in some ways as remarkable as Rimbaud’s four decades earlier. She had no connections, no serious university credentials—only a mother who encouraged her to read and a father who entrusted her with a small settlement won after an accident, which was just enough capital to start her business in 1916. Three years later, Sylvia turned up on Adrienne’s doorstep in quest of an education in modern French verse:
One day at the Bibliothèque Nationale, I noticed that one of the reviews—Paul Fort’s Vers et Prose, I think it was—could be purchased at A. Monnier’s bookshop, 7 rue de l’Odéon, Paris VI. I had not heard the name before, nor was the Odéon quarter familiar to me, but suddenly something drew me irresistibly to the spot where such important things in my life were to happen.
Monnier was delighted to learn that Beach was an American, but then quickly, perhaps sensing that Beach was no dilettante, snapped into the mode of a rigorous, disciplined tutor. Beach reports that Monnier informed her: “In modern French writing I was only a beginner, but a good beginner. . . . We agreed that I must go on with Jules Romains, whom I had begun reading in America, and she offered to help me with Claudel.” By 1921 their bookstores stood across the street from each other on the rue de l’Odéon, and for more than two decades, they presided together over the Anglo/French literary exchanges of the Left Bank.