Thursday, January 8, 2009

Homage to the Lost Generation: Kent Johnson and Sylvia Beach

Kent Johnson writes in to say: "Something amazing has just happened to me, and I have to tell about it. And since Don S. is one of the true bibliophiles of the poetry world, this seems like the appropriate place. Maybe this won't seem such an amazing thing as it does to me, but it is pretty special, all will have to admit, and I'm still trembling a little bit over it...

Well, OK, about one two hours ago I was on the third floor of our town's antique mall here, poking around in shelves and shelves of old books, a large collection of things left by a deceased dealer, and so everything is going at "3 for $5." Some great stuff, including a smattering of 19th century things with lithographs inside, fold-out maps, stuff like that, a first edition of Understanding Poetry in fine condition, etc. I was looking around to find stuff for my son Brooks, who is a really good, budding collagist. And I found some great things...

Anyway, as I am leaving, happy with my take, my eyes fall on a book lying face-up on a shelf, the white paper covers detached, but there. It is Les Gazettes D'Adrienne Monnier, 1925-1945, published by Rene Julliard, Paris. So I open the book and there is a folded letter inside. The sheet is approx. 4 X 6 in., is my guess. Both sides are filled with handwriting, a clearly legible script, paper in perfect condition.

It is a letter to a Mrs. Hannah, at Reid Hall, 4 rue de Chevreuse, Paris. VI. In it, the writer responds to the addressee's query about Proust, and mentions that she, along with Mademoiselle Monnier is ["... alas!, almost totally ignorant of Proust," but that she will gladly put her in touch with Maurice Bardou [sp?], at Gallimard, who will certainly be able to assist her with her research. The letter goes on in a very lovely way about when a visit from Mrs Hannah to the writer's apartment might be made, and so on. The letter is signed "Yours Sincerely, Sylvia Beach. Her name and address are printed in blue official stationary type at the top: SYLVIA BEACH, 12, Rue De L'Odeon, Paris, VI. The date is January 4th, 1954.

I found this in Freeport, Illinois, a town that is about as far away from the Lost Generation as one may imagine. I feel as thrilled as I did the day I stepped over a log in some timber in Lena, Illinois, and saw before me about thirty lbs. pounds of huge yellow morels, just sitting there, in all directions.

Isn't this amazing?"

In celebration of this delightful discovery, let me present... Les 4 Barbus!

I have two comments for now: First, 12 rue de l'Odeon is where Sylvia Beach hid her books during WWII (she was forced to close Shakespeare & Co. in 1941; Hemingway "liberated" it in '44!); and second, I find that bit about the huge yellow morels to be even more exciting than the find of a letter from S.B. Interested parties may like to investigate the book-bacon meme. Will wonders never cease? No, never!


the unreliable narrator said...


Anonymous said...


Thanks for posting some of the photos I took of the Beach material. My only disappoinment is that you didn't post the one of my receipt from Luecke's Antique Mall, in Freeport!

And perhaps 30 lbs. of morels is, as you say, even more exciting than a found-letter from S.B., but Les 4 Barbus, I'd say, are even more exciting than 30 lbs. of morels! Fabulous.

Just to note that the return address, 12 rue de l'Odeon, is printed/stenciled in blue (it's clearly personal stationary) in upper right corner of the letter-- one or two of the photos I sent tries to focus-in on this, though the blue doesn't show up in the pic. Is it possible that she made the address her office after Hemingway's "liberation" of the space in '44?

You had mentioned a Beach scholar at UC/ Berkeley, I believe, who might be able to comment on the letter and possibly the identity of the addressee, so feel free to send her all of the files I sent you. What seems of possible "literary interest" in the letter is the surprising (to me, anyway) comment regarding Proust.

One other note of interest: The book in which I found the letter has a sub-chapter on (translating from memory at moment) "Sylvia Beach and Walt Whitman," and another on "Joyce's Ulysses," of which Beach, of course, was first publisher.

Vive Les 4 Barbus! And thanks, Don.


Anonymous said...

My lord, I just realized something:

The book, in which I found the letter is by Adrienne Monnier, the same "Mademoiselle Monnier" Beach refers to in the letter! Her companion.

I have been so excited by the find that this fact staring me in the face totally slipped by me.

from the lost and failing generation of Freeport,


david lumsden said...

I wonder if that is 'Bardac' instead of 'Bardou'?? It's hard to make out in the photograph. Henri Bardac was a friend of Proust. Bardac contributed to the Proust issue of La Nouvelle Revue Française (Jan 1923), Bardac was a colleague of poet/novelist/playwright Paul Morand at the London Embassy. Morand also became a friend of Proust.

Anonymous said...

David, thanks, I'll look again tonight when I get home.

Was Bardac associated with Gallimard? That is how SB refers to him.

Interesting stuff.


david lumsden said...

No idea if Henri or any other Bardac was associated with Gallimard ... maybe Maurice was a relative - that is, if he is 'Bardac' ... as I was reading the letter in the context of Proust the name 'Bardac' simply appeared spontaneously as a possible reading. I'd be interested to hear what you find out.

the unreliable narrator said...

That the book was by Mme Monnier was in fact what smacked me momentarily gobless.

Stupendous find, wonderful omen for the new year. May it have many morels in it also!