Paris in the 1920s and 1930s saw an explosion of painting, sculpture, music, and literature, and helped create a Bohemian lifestyle on the Left Bank. This remarkable inter-war era in the City of Light featured such luminaries as Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and Kurt Weill, as well as the pioneering aesthete Gertrude Stein. This program features some of the literary figures who helped define the era, and more.
Among the central figures was the bookstore owner Sylvia Beach, whose Shakespeare & Company—opened in 1919—became a home away from home for her community of writers. Beach turned her little bookshop on the bank of the Seine into a very major source of “the new writing” and transformed herself into a key contributor to the history of twentieth-century literature. For one thing, she courageously decided to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, after it had been rejected by most other publishers as too risky.
In her memoir Shakespeare & Company, Beach recalls her beginnings. Martha Plimpton reads “A Bookshop of My Own” and “Setting Up Shop.”
One of the many remarkable facts about the group of Americans who were drawn to Paris in the inter-war years was how many of them were African-Americans who sought and often found acceptance, artistic breathing space, and even community in Montmartre and the Left Bank. A prime example is the novelist James Baldwin, who was born in Harlem in 1924 and moved to Paris in 1948.
SHORTS literary commentator Hannah Tinti notes: “In an interview, Baldwin said that it was in Paris that he was first able to come to grips with his explosive relationship with America, and with himself. ‘Once you find yourself in another civilization,” he said, “you’re forced to examine your own.’”
We hear a little of that process in an excerpt from his “No Name in the Street,” read by Gbenga Akinnagbe.
Continuing with our literary celebration of the City of Light, we turn to perhaps the most iconic of the “Americans in Paris,” Ernest Hemingway, a regular denizen of Beach’s Shakespeare & Company. In his book A Moveable Feast he conjures up both the magic of Paris, and his struggle as an unpublished writer living mostly on faith. John Shea reads the excerpt “Hunger was Good Discipline.”
At the end of the book Hemingway concludes that it was all worth it: “There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were nor how it was changed nor with what difficulties nor what ease it could be reached. It was always worth it and we received a return for whatever we brought to it.”
The final story on this program is certainly Bohemian, though it isn’t set in Paris. It’s a fantastical tale by the contemporary short story writer Helen Phillips and it was written especially for us as part of the SELECTED SHORTS commissioning project. Tinti comments, “This story has a fun take on the classic dinner party. What would happen if you could suddenly do what you really wanted with all the guests in the room?”
Helen Phillips is the author of the novel And Yet They Were Happy, and the children’s book Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green. She teaches creative writing at Brooklyn College. Her story “The Messy Joy of the Final Throes of the Dinner Party” is read by Kaneza Schaal.
Many of our SELECTED SHORTS audience will have heard of the sad death of our founder and host Isaiah Sheffer on Thursday, November 8. This program was the last he recorded with us; we are happy to remembering him as he was happiest—zestfully enjoying great writers in their habitats. LISTEN TO THE SHOW