Shelf Life

Shelf Life

The Letters of Sylvia Beach; Günter Eich’s Angina Days: Selected Poems


During a stay in Manhattan in 1956, Sylvia Beach, founder of the legendary English-language Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Company, mailed to Harriet Weaver, former editor of the fabled little magazine The Egoist, a description of the view from her hotel near the East River. "It is a big, rough, rushing workingman of a river with tugboats busy with their jobs and barges and freighters interesting to watch. It is next door to the United Nations, but I prefer the tugs." The image is telling: the architect of a crossroads of literary Modernism favoring not the ambassadors mingling in concrete and glass but the tugs nosing vital vessels up- and downriver, against tricky currents.

We know the story of Beach’s life. Beach told a version a half-century ago in her memoir Shakespeare and Company; Shari Benstock offered another thirty years later in Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900–1940. With The Letters of Sylvia Beach (Columbia; $29.95), edited by Kari Walsh, we now have an unvarnished view of life from the bookshop floor, the scene of many of Beach’s worries and triumphs. Her taste was impeccable. She published Ulysses, arranged for the first French translation of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," translated Henri Michaux and advocated for a French edition of Yeats’s poems. But there’s no use denying it: her letters are generally tedious. Literary gossip, personal confessions, rants, raves and judgments about the work of the authors Beach championed are mostly absent. (But that should not be taken as a sign of deficiency. If the decision to publish Ulysses doesn’t count as a sound judgment, what does?) Her letters, dutiful exercises in the tallying of personal and business obligations renewed, satisfied and overdue, often feel like they were torn from a ledger. During a 1953 trip to Manhattan, Beach wrote to her lover Adrienne Monnier in Paris, "I intend to make a list of those dishes" that had attracted her eye "and some adjectives that accompany them." Judging from the letters, she never did.

Yet in the tedium of the letters lies a valuable lesson: literary institutions are hard-won achievements. Beach "worked in the arts and lived over the store," writes Noël Riley Fitch in his foreword to the volume. Walsh has carefully warehoused an accidental inventory of the obstacles and difficulties that Beach faced there—fluctuating capital, pirated editions, unreliable postal service, sponges (in 1930 Joyce took 13,000 francs in "overdrafts" from Shakespeare and Company)—and that she often surmounted through resourcefulness, fortitude and the complications of luck. Minding the store was a hard life for Beach—big, rough, rushing—but always worth it. Three cheers for the tugs.

* * *

World War II gave Günter Eich a second chance as a poet. In the 1930s he was an aspiring twentysomething writer who lived in Berlin and Dresden and published second-rate lyric poems. In 1939 he was drafted into the Wehrmacht; six years later he returned from the war with his civilian status restored. He called himself "a registered refugee with a backpack." He had little else to his name: his manuscripts had been destroyed when an Allied bomber flattened his apartment in Berlin. He started writing again. In 1950 he read poems at a gathering of Gruppe 47, which was founded three years earlier to rejuvenate German as a language for poetry in the wake of the Third Reich. Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll and other members of the Gruppe were impressed and awarded Eich their inaugural literary prize.

Scenes of isolated survival amid bewildering change appear throughout Angina Days (Princeton; $24.95), an excellent comprehensive bilingual selection of Eich’s poems edited and translated by Michael Hofmann. "When I opened the window/fishes swam into the room,/herrings," writes Eich in "Where I Live." "They are a nuisance. But more annoying/are the sailors." With the poetry of Paul Celan, another member of Gruppe 47, one encounters what Heather McHugh has called an "unforeknown language" latent with poised equivalencies and paradoxes of dimension. That’s not the case with Eich, whose compressed poems are unsettling and disturbing but rarely unmoored or cryptic.

Eich is irascible, but more a fool than a scold. "Increase" is a complaint, but about sea cucumbers or the poet? "The existence of sea cucumbers/bothers me,/especially the question:/did I fail/to notice them before,/or have there/really gotten to be/more of them?" Eich is perplexed but rarely embattled, a temperament manifested in his relation to time. Here is "Memorial":

The moors we wanted to hike have been drained.
Their turf has warmed our evenings.
The wind is full of black dust.
It scours the names of gravestones
and etches this day
into us.

And here is "Last Week":

Wednesday. The chestnuts are in a rush.
No verb
can prevent Thursday.

My father would be a hundred now.
His heirs have come to an accommodation,
are lugging sacks of chestnuts
against the wall—where they are
forgotten like symmetries.

Everywhere we are being overtaken.

In Delhi, if a man dies,
he is unable to drop.

It is not surrender but a blending of helplessness and determination that enables Eich to convey his bewilderment about the world, and its overtakenness.

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