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Art Beat
A weekly look at creativity, arts, and culture in southwest Michigan, hosted by Zinta Aistars.Fridays in Morning Edition at 7:50am and at 4:20pm during All Things Considered.

Art Beat: Triumph over censorship

Peter Su

The Paris Bookseller (Penguin Random House, 2022), a new historical novel by Kerri Maher, chronicles the life of bookseller Sylvia Beach, the founder of the iconic Paris bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. 

Nearly 100 years ago, Beach fought and triumphed over censorship in order to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is a story Maher says she has wanted to write for a very long time, since she was a student.

“I’ve been carrying Sylvia’s story around in my heart and mind for the better part of my life,” Maher says. “I was an undergraduate who was obsessed with Paris in the 1920s. I was an English major, those were my favorite classes. In my pleasure reading, I would select novels from the time period.”

A conversation with Kerri Maher.
Credit Penguin Random House
The cover image of Kerri Maher's 2022 novel

One day, when Maher was on one of her used bookstore treasure hunts during her college years, she came across a memoir by Sylvia Beach, describing her life and how she opened Shakespeare and Company. Maher was intrigued and never forgot the story.

“I filed it away under ‘good to know,’” Maher says. “So it’s sort of amazing to me that it took me 20 more years to realize she deserved her own novel. But in some ways, I’m glad it took me so long. I had two historical novels under my belt before it came time for me to sit down and write her story.”

The Paris Bookseller traces not only the story of the bookseller but in great part also the life of renown writer James Joyce, whose novel Ulysses was deemed “obscenity” in the American courts when excerpts were first publishes in a literary review. Beach felt otherwise—so much so that she befriended the author and took up the publication and distribution of the novel. On the perimeters of the story are other literary greats—Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and others. Shakespeare and Company was their cultural hub of the day.

“Sylvia saw that James Joyce’s novel was going to change the world,” Maher says. “His book was bold in so many different ways. It was bold formally, his use of sentencing and punctuation and paragraphing was really unique and different. It was really avant garde for the time. He also employed the interior monologue technique, which was very new, and he was also very bold in his representation of what happens in the human mind and what happens in the human body. These were things that were shied away from.”

Schuler Books in Grand Rapids is hosting a live virtual event with Kerri Maher at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, January 18, 2022. Registration is free. There will be a free Q&A with questions submitted through Zoom.

Kerri Maher is the author of The Girl in White Gloves, The Kennedy Debutante, and, under the name Kerri Majors, This is Not a Writing Manual: Notes for the Young Writer in the Real World. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and was a writing professor for many years. She now writes full-time and lives with her daughter and dog in a leafy suburb west of Boston, Massachusetts

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