The French Review 61.6 (1988): 999-1000.
BENSTOCK, SHARI. Women of the Left Bank Paris, 1900-1940. Austin: U of Texas P, 1986. Pp. 518.
[Reprinted with the permission of The French Review]
It might seem inappropriate to readers of this journal that a review of a book ostensibly devoted to the primarily American expatriate community in Paris from la belle époque to World War II would appear in these pages. However, the curious reader will discover in this volume a most rewarding wealth of material on the important impact that Parisian culture made on the development of literary Modernism. For Shari Benstocks study is a tour de force of biographical, literary, historical and critical analyses which confront and dismantle numerous idées reçues about two dozen French and American women artists through careful scrutiny both of historical evidence recording their lives and loves in Paris and of selected works at the center of their diverse literary endeavors.
This study is carefuly, framed by two introductory chapters which situate clearly the cultural and sexual context of the settlement and interchanges in Paris of the women soon to become important social and literary figures, and by two concluding chapters which explain the socio-literary conditions entre les deux guerres preceding and preparing the abandonment of Parisian, and for some of these women, European society in the late 1930s. The other chapters establish a veritable geography of the literary and cultural lives in this community; the pair of chapters which complete the initial section, entitled 'Discoveries,' reveals the concomitant social and sexual practices existing in the limited space of the Faubourg Saint-Germain (focusing on Natalie Barney, Colette, Gertrude Stein and Edith Wharton), and the transatlantic correspondence of Janet Flanner. In the central section, 'Settlements.' Benstock concentrates on the lives and works of key figures: of Stein and Alice B. Toklas on rue de Fleurus; of Sylvia Beach (founder of the bookstore, Shakespeare and Company) and Adrienne Monnier (founder of La Maison des Amis des Livres) on rue de l'Odéon; of Djuna Bames on rue St.-Romain; and of 'Sappho's Circle' founded by Natalie Barney), on rue Jacob. The individual portraits included in the third section, 'Crossroads,' emphasize the importance of Modernist figures living either outside the Parisian mainstream (H.D. and Bryher) or in support of Parisian literary aeation, i.e., the role of numerous small literary presses and magazines (founded by Winifred Ellerman, Robert McAlmon, Margaret Anderson, Jane Heap, and Eugene and Maria Jolas, among others).
But more than a biographical survey, Shari Benstock's study accepts the difficult challenges of rectifying historical misconceptions and distortions of the writing and sexual politics of these expatriate women while also discussing their literary achievements from current feminist and deconstructive perspectives. Indeed, this volume is a major contribution to the construction of a feminist poetics of female Modernist women's writing, and Benstock emphasizes that her goal is to highlight the differences of Modernist women's experience. This study, says Benstock, not only 'examines communities of women established on the Paris Left Bank without arguing for a single female community grounded on the solidarity (and comrnunality) of female experience,' but also maps 'the cracks and divisions of the Modernist façade, exposing the ways in which individual contributions to this eclectic movement have been effaced in the effort to render Modernism monolithic' (x-xi). Furthermore, to this ambitious critical enterprise, one must add the complementary strengths of the cogency and remarkable readability of Benstock's arguments, analyses and critical confrontations. In fact, it is unusual in academia that one encounters such an important scholarly work which is equally as rigorous as it is enjoyable. Readers will have the added pleasure of encountering an already familiar historical setting from the perspective of a misunderstood, yet no less significant domain of literary and cultural production.
Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University