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This past July, author Ellis Avery was presented with the American Library Association Barbara Gittings/ Stonewall Award for Fiction. In accepting her award, Avery delivered an insightful speech about her two librarian idols : lovers and avant-garde literary impresarios Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, who owned bookshops across the street from each other in 1920s Paris.
Avery was gracious enough to share her speech with Lambda Literary.
What an honor it is to accept the American Library Association Barbara Gittings/ Stonewall Award for fiction. Thank you all so very much. I want to honor the memory of librarian and lesbian activist Barbara Gittings, for whom this award is named, for the pivotal role she played in getting homosexuality removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s manual of mental illnesses in 1973. I love it that she celebrated by posing with a newspaper headline reading: “Twenty Million Homosexuals Gain Instant Cure.” Of course we still have a long way to go, but from 1973 to 2013, it’s thrilling to see how far we’ve come in the past forty years. Thank you, ALA, and THANK YOU, Barbara Gittings!
My novel, The Last Nude, set in 1927 Paris, was inspired by the Russo-Polish Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka and the young woman who modeled for her most famous painting, Beautiful Rafaela. I first saw this painting at the Royal Academy in London in 2004, where I was startled to read, right there on the wall in prim curatorial presstype, that De Lempicka met Rafaela on a walk in the Bois de Boulogne and brought her back to the studio: the two women became lovers, and their relationship lasted six months to a year, generating six of de Lempicka’s most powerful paintings. I found the story of this public park pickup hair-raisingly sexy all by itself, but what’s especially moving to me is that the last painting de Lempicka was working on when she died in 1980 was a copy of her 1927 Beautiful Rafaela. Fifty-three years later, Rafaela—whether it was the painting or the girl herself—was still on de Lempicka’s mind. My novel imagines the 1927 affair between the painter and the model from Rafaela’s point of view, and then in a second section imagines Tamara de Lempicka’s last day alive in 1980, spent making that copy of Beautiful Rafaela, from the painter’s own point of view.
Today, in order to thank you all for doing what you do, I want to take a minute to remember two of my all-time favorite librarians, two real, historical figures who also appear in my novel: Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier.
Sylvia Beach was the original publisher of Ulysses, and founder of the Shakespeare and Company lending library and bookstore, which was the literary epicenter of Anglophone Paris between the wars. Just a few doors down from Shakespeare and Company stood La Maison des Amis des Livres, the French-language library and bookstore founded by Sylvia’s partner Adrienne Monnier, who also founded the avant-garde literary magazine Le Navire d’Argent and was a lifelong publisher and translator of English and French fiction and poetry. In order to talk about Sylvia and Adrienne, I do need to tell a little of my own story.
Until I was sixteen years old, the only lesbians I encountered in print were in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s science fiction, and the message that that sent to me was, “It’s okay to be gay…on another planet!” I had family members I loved who were gay, and my parents believed it was important to protect me from this knowledge. At fifteen I was sleeping with my best friend, and it was safer for me to imagine we were the only two girls like us on earth than to imagine myself as disgusting or less than human, which is the message that kids in the Eighties were getting from their peers.
And then when I turned sixteen, during the summer between high school and college, I took a course at the American University in Paris called Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties, taught by Noel Riley Fitch. Thanks to her, I encountered a wealth of examples of lesbians, including and especially Sylvia and Adrienne, as well as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Djuna Barnes, Natalie Barney, Janet Flanner, Solita Solano, Bryher, and H.D., all of whom figure very briefly in my novel.
And suddenly, though I wasn’t yet out to myself, lesbians weren’t scary to me anymore; they were beautiful and exciting and smart; they opened libraries and bookstores; they published books, and even wrote them. Sylvia was a guiding spirit to me as a young artist, just as she is to Rafaela in my book. And I loved Sylvia and Adrienne as a couple: after I came out, the fact of them was a beacon to me that I, too, would find love one day. I especially love Adrienne Monnier because, after years of watching James Joyce exploit Sylvia’s labor and resources and then, when it finally looked like she might be able to break even, go on to break his contract with her in order to sign with Random House, Adrienne was the one to stand up to him. And lastly, I may also have a special fondness for Adrienne because I look a little like her.
Perhaps because I grew up, as many of us did, in a vacuum of lesbian representation, when I first encountered Tamara de Lempicka’s stunning paintings of women and read about her relationship with the model for Beautiful Rafaela, I was so happy to encounter a sexy, glamorous, magnificent example of lesbian representation that then it was disappointing that the more I read about Tamara, the more fascinating she became, but the less I liked her.
So I needed to make my Tamara as complicated, as ruthlessly driven, as sexually compulsive, as ambitious, as deluded, as cruel, and as charming as the real Tamara seems to have been. She was all these things, and she slept with women, but I didn’t for a moment want to suggest that women who sleep with women are necessarily any of these things. I could have whitewashed Tamara, but a flatly heroic lesbian character would be just as dishonest as the evil or suicidal lesbians of the bad old days. Just as I tried to sidestep stereotypical writing about Japanese people in my first novel, by representing dozens of them, in this book too, my way of dealing with issues of representation is not to suppress, but rather to amplify. Rather than making Tamara seem better than she was, I counterbalance a biographical, real, historical woman who used and betrayed a younger and less powerful female lover with two other real, biographical women who were loyal to each other and who were equals, both in the power they wielded out in the world and in their relation to one another.
So the role that Sylvia and Adrienne play in my novel is to offer a strong counterbalance to Tamara for the reader, yes, but also for Rafaela. They offer a way to make it plausible for Rafaela to imagine, despite evidence to the contrary, that she could have a relationship with Tamara that looked much more like a marriage than like an affair.
The reading list I devoured that summer in Paris helped me imagine a future not just as a lesbian, but also as a writer. Just so, concurrent with the story of the affair with Tamara, I’ve written a novel in which Rafaela discovers, almost behind her own back, that she’s an artist too, albeit in the trivialized and demoted art of fashion.
So it’s not at random that I give Sylvia and, in particular, Adrienne, the last word in the first part of my book. I didn’t end the Rafaela section with the end of the affair. Instead, I ended with a scene in which Sylvia tells Rafaela, “Just think, so many people get their hearts broken and have nothing to show for it. At least you can point to those gorgeous paintings out in the world.” My point, and here I’m quoting Keri Walsh, editor of The Letters of Sylvia Beach, is that Beach, drawing on her own experiences with a modernist megalomaniac, doesn’t want Rafaela to undervalue her role in helping to bring de Lempicka’s best work into being. After this exchange, Adrienne admires a dress that Rafaela made and tells her, “You should keep at it, Rafaela. You have a gift.”
Sylvia’s right, that the affair with Tamara wasn’t in vain because these gorgeous paintings came out of it. But Adrienne’s right, too, when she recognizes and validates Rafaela’s self-discovery as an artist: not only did Tamara use Rafaela as an object, she also, inadvertently, gave Rafaela a future as a subject, by giving her a model of how to be a working artist.
Although Tamara and Rafaela’s affair doesn’t last, through Sylvia and Adrienne, I’m able to lay out some prehistory to the current struggles over gay marriage, culminating in last month’s historic ruling. The idea of marrying Tamara isn’t just a fantasy that Rafaela invents whole cloth, it’s a way of being—in the world and in a relationship—that she sees every day. It just isn’t Tamara’s way of being. But not only is this how Rafaela sees Sylvia and Adrienne, and not only is this the role they play in this novel, it really was how the biographical Sylvia and Adrienne conducted their lives: even after their sexual relationship ended, they still moved in together again at the end of Adrienne’s life.
So this is what Sylvia and Adrienne gave to me, through their loyalty to books and to one another. And this is what each of you, as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered librarians, give to your patrons: access, through books, to a richer world, and through your courageous example, access to a truer self. For that, I thank them and I thank you. I only hope that my work can pass on to readers even a little of what my favorite librarians have given to me. Thank you.
Ellis Avery is the only writer ever to have received the American Library Association Stonewall Award for Fiction twice, she is the author of two novels and a memoir. Her novels, The Last Nude (Riverhead 2012) and The Teahouse Fire (Riverhead 2007) have also received Lambda, Ohioana, and Golden Crown awards, and her work has been translated into six languages. She teaches writing at Columbia University and out of her home in Manhattan’s West Village.
Photo: Ellis Avery (Photo credit: Matthew David Powell)