Shari Benstock's Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940 examines the diverse community of American, British, and French women writers, editors, and publishers who settled in Paris early in this century. Benstock's aim is ambitious: she seeks to enlarge our perception of the modernist movement by directing our attention to the literary women whose contributions to "The Pound Era" have been generally ignored. Her study leads to great rewards. Women of the Left Bank is a tour de force, a beautifully written and elegantly constructed exemplum of revisionist history with which subsequent studies of the period must necessarily engage.
Benstock's splendid narrative of the expatriate experience of some twenty-two literary women who converged upon Paris early in this century addresses a central question: "What was it like to be a woman in literary Paris?" Importantly, Benstock's is not an exclusionary history. Pound, Joyce, Hemingway, and Proust among others figure prominently in her lively mapping of the intersections—and the interstices—of these women's lives; yet Benstock's focus is ultimately on the women whose contributions to modernism "have been doubly suppressed by history, either forgotten by the standard literary histories of the time or rendered inconsequential by memoirs and literary biographies." Quite self-consciously, then, Women of the Left Bank acts as a corrective to such works as Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era and Samuel Hynes's The Auden Generation, as well as to more recent feminist studies that reduce the wealth of women's writing to a single story, most notably, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic.
Not surprisingly, in constructing her narrative, Benstock takes care to avoid committing what may be termed "the Pound error," for she resists any notion of a monolithic interpretation of modernism or a definitive reading of women's experience. It is thus no accident that the title of her study refers to a community of women or that she addresses herself as much to the differences within this "community" [End Page 761] as to the similarities bonding these women's lives. Rejecting the idea of closure, most particularly in her discussion of the lesbian expatriates who came to Paris, Benstock makes clear her indebtedness to deconstruction, to the practice of "plot[ting] not only the differences between male and female, masculine and feminine, but the differences within each of these categories . . . the differences within gender."
Readers wary of the sometimes obfuscating discourse of deconstructive criticism will be relieved by Benstock's elegant and lucid prose. In portraying Edith Wharton's hesitating efforts to gain entry into the conservative Parisian salons, in contrasting Natalie Barney's espousal of an "ethics of promiscuity" with the stuffy formality of her lesbian salon, in recounting the disaster of Colette's marriage and her early persecution as a lesbian artist, in analyzing the heterosexist dynamics of the Stein-Toklas "marriage," in documenting Adrienne Monnier's aghast reaction to Joyce's financial exploitation of her lover Sylvia Beach—Benstock creates a brilliant mosaic of what seems at times a veritable city of literary women. Women of the Left Bank, in short, reads like a novel; as such, it should become a critical best seller.
Importantly, this study takes these women seriously as writers, editors, bookstore owners, and publishers. Accordingly, in recounting their lives, Benstock pointedly attends to the extensive contributions this literary community made to the aesthetics and politics of the modernist era. Through her incisive analysis of Gertrude Stein as "a linguistic cross-dresser," of the interrelationship between H. D.'s bisexual ethos and her experimental poetics, of Djuna Barnes's feminist critique of woman's self-alienation, and of Janet Flanner's prescient political commentary in her "Letters from Paris," Benstock unveils a dazzling display of the myriad "modernisms" these women crafted.
In attempting to chart so large a literary map, of course, Benstock's treatment of particular writers will occasionally be seen as unfair. Wharton scholars, for instance, will wince at her slanted portrait of the novelist as a...