cover image No Modernism Without Lesbians

No Modernism Without Lesbians

Diana Souhami. Head of Zeus, $33.71 (464p) ISBN 978-1-78669-486-7

Biographer Souhami (Gwendolen) argues in this vivid cultural history that modernism’s most notable artistic advances wouldn’t have happened without the efforts of an extraordinary community of lesbians in interwar Paris. Souhami narrates the lives of four women who fled the stultifying confines of their American and British upbringings and “painted, wrote, and published what they wanted.” Sylvia Beach opened the legendary English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company and started her own business to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses after no one else dared to run afoul of anti-pornography laws. Bryher, who born Winifred Ellerman and was the daughter of the richest man in England, used her fortune to support legions of impoverished artists. Natalie Barney hosted infamous salons, gathering the era’s most daring artists while also pursuing a prodigious number of affairs that Souhami delights in recounting. Gertrude Stein championed up-and-coming artists such as Pablo Picasso, who, like herself, challenged the idea that art needed to be comprehensible in order to be great. Souhami never quite teases out precisely her subjects’ role in the creation of modernism, or whether, perhaps, they flocked to Paris to take part in an already developing movement. Nonetheless, this often gossipy, always smart romp trains a well-deserved spotlight on lesser-appreciated literary and artistic lives. (May)