Celtic Junction Arts Review
James Joyce’s Refuge and Final Resting Place
Gratitude to Zurich, Switzerland
Gratitude. Delight. Wonders and marvels.
I had the marvelous good fortune to visit Zurich, Switzerland for a few days in December 2022. Yes, I relished the shimmering vista of its crystalline Liamat river and its cheery Christmas Markets and gawked at the items for sale on the Bahnhofstrasse, reputedly the most expensive street in the world. There is such placidity in this city. There is such plangent mellow beauty. There is such a sense of being orderly and whole.
Earlier in August 2022, I had visited the grave of A.E. Russell in Mount Jerome cemetery in Dublin and seen the birthplace of James Joyce in Rathgar. As the year wrapped up in December, I would also now visit the grave of Joyce. Birthplace and death place in one year had formed an orderly whole.
Zurich would be a milestone in my own circumnavigations of Ireland’s vagabond literary history. It wasn’t just me that felt gratitude. It would be fair to say that anyone of Irish heritage or with an affinity to such heritage would feel immense and deep gratitude to Zurich for its offering refuge during his life and then for preserving and honoring the achievement of James Joyce.
Eamon Hickey, the Irish Ambassador to Switzerland at a reception to celebrate Joyce at Christmas in the James Joyce Foundation featuring ‘Tale of the Gael’, a musical trio of Irish ex-pats, stated that “Ireland is forever grateful to Zurich for the care it afforded Joyce.” Hickey was practicing what Daniel Mulhall, Ireland’s former Ambassador to Washington and author of Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey called the “public diplomacy” of celebrating Ireland’s literature.
My sojourn, of course then, was on a deeper level something of a literary pilgrimage. It included popping into the James Joyce Foundation with its bulging shelves, its glass bookcases containing his walking sticks, his death mask, his coins, his suitcase tilted from a high shelf and even a strip of wallpaper taken from 7 Eccles Street, the fictional home of Leopold and Molly Bloom.
I had the opportunity to renew my acquaintance with Fritz Senn, the Foundation’s unstoppable Director who steadily remembered the Zoom April 2022 Irish Arts Week seminar we’d conducted on the 100th anniversary year of the publication of Ulysses.
My sojourn then included visiting sites associated with his years there including his hyper cool grave where I half-chanted aloud – rocking back and forth in a semi-hypnotic trance – portions from “The Dead” and paragraphs from A.E. Russell’s mystical autobiographical essay collection The Candle of Vision (1918). This wasn’t because a shamanic discombobulation had possessed me, but rather their music and cadence would dance in the electrons and quarks of anyone’s bone marrow. “History,” T.S. Eliot insisted “is a pattern woven from timeless moments.” This was one such moment.
I was a “pilgrim soul” in Yeats’s phrase at a shrine of sorts, indeed. If Samuel Beckett had observed “I’ve no bone to pick with graveyards,” who was I not to pay homage to Ireland’s greatest experimental prose artist.
Why read aloud A.E. Russell (1967-1935)? Joyce had himself acknowledged in Ulysses (1922) his deep debt to the Lurgan-born poet, artist, mystic, and editor in an amusing phrase: A.E.I.O.U. Russell, described by the American critic James Kain, as “the luminous center of the Irish Literary Renaissance” was the first editor to recognize and encourage Joyce’s genius.
The A.E. scholar and book collector, John Donohoe reminded me that Joyce was on the way to see A.E. at his editorial office in Merrion Square in Dublin when he first ran into Nora Barnacle, a statuesque and self-possessed Galway woman working as a chamber maid in Finn’s Hotel – on Dublin’s Nassau street in 1904. “Two loves – his writing and his future wife -were conjoined.” Indeed, Nora would be interred in due course beside Joyce in Zurich.
James Joyce’s favorite photograph captured him shrouded in a dark coat and tilted-back hat. He is characteristically quizzical, exploratory, detached, and self-contained. He is standing with arms jauntily akimbo looking out towards Lake Zurich at the confluence of two rivers – the Liamat and the Sihl – in Zurich, Switzerland. It is the Platzspitz – “The Meeting of the Waters” and reminded him of the Irish poet Thomas Moore’s song – one of his favorites – of the same title. It was taken by his friend Carola Giedion-Weicker and was a portrait of himself, at last, he murmured, that gave him some pleasure.
He died there unexpectedly a few weeks shy of his 59th birthday on February 2 at the Red Cross hospital from an intestinal ulcer on January 13, 1941. His widow Nora Barnacle was consoled that his grave was adjacent to the zoo as he would appreciate the roaring of its animals as he was “very fond of lions.”
He is buried in its serene and herbaceous Fluntern Cemetery just a short fifteen-minute tram ride from the James Joyce Foundation, presided over by the irrepressible and vigorous Fritz Senn, Joycean scholar and author, still going strong today at 94 years of age.
A statue by the American sculptor Milton Hebald was specially designed and unveiled in 1966 as the City of Zurich commemorated him formally with a memorial grave. The city is deeply important to understanding his achievement as a Modernist writer.
As Irish-born critic Padraig Rooney points out in his excellent literary history, The Gilded Chalet: Off-piste in Literary Switzerland Joyce and Nora first disembarked in Zurich on 11 October, 1904 in reduced financial circumstances – a condition that would characterize almost the entirety of their relationship – with Joyce in borrowed boots. They had eloped from Dublin via Paris. “They were to stick by each other through poverty, two world wars, family crisis and literary fame. They were to find themselves back in Zurich again and again, always by the skin of their teeth.” The lovers were only in Zurich for a week before a job opening in Trieste took them off again vagabonding across Europe.
As he had a British passport, he took refuge from the vagaries of World War One and lived there again from July 1915 to October 1919 where he wrote twelve of the eighteen chapters of Ulysses. He and Nora stayed again briefly in the same Gasthaus Hoffnung where they’d lived in 1904. Rooney asserts: “Zurich during the First World War was awash with refugees and war profiteers – a vibrant hodgepodge of pacifists, revolutionaries, anarchists, and artists who kept the Swiss police in shoe leather. Lenin arrived in 1916, taking a room one hundred yards from the Cabaret Voltaire where the Dada movement held noisy court. . . Lenin was a habitué of the Café Odéon and most likely rubbed shoulders there with Joyce. . . From a provincial town, Zurich had grown to become the centre of European modernism.” He visited repeatedly to undergo operations for eye disease in the twenties and thirties. His final visit was in 1940 to avoid the German incursions in France.
When standing at his grave, how should one assess this Irish writer? Definitely Ireland’s most brilliantly experimental and relentlessly expansive prose artist, James Joyce (1882-1941) established his reputation with four classics that curve upwards and outwards with relentless creativity like an ever-expanding spiral staircase reaching up into transcendent mystery. The first and smallest spiral is that of Dubliners (1914) which offered fifteen realist prose sketches written – in Joyce’s acerbic phrase – with “scrupulous meanness.”
The book culminated in his first masterpiece, the novella-long story “The Dead” written mostly in Rome in 1907. The famous concluding paragraph still mesmerizes with its uncanny transcendent epiphany: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Joyce’s realism bursts apart in a cosmic epiphany of epiphanies.
Joyce’s creativity refused to rest. The spiral looped into a larger shape. His next book is the five chapters of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). This novel introduced his alter ego Stephen Dedalus, named for the artist/engineer in ancient Greece who built the coiled chambers to hold the minotaur. The prose in each chapter “grows up” in the sophistication of its syntax and vocabulary and allusive lyricism as the artist moves from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood thereby deepening his thinking about art and literature. Dedalus in the last chapter leaves Ireland for Paris to express “the uncreated conscience of his race.”
The spiral staircase of his achievement took an enormous whirl in his next work. Dedalus returns to Dublin in the modernist eighteen-chapter novel employing Homeric parallels, Ulysses (1922). Published in Paris on February 2, Joyce’s fortieth birthday by Sylvia Beach’s bookshop Shakespeare and Company, its publication was epoch-making and established 1922 as the high point year of international modernism. “The shock of the new,” was how this innovative cultural movement was best summed up by the American expatriate poet and friend and supporter of Joyce, Ezra Pound.
Joyce refused to rest on his laurels. His creative muse pushed him beyond even the boundaries of realism, of time, of space, of linear order. The spiral staircase plunged upwards into a dark lunar glow of rule-breaking creativity. He refused to bask in the adulation and fame that accompanied the publication Ulysses which had been denounced by American censors as “that most dangerous book”. He continued to shock and be new in his final masterpiece written over seventeen years, Finnegans Wake (1939).
It is an extraordinary book. It is a dream in an invented polyglot language that is exuberantly comic and startling. Yet it is endlessly and inexhaustibly both obscure and lucid. Its word coinages rise into comprehension and sink into puzzlement just as a dream is a whirligig of bursting insights and foggy obscurity. It’s opening line “riverrun past Eve and Adam’s. . .” is an interrupted sentence whose missing line isn’t reached until 688 pages later in the novel’s concluding line: “a way a lone a last a loved a long the.” Thus time, history, consciousness turns again and again anew into fresh epochs and fresh possibilities. Lucidity. Obscurity. Mystery. Ignorance. Both tumbling over each other as a river disgorges into a sea.
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