Friday, 10 February 2017

Last Memories of Joyce

Here's another quotation from Nino Frank, describing the last bleak period in Joyce's life:

Joyce in 1938 by Gisele Freund
'Harnessed to an inhuman task, this man had been leading an hallucinatory and raw-nerved life for a long time. By a supreme effort during the years 1938 and 1939 he had finally completed Finnegans Wake. This was an event of the utmost importance for himself, but not for the so-called civilised world, which at that time was otherwise occupied....On the day when he held the first copies in his hands, the continent was crossing the threshold of night; from then on, all was lost in the inane noise of the first cannonades.
   The last stage of Joyce's life was therefore to be a time when the arrow shot from his bow disappeared into a derisive void. When the self relaxes after such a long effort, it no longer offers any resistance to the forces of destruction. The avidness with which James Joyce sought some attention for his work was without any doubt the cry of a life in danger. I was informed that, his daughter still mentally unbalanaced, his daughter-in-law in turn had to be hospitalized. It was as if around the old hero – I have mentioned Oedipus as well as Don Quixote: doesn't Finnegans Wake seem to be man's answer to the sphinx? – some obscure vengeance of the gods was falling.'

Nino Frank, 'The Shadow That Had Lost Its Man' in Portraits of the Artist in Exile ed Potts.

Here's a similar memory of that time, from Georges Belmont, in a 1982 account translated by Anthony Burgess:

'In my final view of him – the most precious of all – at the end of February 1940, I left him at about two in the morning. I was taking the dawn train. Back in Paris I remember telling some friends that I’d never see him again – it was all over. And I wasn’t thinking merely of the inevitable separation of war – I was thinking of Goethe after Faust Part II, Wagner after Parsifal, of the death – the most natural of deaths – which seizes the great creators after they’ve said all they have to say.
In that little hotel at Saint-Gérand-le-Puy, when I asked him if he was working at something, he replied with a smile and a sigh – “I’m adding commas to Finnegans Wake.” Then, after one of his long silences, he laughed and said: “If I write anything new, it will be something very very simple.” It was the best way, the quietest and most resigned way, of telling me that he’d write no more.'

Joyce with Paul Léon
I was reminded me of John Naughton's 1991 interview with Alexis Léon, the son of Paul Léon, Joyce's unpaid assistant while he was writing the Wake.

'My main memory of Mr Joyce is of a very quiet man. He used to come and sit, with long periods of silence, in his favourite armchair in our living room, and he and my father would talk together or would be working on some papers and so on. Like my father, he was a man of great courtesy and as I grew a little bit older I thought of them as quiet beacons of civilisation in a world that was very much in upheaval – havens of grace perhaps, under pressure....
  Why was he so devoted to Mr Joyce? Well, first of all, he admired him. And I think he felt he should help because after all Mr Joyce was labouring under many disadvantages and doing something which had never been attempted before....He was breaking the bounds of language and bringing into literature a whole stream of coinsciousness....
  The last memory I have comes from St Gérand-le-Puy during the exodus from Paris. I remember my father and Mr Joyce sitting or taking walks, very often without talking, just like that.
  Once, while I was dashing around on a bicycle, I found them sitting on a tree trunk looking at something. Joyce pointed to an earwig that was coming out of a log and he said 'Ah, here's HCE, here comes HCE' – H.C. Earwicker, one of the characters of Finnegans Wake. They were both watching it and they truly thought it was a sign.
  That is my last memory of Joyce. He then went back to Zurich and my father and I left for Paris. The war did its work and both men died. But I have never forgotten those three or four years, when I came close to someone who left his mark on this century.'   

'Arm in Arm With A Literary Legend', The Observer, 13 January 1991 
I've found another interview with Alexis Léon in the Irish Times, where he says:

'(Joyce) was courteous but very silent. He was good with children. His eyesight may have been impaired, but he had an ear open to the world....In writing Finnegans Wake, Joyce was breaking the bonds of language. He would check ways of saying things with my father, who could speak seven languages.'
In 1941, Paul Léon risked his life to save Joyce's papers, left behind in his flat in occupied Paris:

'Paul and a handy man we sometimes employed made two trips with a pushcart, and it was only later I realized how distasteful entering someone else's home and rummaging through private possessions had been to my husband. He told me he hoped he had saved everything of importance, and I suggested that he go once more and make sure. Paul looked at me very steadily and said very gently, 'Do you realize what you are saying?''   

Lucie Noel (Léon), quoted by Danis Rose, The Textual Diaries of James Joyce, p 4

It's thanks to those two trips with a pushcart that we can read Joyce's notebooks and manuscripts in the National Library of Ireland and the University of Buffalo.

Léon was arrested by the Gestapo in October 1941, and murdered in Auschwitz the following April.

1 comment:

  1. This is excellent, thank you.

    The last few years of Joyce's life are the most fascinating part of his bio for me. Putting the finishing touches on his masterpiece, an "abnihilisation of the etym" whose densely compacted energy of love/joy/irreverence could match the force of the atom bomb, desperately trying to finish the text and pleading for the attention of patient readers. All while the Nazi bombardment was making its way across Europe.

    The note on Léon, a key figure in the composition of the most joyful and life-affirming book ever written, being captured and killed at Auschwitz is especially poignant.