Rejoycing in the literary luminaries of Paris
9th July, 2011
One day in the late 1920s, an Irish priest arrived in Sylvia Beach’s legendary bookshop, Shakespeare & Company, then located at 12 rue de l’Odeon, Paris. He bought a copy of Ulysses by James Joyce. Then he asked: ‘‘Any more spicy books?”
Combing Ulysses for the naughty bits, he was doubtless disappointed: expecting porn, he found himself in possession of Joyce’s humane, inventive, vastly plural magnum opus, a book that had taken seven years to write and that carried Ezra Pound’s instruct ion to ‘‘Make it new!” about as far as was literarily possible.
Conor Fennell’s excellent new book - the first publication from Green Lamp Media - is bursting with similarly memorable anecdotes.
A Little Circle of Kindred Minds (the title is from Joyce’s story A Little Cloud) is thoroughly researched, cleanly written and full of sharp-eyed critical insights.
But you could just as easily enjoy it as a compendium of literary gossip, a guidebook to artistic Paris or even as a potted history of how various Irish artists responded to the policies of the nascent Irish Free State.
Fennell - a former RTE reporter and editor - begins with Joyce’s arrival in Paris in July 1920. It wasn’t Joyce’s first visit to the City of Light: his first, abortive Parisian interlude, in 1903, was interrupted by a telegram from his father that read ‘ ‘NOTHER DYING COME HOME FATHER’’ - an occasion and a typo preserved in Ulysses.
Joyce came back to Paris from Trieste in 1920 to see about French translations of his earlier books. He ended up staying for 20 years.
Naturally enough, A Little Circle of Kindred Minds is steeped in the perennial romance of Paris in the 1920s. As Malcolm Cowley put it, ‘‘for a dozen years after the war, almost every aspirant in every art spent more or less time in Paris’’.
The former artists’ hub of Montmartre had become commercialised and expensive. The postwar influx of writers and artists gathered instead in Montparnasse and the Left Bank.
They included Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, Djuna Barnes, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Picasso, Tristan Tzara, Robert McAlmon, Samuel Beckett, George Moore, and - of course - Joyce.
The exchange rate was hugely in their favour; it was a period of conservatism and reaction in the Anglophone countries, including the newly independent Ireland; and Paris, Henry James’s ‘‘great literary workshop of Europe’’, became a locus for sexual and artistic freedom.
For the Irish writers and artists who gathered there - Arthur Power, Padraic and Mary Colum, Thomas McGreevy - Paris was also ‘‘a free space beyond Anglocentric images of Ireland’’.
Unsurprisingly, the Irish expatriates gathered around Joyce. Fennell’s method in A Little Circle of Kindred Minds is to present Joyce from the perspectives of those who knew him best in Paris.
It’s amusing to find that most o f them regarded him as disappointingly bourgeois, living in gloomy rented apartments with his wife and children and seldom frequenting the Parisian salons and cafes.
‘‘I’m only a simple middleclass man,” Joyce asserted.
Irish visitors expecting a bohemian eccentric found instead a family man who enjoyed playing the piano, and who seemed only to want to talk about the Dublin he had left: ‘‘Is Mulvaney’s shop still there on the corner?”
And, as always, there was Nora, steadfastly unimpressed by her husband’s genius. Once, when a drunken Joyce had locked himself in the bathroom, Nora turned to William Bird and said: ‘‘He may be a genius to them, but look at him, what is he to me?”
In Fennell’s pages you will learn Joyce’s favourite tipple (Cinzano), his favourite restaurant (Fouquet’s), his feelings about being Irish: ‘‘I regret it, for the temperament it has given me.”
The portrait Fennell offers is necessarily incomplete. But there is a great deal of pleasure to be experienced in reading the local colour and literary gossip Fennell has meticulously assembled.
A Little Circle of Kindred Minds is obviously the result Of a great deal of work, and Fennell deserves high praise for his lightness of touch, his intelligence, and his humane - one might even say Joycean - concern for the minor players.
For anyone interested in Joyce, or in the artistic personalities of1 920s Paris, this book is indispensable.