Alan Bernheimer
from Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism by Philippe Soupault



James Joyce





French text


No one, to my knowledge, has subjected his life to his work more than James Joyce. Nor did he accept this bondage of every instant, bondage of body and soul, without suffering—which I witnessed. I can see him, during one of the days I spent with him, tormented by a word, rebelliously constructing a framework, summoning his characters, drawing a hallucination from music, throwing himself, exhausted, onto a divan to better hear this word that was going to be born, that was going to shine forth. Then, for an hour or more, a great silence broken by laughter. At the end of the day, he tried in vain to escape, jumping into a taxi, visiting a friend, having a bit of the dictionary read to him, and, at nightfall, returning home after many a “stopover.” He allowed himself one reward, the theater. All around him raged storms, familial or global, financial or social. Stunned to see the world in tumult, cruel or corrupt, he witnessed it the way one of us “attends” a concert. His apparent absent-mindedness was comparable only to that of certain legendary savants. He was the most affectionate, the most tactful of friends and the most distinctive of mine. Yet the people who crossed his path without regarding him, and without his regarding them, spoke only of his absent-mindedness, which they sometimes called egoism.

If I dwell on it, it’s because I realize he honored me as a witness to part of his life. When I knew him in 1918, he was writing Ulysses. He was known only to a few, but he neither doubted nor marveled at his own genius. He was already giving himself up to this daily damnation, the creation of the Joycean world.

What is most striking about this phenomenon that was, in the scientific sense of the word, one of the purest in literary history, is its unity. Joyce’s first work foretold and prepared its eventual full flowering. What will be finally perfected in Ulysses is already attempted and approached in Dubliners. In these fifteen stories the reader, the author, and the central character are identified. The writer forbids himself to lie. He rejects what we pejoratively call literature. No false attitude, no cheating, no misunderstanding: the most complete good faith.

From the point when he was compelled to write, Joyce abandoned himself entirely to it. All his actions, all his reading, his studies, his joys, and his pain were dedicated to his work. He was the exact opposite of a dilettante.

This experiment, so scrupulously conducted and without a day’s lapse, would itself deserve a thorough discussion. It is unique, to my knowledge, in human terms.

This life commands the attitude of readers. It demands the effort to tackle Joyce’s work. It restores a different meaning and a dignity to reading that most contemporary novels had denied it.

But it is essential to underscore the value of this nearly 40- year experiment in creating an oeuvre that is one of the highest points in literature.

This body of work, as I’ve already said, begins with Dubliners, continues with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, leads to Ulysses, and ends with Finnegans Wake, published several months before Joyce’s death. Alongside the oeuvre, Joyce wrote a collection of poems, Chamber Music; a play, Exiles; and a little book of songs, Pomes Penyeach.

Each stage, each book marks an advance, what one dares call an evolution. It’s what I’ve described as a flowering.

So we should remember that, for the reader who is no longer indifferent, but rather engaged with the author, it is important to read Dubliners before A Portrait, then at last begin Ulysses, and end with Finnegans Wake. To repeat, Joyce created a world, and this world is accessible to us only if we humbly obey the wishes of the author.

As necessary as this obedience is a knowledge of Joyce’s life. It is, in fact, of great simplicity. But it is not well known. The numerous biographies already published are generally true. But there is still lacking in them an element that, for want of a better word, one must call poetry. James Joyce was a poet, a tremendous poet, who was conscious of what poetry meant and who lived by it and for it. All the first part of the life of the author of Ulysses is recounted by himself, with an intensity that borders on despair, in his book about adolescence, A Portrait of the Artist, and then in the first part of Ulysses. James Joyce portrays himself under the name of Stephen Dedalus. His entire development, all the background, all the atmosphere of his future life is fixed with a precision and care that make all further accounts pointless. When Joyce stopped writing his own biography, it was because he deemed it no longer part of his oeuvre. We know that on his departure from Ireland he came to Paris to study medicine, that he passed through Zurich and settled in Trieste, where he was an English teacher for the Berlitz school. This Trieste stage, which began before 1914,13 is doubtless the most important of his life. He completed A Portrait, but it was at this point that he became conscious of the magnitude and importance of his work; it was at this time that he broke forever from our world in order to conceive the Joycean universe.

I have rediscovered the traces of Joyce in this eminently unappreciated city, this city so unfairly overshadowed by its proximity to Venice. (Hadn’t even I gone there just to retrace Joyce’s past?) On the threshold of Austria, facing Italy—where Stendhal meditated and where Fouché ignominiously died— Trieste is the most beautiful, the most European crossroads in Europe. Joyce lived there for ten years in poverty that amounted to destitution. I visited the building where he started writing Ulysses, I walked up and down the streets he frequented, I followed his daily route, I listened particularly to the stories, the ambiance, the cries, the language (one of the most varied, one of the most rich, one of the most “composed” in the world) that Joyce listened to with fascinated attention.

People more learned than I will explain the influence that the Triestine language, and above all the life and the development of this language, had on Joyce’s thinking. In my opinion, it was considerable. Trieste also supplied the necessary displacement to Joyce: he felt very far from Ireland, distinguishing none the less the glints and echoes of Dublin, but seeing, sensing, hearing better from afar that city where he had loved and suffered and that was the setting for his entire body of work. Distance gives love overtones and an otherworldly glow.

It would be worth retracing his tracks, step by step, during these years. We are yet aware of only a few episodes. One of them that I am going to recount seems to me remarkably significant and will point out one of Joyce’s powers: radiance.

Isolated and unknown, the young Irishman, a novice teacher, had one day as a student a Triestin named Schmitt, about 40 years old. He was an odd, shy man, a lighthearted dreamer, a staunch humorist. He was captivated by his young teacher and imparted Trieste to him, without making much progress in English. In the course of conversation, both admitted they were writers. Joyce read his student’s work and immediately understood its unique quality. With the enthusiasm and determination that he brought to protecting and defending his friends (of which there were few), he saw justice done to the man we know as Italo Svevo, whose two works, The Confessions of Zeno and As a Man Grows Older, have remained for a quarter century the most original and fruitful products of Italian literature.

What strikes me even more is that, despite the exiled Irishman’s concentration and the productive suffering that his memory inflicted on him, the force of Joyce’s radiance revealed itself. I’ve noted the prestige, the legend that enveloped his life from the moment his name appeared in print. For my part, I know I was less affected by the brilliance and splendor of his genius, so suffused with humanity, than by his power to transfigure, his sublime talent for reaching the essential on the first shot.

When Joyce came to settle in Paris, having left Trieste and after a sojourn in Zurich—another crossroads—he was already possessed of certitude. From my first encounter, I was immediately aware of it. When I knew I was going to meet him, I naively thought to compare him. I lived at that time in a milieu of writers. I was not much impressed by literature and its mirages. I saw a living man of intimidating simplicity, unconcerned with the impression he produced. With great facility, but industriously, he was learning Paris. As in Trieste, he had chosen to live in one of those buildings which, he said, are “symbolic.” In this way he mixed with the masses, frequenting the little cafés. He listened to people speak. I know that in his neighborhood he was regarded as a phantom. Already, his failing eyesight prevented him from going out alone, almost from living alone. But how he could hear! He claimed to judge people by their voice. I was able to follow his astonishing method and admire his memory. We know the importance he attached to language and the role he assigned it. It would perhaps be too hasty to try to define and even limit Joyce’s work by boasting of his virtuosity in this arena. Without doubt, the author of Finnegans Wake was an extraordinary virtuoso, but he knew how to make use of, to master, and not be mastered.

In the same way, it was people that interested him. Though he had chosen Dubliners as examples, what he focused on was the individual. No one has better depicted this behavior that leads from the particular to the general. So, in Ulysses he limited his field of vision to one individual’s single day. Going beyond the experimental phase, the author knew how to re-create by the most diverse “means” this human universe of which, in a waking state, we have only the smallest inkling.

To observe gestures and what we might call their harmonics, to read looks, to provoke reactions amounts to only a fraction of Joyce’s daily work. To compare and especially to contrast with near or distant memories the living and the dead that form “le profond aujourd’hui”14—then withdrawing, to put back in their atmosphere the imaginary beings that mingle with the crowd, to follow their tracks. . . . Can one delimit the work of Joyce the observer, endowed with an irritatingly precise memory? His work provides us a standard by which to measure, both his imagination, which brought him to the point of hallucination, and his power to relive and make others relive.

Do we dare then say that Joyce worked? He “lived” his work. I saw much of him at leisure, what’s called leisure. We often went to the theater together, which he loved, like all good Irishmen. He loved theater for theater’s sake. I mean he was less attracted by the play than by the atmosphere, the footlights, the follow spot, the audience, the kind of solemnity of the performance hall itself. He preferred opera. When he had decided to attend the theater, he was as excited as a child. He would choose a companion, refuse to dine (I am preparing for a sacrament, he told me, to explain this fasting), and afterward take supper in a restaurant where he had pre-ordered his favorite white wines. At the theater, settled in the front row—this was, one thought, because of his very poor eyesight—he kept watch on the actors’ performances and listened to them carefully. Only children can display such rapt attention as Joyce. He was always the first to applaud and call “Encore!” after the grand arias. One night at the Paris Opera, he had the grand aria from William Tell repeated twice. The singer, it’s true, was Irish and one of his childhood friends. Everything pleased him, even the crudest vaudeville. What he apparently sought in these halls was this atmosphere that remains one of the spells cast by the theater. He also found there the unique pleasure of being in contact with the crowd.

It is this same pleasure that he no doubt sought in gathering his friends to celebrate remembrances. He would bring us together to celebrate his birthday, his wedding anniversary, his feast day, Candlemas, Epiphany, Christmas, his various books’ publication dates. . . . We generally dined late. There were candles on the table, many white wines, an excellent dinner, a cake with little candles. After dinner, one or another of us would sing, then Joyce himself took his turn at the piano and would, depending on his mood, hum or recite Irish songs, generally always the same ones. This would last at least a good hour. Then it was the turn of his son, who had chosen the profession of singer. Léon-Paul Fargue, when he didn’t arrive too late, would elaborate 1890-vintage slangy songs or his previous month’s creations. There were often dramas since, in the Irish tradition, we drank heavily. One did not try to leave before it was over, towards three or four in the morning. There were, however, some abrupt departures after “words.” Joyce, for the most part, was gay, more rarely gloomy. It took him then an uncommon effort to emerge from this torpor, which had something of a child’s unhappy sulk.

When my mood didn’t suit the somewhat monotonous atmosphere of these parties, which was often, I wondered what pleasure Joyce could indeed seek or find in them. I know he liked his friends, even a little tyrannically. I know he could and would have only a small number of people, and shunned ceremonial receptions and so-called society. But I’m wrong to argue. In these little gatherings, the author of Ulysses wanted only to reconnect. Every creature has an inhuman side, and suffers from feeling on the outside, at a distance from other beings and everyday life. His comrades, jostling him, drawing him close, forced him to their level. That is why he demanded their sincerity, and forbade deference, ceremonies, and snobbism.

In rekindling these memories, I note again that Joyce suffered much from his vocation as a writer. What sensitive being could bear without pain this ceaseless tension, these daily sacrifices, and this work without any leniency for himself? Joyce was of a brutality, a hardness when it came to himself that sometimes surpassed understanding. I had the chance of seeing and hearing him work during the time I was translating with him, or rather he was translating with my help, a bit of Finnegans Wake, the Anna Livia Plurabelle episode. These translation sessions lasted three hours. They were exhausting. Joyce was never satisfied with his successes. Nevertheless, I had never encountered a man who was as sure and as accurate a translator. He needed to treat words like objects, to stretch them, dissect them, examine them under a microscope. He went at it fiercely and never gave up. It was not from “conscience” or mania; it was the application of a ruthless method. It concerned a “subject” so moving, so rich, so new, so fleeting also that you could never let up, not even for a second. And I remain convinced that on account of his translation partners Joyce restrained himself, that he took pity on them. When he worked alone he was even more uncompromising. He let himself be flooded by this tide of ideas, plans, memories, comparisons, visions, sounds, descriptions, odors. . . . At the center of this whirlpool, he preserved his sangfroid and his critical sense, dreading the cowardice that makes acceptable the approximate, the almost. When I want to describe his state while working, I can’t avoid the cliché “body and soul.” Before my eyes, Joyce, forefinger raised, saying no, rejecting a word, a sentence, criticizing, taking back a fragment, destroying pages already on the verge of being written.

To appreciate his labor and his technique, it is unnecessary to have had, as I did, personal contact with James Joyce. It is necessary and sufficient to read the books. Ulysses is perhaps the best example. Each chapter, where not a false note, not a mistake, not a regret is discernible, forms so definitive an ensemble that even an inattentive or unsure reader can’t avoid an enchantment that he can neither explain nor resist. Because Joyce requires from his readers an effort that cannot be dissipated. He imposes on them first his tone, his color, his style. Never is the imagination given free rein. From the first word, whoever dares begin reading is as if captured and must, at any cost, bend to the author’s will. It is a test of strength. So it’s not surprising that so many, from fear, content themselves with admitting, “I don’t understand,” and adding, “It is too hard for me.”

Even if you read with great care, you wouldn’t know how to grasp altogether, at first approach, the richness of this work. Thus we are limited to knowing a vast countryside solely by flying over it.

Joyce’s singular attitude toward criticism is understandable. You couldn’t call it indifference. He was often amused by certain insults and took great pleasure in the efforts by some to make him understood, especially those who were the least familiar with his intent. But the disapproval, the ridicule, the incomprehension, the flattery didn’t touch him and taught him nothing. This was from neither pride nor guile, but because he had once and for all decided that it was impossible to turn back. And in spite of his pride, he was often disconcertingly humble. At the end of his life, testimonials of admiration, fervent tributes were lavished on him. He received them very graciously, but he did nothing to prompt them. He could have, if he had wanted to, orchestrated his publicity, since he was savvy and very skillful. He was often invited to go to the United States, which, as in many other realms and for many other writers, was the first country to hail the true greatness of Joyce. He refused. I, who had many occasions to speak about him in all the major American cities, can imagine what a welcome was in store for him and what triumphal celebration would have been organized. He knew it too, but always shied away, despite the entreaties of the numerous Irish people in the United States, who would have greeted him with the enthusiasm they alone can show.

Stranger was his refusal to return to Ireland. Can we say that he loved or didn’t love Ireland? His entire oeuvre has Dublin and the environs of Ireland’s capital for its setting.

And so each day, each hour of the day, he thought of Ireland, he lived and relived his memories, he traveled through the streets and squares of the city thousands of time in his thoughts, the neighboring byways, he looked at each house, he talked with the inhabitants, he described, painted (and in such detail) the moments and the colors. After his departure in 1905, he never wanted to retrace his steps. Upon the pressing demand of an Irish friend, I asked him one day the reason for his refusal. For answer, he simply looked at me and with his long hand, like a blind man, turned through the pages, which were fragments of the part of his work he was writing at the time. Did I misconstrue his response in thinking that, to complete his work, it was necessary for him not to compare reality and its evocation, not to blur his image of Dublin by any inevitable disillusion.

I can never emphasize enough Joyce’s attitude, voluntarily exiled, exiled in order to complete his work. It would have been sweet and exciting, especially for an Irishman, to be welcomed in Dublin, to take revenge after thirty years on those who had made fun of the poor little student going into exile. His work was not completed. That sufficed to stifle his longing.

Many came, in my presence, to bring him news of the country. He remembered one and all and laughed, speaking of old Mr. So-and-so, or Pat, or the mother of X, she who had such a strange nose. . . . He laughed, he laughed, but you could make out in this child’s laugh a kind of suffering, a regret, and no doubt remorse.

To finish his work, he had taken refuge in Paris, which he cherished with a particular and touching love. He knew only its ambiance, since his weak eyes and his work prevented long walks or rambles. But he “breathed” Paris and discovered a reason to love it at each stage of his exile. Perhaps you could say that he knew and loved Paris like a song, and God knows how he loved songs. He found a rhythm there that helped him live and work. He was not indeed unaware of the risk of his relentlessness.

Paris helped him to finish Ulysses, to write Finnegans Wake. Never, to my knowledge, was any other work of this type attempted and completed. Ulysses already appeared to be a superhuman undertaking. When you are able to study and read Joyce’s final work with the care it deserves, you will be convinced of its extraordinary grandeur. There is no hiding the fact that for today’s readers, the difficulty in reading it is very great. One can facilitate reading Ulysses with various commentaries. A reader of good will who wants to tackle Finnegans Wake must have a guidebook. Only with time will we be able to read this great work if not easily, at least simply. It is so many years ahead of its time. It is the privilege of certain geniuses to be able to outdistance the spiritual and intellectual states of their contemporaries, and there is also a price. . . .

James Joyce was not unaware of being in the vanguard. He did not say, like Stendhal, that he would be understood “later,” but believed that he would gain readers only slowly, and he expected from them an effort commensurate with his own. He did not look down on his readers, never seeking to encourage their appetite for what is easy. Nor did he write for the “happy few,”15 since he didn’t consider his books to be reserved for an elite. He ceaselessly enriched his art, imposing on everything that he achieved a rigor and a certitude that precluded hesitation and misinterpretation. Joyce dreaded misunderstandings and approximations. For him, and consequently for his readers, there is no happy medium.

Having explained Joyce’s attitude, I would like to be able to suggest a way readers facing his final work might behave. Because it is no longer a question of advice, of commentary, of explication. We know the role that reading it plays for a certain number of human beings; we are not unaware of the influence it can exert. The whole problem of literature and its consequences is posed by Joyce’s last work. It is obvious we can’t try to resolve it in a few lines, nor even define it in a few sentences. It is important, however, to point out the fundamentals of it. The simplest method we know, the most primitive, is the narrative. It is, to tell the truth, a second-best solution. What Joyce intends and requires of himself is to take hold of the whole spirit and not just propose a few reference points for the imagination. One should not compare this decision with the power of that music which overcomes the spirit and carries it away without a chance to resist. The spirit, it is rightly said, surrenders to the flow of music. Joyce’s art imperiously compels attention, the way any poetry worthy of the name must always gain it. The mass, the weight, the volume of all poetry are not measurable. The efforts to succeed in discovering new methods are too rare. In this realm, Joyce’s resolve remains unique or nearly so. It is because of this resolve, even more than his success, that we must honor him as a genius.