Paris hotel where Joyce plotted career in journalism

Around-the-world bikers Carl Clancy and Walter Storey enjoyed a steam-heated room in the Corneille

Fri, Apr 5, 2013, 05:00

Rue Corneille is a narrow street, perhaps 150m long, linking Place Paul Claudel and the Place de L’Odéon on Paris’s Left Bank.

Today it is a bit of a one-way rat run for motorists zipping away from the Luxembourg Gardens and down towards the Boulevard Saint Germain. But the area retains echoes of the avant garde heyday it enjoyed in the late 19th century and into the 1920s – serious book shops mainly, and a few art studios.

Rue Corneille itself is fairly dead. One whole side is taken up by the side of the Odéon theatre. On the other is a rather chichi wine and cheese shop, a restaurant and a bookshop, the Librairie Honoré Champion, a publisher of French academic books with snappy titles such as one currently in the window: From The ‘Trap’ of Rhetoric to The Critique of Criticism - a study of western thinking on rhetoric from Frederick Nietzsche to Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Paul de Man and Roland Barthes .

Next door, No 5, is where the Grand Hotel Corneille, the hotel stayed in by Carl Clancy and Walter Storey, used to be. And this is where James Joyce parked himself from December 1902 until April 1903, one of his early stints in Paris where he sought to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race, as he had Stephen Dedalus put it in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man .

But before all that, young Joyce hoped for, among other things, some regular work with The Irish Times . In his initial letters sent home from the Corneille in December, Joyce wrote about working for the Daily Express of Dublin (to which he was introduced by Lady Gregory and for which he wrote reviews) and of William Butler Yeats putting in a word for him at The Speaker and The Academy , two London publications in which Joyce was trying to get his poetry published.

In his December 6th letter from the hotel, addressed to “Dear Everyone”, Joyce mentions having dinner with Arthur Symons, the Welsh poet and critic, Yeats’s friend and former room-mate.

Yeats had some rather faint praise for Joyce’s efforts at poetry – “charming rhythm in the second stanza”, he wrote on December 18th, 1902, adding: “It is always a little troublesome getting one’s first start in literature, but after the first start, one can make a pittance if one is industrious, without a great deal of trouble.”

Symons on the other hand, told him by letter dated May 4th, 1903, that he thought some of the poems were “remarkably good”.

Towards the end of December 1902, Joyce’s funds were getting low. On the 21st, he wrote to his father, John Stanislaus Joyce, urging him to help him procure work with The Irish Ti mes through a reporter on the paper, Matthew O’Hara, apparently a friend of Joyce snr.

“Be sure to push on the ‘Irish Times’,” he urged his father, this time in a letter written from London.

In a February 8th, 1903, letter to his mother, May, Joyce displays something of the flair necessary to be a successful foreign correspondent for the Irish Times – he says he would fillet the local media for all they’re worth!

“It would be quite easy for me,” he assures her, “to send any kind of news to that intelligent organ – motor news, dead men’s news, any news – for I have all the Paris papers at my disposal.”

But the intelligent organ wasn’t biting, at least not initially.

He wrote to his father on February 26th, 1903, again from the Hotel Corneille. “. . . I see that nothing has been done at the Irish Times and if I am [a] good judge of heavy heads nothing will be done with its manager who is, I think, very heavy in the head. I am seriously thinking of entering the church if I find editors and managers and ‘practical’ people so very stubborn as they appear to be.”

But a month later, things fell into place, as he wrote to his father from the Corneille on March 26th. He told him that on the following day, he was interviewing the celebrated French racing driver, Henri Fournier, who was expected to take part the James Gordon Bennett Trophy race in Kildare and Carlow in July – an event, incidentally, that gave rise to the still popular colour known as British racing green.

With help from O’Hara the reporter, Joyce did the interview, wrote it up and his career as a celebrated motoring correspondent seemed assured. At least until a nice lady named Sylvia Beach and her Shakespeare and Company, just around the corner from the Corneille at no 12 rue de L’Odéon, intervened in 1922 and published something else Joyce knocked out.

Why Clancy and Storey chose the Corneille, with its exceptionally strong Irish connections, while staying in Paris is unclear. Clancy gives no explanation in his reporting other than to write that he had “a comfortable, steam-heated, electric-lighted room” there and a valet de chambre who polished his shoes.

And, no doubt, the motorcycle boots he wore around the world and which Geoff Hill is carrying with him, 100 years later.