Of rubbers and robbers – An Irishman’s Diary about Victor Noir and James Joyce

‘Noir’s grave has been a shrine, although not just to press freedom’

Grave of French journalist Victor Noir (1848-1870)  at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

Grave of French journalist Victor Noir (1848-1870) at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images


During quieter times in Paris, a few years ago, I visited the grave of a man called Victor Noir, who in his own way, like the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, was a martyr for free speech.

Born Yves Salmon, he adopted the pseudonym when joining La Marseillaise, a newspaper opposed to the Second Empire regime of Napoleon III, in the late 1860s. And it was that paper’s publisher, Henri Rochefort, who provoked the homicidal wrath of the emperor’s cousin, Prince Bonaparte. But Noir was the one caught in the crossfire.

In the fashion of the era, the prince wrote to Rochefort inquiring, provocatively, “whether your inkpot is guaranteed by your breast”. This was a challenge to a duel, towards which end the letter also included Bonaparte’s Paris address, where the publisher was urged to present himself.

In the event, it was the 21-year-old Noir and a colleague who were dispatched there, as seconds, to arrange the duel. And the insult of having to deal with “underlings” only added to the prince’s ire. Details were subsequently disputed, with Bonaparte claiming Noir assaulted him. In any case, he shot the young newspaper man dead.

The killing became a cause célèbre for republicans, 100,000 of whom attended the funeral at Neuilly. Years later, in a post-imperial France, Noir was promoted to a more prestigious cemetery, Père Lachaise.

And ever since, his grave there has been a shrine, although not just to press freedom. For more mysterious reasons, possibly relating to the French sense of humour, which can be very earthy, the horizontal life-sized bronze sculpture of Noir, portrayed as he lay after the shooting, also became the focus of a fertility cult.

The idea is that touching his effigy in a certain place ensures good luck in procreative endeavours. So, as the sculpture’s conspicuously shiny crotch testifies, Père Lachaise may be the only cemetery ever to have had a problem with grave rubbers.

They tried fencing it off some years ago for decency’s sake. But even that was considered an infringement on free expression. The obstacle was removed eventually. As far as I could see, the rubbing continues.

These are troubled days in Paris, again. And among the many journalists covering events there this week, I noticed, was a Reuters reporter one called John Irish. It could almost be another pseudonym, but it’s not, apparently. Just to confuse the issue, according to his Twitter account, Irish is “French-English despite the name”.

I’m reminded of the mildly notorious plaque on one of James Joyce’s former Paris addresses, 71 Rue Cardinal Lemoine, which annoys at least some tourists by calling Joyce an “écrivain brittanique, d’origine irlandaise”.

Even allowing that Joyce was born under the empire, and that he carried a British passport, this seems wrong. It contrasts with – for example – George Bernard Shaw, who unlike Joyce spent most of his career in Britain but is an “écrivain irlandais” on his Paris plaque.

It’s a minor offence, I know. But on foot of mentioning it here some time ago, I received an interesting letter from London-based Brian O’Shea, who back in the 1990s co-authored a tourist guide to The Paris of Joyce & Beckett.

While compiling this, naturally, he wanted to include mention of the Cardinal Lemoine address, where Joyce completed Ulysses. So he wrote to the modern residents of No 71 (an apartment block) seeking permission. He was disappointed to receive a return letter from the “Le Propiétaire” urging him not to mention the building’s Joycean connection, in case it would attract burglars. There had been a series of “cambriolages” already, the person wrote.

And although taken aback, the publishers would have respected the residents’ wishes. But in a follow-up letter, O’Shea felt compelled to suggest that the incidence of burglary was very low among literary tourists.

Whereupon he received a further missive from No 71, this time from the “Président du Conseil Syndical”, who assured him that the residents would be delighted to have their address mentioned, and who was mystified as to the identity of the burglary-fearing imposter who had replied previously.

Who knows – maybe the phantom objector was himself a burglar who had intercepted the letter and wanted to deter tourists? In any case, the address was eventually included in the book, controversial inscription and all.

Whatever about robbers, it may be rubbers – Père Lachaise-style – that No 71 needs. In the meantime, I’m told the guide is still available from selected bookshops, or direct from the publishers, London Irish Literary Travel, The Busworks, North Road, London N7 9DP.