Defining Dublin in the City of Light

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JOYCE STUDIES: A Little Circle of Kindred Minds: Joyce in ParisBy Conor Fennell Green Lamp Editions, 300pp. €19.99

WHEN JAMES JOYCE is hailed as an Irish writer it is important to bear in mind that he lived in Paris almost as long as he lived in Dublin. After two brief and lonely student sojourns there, he spent the better part of the last 20 years of his life in Paris.

He arrived on July 8th, 1920, with Nora, Giorgio and Lucia, then left the city to escape the war on Christmas Eve 1939, just a year before he died. While Dublin is certainly at the heart of everything Joyce wrote, he had to be elsewhere to write about his native city. Paris made Joyce the internationally acclaimed Irish modernist writer he is today. Not only did he finish Ulyssesand write Finnegans Wakethere, Paris provided him with his most supportive circle of readers and critics as well as friends and publishers. It is high time that Paris takes centre stage in the story of his life and works.

While John McCourt has done an admirable job of chronicling the historical, cultural, social and artistic milieu of Trieste when Joyce lived there, there is no comparably updated and authoritative account of Joyce’s Paris. Conor Fennell’s entertaining literary ramble with Joyce and friends is a fine step towards that goal. Fennell’s book is as much about the artistic scene in Paris as it is about Joyce and other writers from Ireland and elsewhere who made the city their home in the 1920s and 30s. A Little Circle of Kindred Minds: Joyce in Parisis a commendable introduction to the cultural scene and, most importantly, to the now virtually mythical stories that have been told about these modernist artists. Although not always exact as literary history, the stories are told with a contagious passion.

A Dubliner and former editor with RTÉ, Fennell has an enthusiasm for Joyce and other Irish writers in Paris that is apparent on every page. The anecdotal sketches are a pleasure to see recounted again and should encourage readers to pursue the memoirs and biographies that form the foundation of Fennell’s book. One could quibble with some of the facts, as well as with the generalisations and summary statements, but that would be to miss the point of the book, which is a broad exploration of some of the characters that helped make Paris “the centre of English-language Modernism”.

The title comes from Joyce’s story A Little Cloud.In it Little Chandler thinks to himself, “There was no doubt about it: if you wanted to succeed you had to go away. You could do nothing in Dublin.” So it is the Irish writers who flocked to Paris and became part of Joyce’s circle of friends who are the main actors in the drama: Arthur Power, James Stephens, Padraic and Mary Colum, Thomas MacGreevy and Samuel Beckett, among others; even Robert McAlmon is made part of that Celtic connection. Each had different reasons for coming to Paris, but they were all there because “everything of importance in modern literature was happening in Paris”.

Fennell brings out the ambivalent relationship Irish writers had (and arguably still have) with their native place quite vividly when he describes Power’s first meetings with Joyce: “Power had come to Paris to forget about Ireland but it seemed his new acquaintance was not going to let him.” Most of the writers in this book were fleeing the claustrophobic sense of political and social provincialism that threatened to stifle their lives and art in Dublin; some stayed in Paris for a while, others permanently. By bringing together these passionately Irish writers, it can be said that Paris re-created Dublin – without many of the issues Joyce diagnosed so poignantly in Dubliners. In this way, Paris shaped Irish literature as much as Dublin in the first half of the 20th century.

There are a few too many stories about drunken mornings, afternoons and evenings, many of which are more legend than truth – a fact that the author goes on to point out, after having recounted them nonetheless.

A Little Circle of Kindred Mindsis not the kind of book that sets out to correct the historical record. Its success will be gauged by the number of readers it encourages to discover more about the works and exciting lives and times of these Irish writers in Paris.

Almost any book published in Ireland in these straightened times should be heartily welcomed and encouraged, especially when it signals the foundation of a new Irish publishing house. This volume is the inaugural publication by Green Lamp Editions, which launched last month, and it holds great promise: after enjoying Conor Fennell’s lively book, one looks forward to reading what will follow.

Luca Crispi lectures in Joyce studies and modernism at UCD. His A First Foray into the National Library of Ireland’s Joyce Manuscripts: Bloomsday 2011 has just appeared online in Genetic Joyce Studies

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