Life sentence – An Irishman’s Diary about James Joyce and Edgar Quinet

Portrait of Edgar Quinet by Sebastien-Melchior Cornu

Portrait of Edgar Quinet by Sebastien-Melchior Cornu


If you’re ever strolling along Boulevard Edgar Quinet in Paris, among company that appreciates literature, a good trick is to note the street sign and quote from memory a poetic extract from the 19th-century French historian it commemorates.

This is easily done. It doesn’t have to be a long extract. A single sentence will do, provided it’s this one, in which he reflects on the rise and fall of civilisations, and on the admirable tendency of wild flowers to outlive them:

“Today, as in the days of Pliny and Columella, the hyacinth disports in Gaul, the periwinkle in Illyria, the daisy on the ruins of Numantia; and while around them the cities have changed masters and names, while some have ceased to exist, while the civilisations have collided with one another and shattered, their peaceful generations have passed through the ages, and have come up to us, one following the other, fresh and cheerful as on the days of the battles.”

If you do manage to deliver the line as written, you’ll be echoing James Joyce, while also following in his footsteps; because it’s said that he once astonished the Irish tenor John Sullivan by recalling the passage verbatim as they walked along that same boulevard.

He knew the words by heart. And his heart may well have been involved in the transaction. If it’s possible to be in love with a sentence, Joyce’s relationship with this one seems to have been something of that order.

He told others of feeling “at home” in its sentiments, both as a description of the Mediterranean world he also loved – its flowers, ruins, seas, and skies – and because he shared Quinet’s cold-eyed view of history. And not surprisingly, admiring the passage as much as he did, Joyce also used it in his own work. The “Quinet Sentence”, as scholars of Finnegans Wake call it, is a key-stone of that famously difficult book: quoted and requoted in various forms, more or less recognisable, throughout the text.

Not that I can report this from first-hand knowledge. During the novel’s long gestation in the 1920s and 30s, Finnegans Wake was known as Joyce’s “Work in Progress”, and my own attempts to read it remain a work in progress too.

So I have to take the word of eminent Wake scholar Peter Chrisp – to whose erudite blog I’m indebted – when he says that of the countless allusions and borrowings in Finnegans Wake, the Quinet sentence is the only one presented without distortion, in its original French.

Having paid it that compliment, Joyce then elsewhere translates it several times into his own multilingual dream language.

In the first of these reworkings, it provides as the framework for a brief prehistory of Dublin, with “cornflowers” and “twolips” edging out the hyacinth and periwinkle, and Gaul, Illyria and Numantia making way for Goatstown, Ballymun, and Knockmaroon.

And so it goes, through several more mutations, until reappearing in ghostly form in the book’s dense climax. There, for example, Pliny and Columella (two of the great naturalists of the ancient world) are hibernicised as “Plooney” and “Columcella”. But the shape of Quinet’s quotation is still just about visible.

Boulevard Edgar Quinet is, in general, a good place for reflection, hosting as it does the main entrance to one of the three great cemeteries of Paris, Montparnasse. Quinet (1803-1875) himself is buried there. So is Joyce’s one-time secretary and friend Samuel Beckett, along with an A-list of other Parisian celebrities.

Less well-known residents include one Charles-Joseph Pigeon, who was rich and famous in his lifetime (1838-1915) but would probably rest in obscurity now were it not for his gravestone, the most eccentric in the cemetery.

Pigeon made a fortune from inventing a gasoline-powered lamp that would not explode.

Among the trappings of the wealth this brought him is a monument in the shape of a bed, wherein Monsieur and Madame Pigeon are portrayed in effigy: she lying under the blankets, he sitting up, pencil and paper in hand, as if doing some late-night work.

To add to the oddity of the scene, both are in full evening dress.

The couple appear to be poised between this world and the next. As of course is Finnegans Wake.

Demanding eternal vigilance from literary sub-editors, Joyce insisted on omitting the possessive apostrophe from its title, in the interests of creative ambiguity. Without the punctuation mark, it becomes a statement or command, and suggests a beginning instead of an end. The Pigeons Sleep, by way of comparison, but the Finnegans Wake.

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