Paris on a shoestring – Frank McNally on James Joyce, TS Eliot, and the art of revenge hospitality

 TS Eliot: had an eventful meeting with James Joyce. Photograph: Getty Images

TS Eliot: had an eventful meeting with James Joyce. Photograph: Getty Images

 

I’m pleased to hear that the future of Sweny’s Pharmacy, one of the last vestiges of James Joyce’s Dublin and now a miniature museum, has been made a little more secure than usual, thanks to a gift from the estate of TS Eliot. The American poet was a great friend and admirer of Joyce. Now, starting this Bloomsday, his estate is donating £5,000 a year to the pharmacy where Leopold Bloom bought lemon soap on the original June 16th, 1904.

Although no longer a real chemist’s, Sweny’s will be open as usual for the annual commemorations, despite the constrained circumstances of 2020. The man behind the counter, PJ Murphy, has already declared himself a front-line worker and wears a white coat to prove it. So the soap is also still on sale there as usual. It is after all more necessary than ever this year.

The Eliot bequest, meanwhile, is doubly well timed. It may even be considered posthumous atonement for another present he brought Joyce 100 years ago this summer. That one wasn’t his idea – he was only the courier. But he was a big contributor to the ceremony surrounding the event, which backfired horribly. The story is recorded in the writings of Percy Wyndham Lewis, a writer and painter who accompanied Eliot on the trip from London to Paris. They brought a large, heavy parcel, which had been entrusted to Eliot by another poet, Ezra Pound, and intended for Joyce, whom they had arranged to meet in their hotel. 

Joyce arrived for the rendezvous with his son Giorgio. And as remembered by Lewis, the parcel was ostentatiously placed in the middle of “a large Second Empire marble table, standing upon gilt eagles’ claws”, while the men – all more or less famous – first exchanged regards.

The strained decorum of the situation reminded Lewis of a “scene in an 1870 gazette, resuscitated by Max Ernst”.  But after the formalities, Joyce finally turned to the package, “overcoming the elegant reluctance of a certain undisguised fatigue”, and confirmed with Eliot that this was the gift from Pound.

Unfortunately, the opening was further protracted by the knots Pound had tied it in.  Unable to decode these, Joyce crossly asked his son, in Italian, if he had a penknife. His son replied, also crossly and in Italian, that he did not.

Then Eliot produced a knife and the package was torn open at last to reveal – Lo! – some “nondescript garments” and a pair of old shoes. The kindly Pound had decided that the great but hard-up writer could benefit from such a donation. And he was probably right. Joyce had been slouching around Paris that summer in distressed tennis shoes. But the circumstances of the presentation overwhelmed the philanthropy. After some embarrassed noises, Eliot invited Joyce to dinner. Joyce promptly reversed the invitation. Giorgio was sent home to tell his mother that pater would be dining out. Then Joyce took command of the rest of his guests’ evening, bringing them to a favourite restaurant and then assuming charge of the menu.

He ordered “a large and cleverly arranged dinner”, suitable for all palates, “with a great display of insider knowledge of the insides of civilised men and the resources of the cuisine of France”. He chose the wines too. And so on, through liqueurs and coffee until, with the others distracted, he also seized the bill, paying with a handful of hundred-franc notes and adding a “lordly pourboire”.

Nor did it end there. For the rest of their time in his company, neither Lewis nor Eliot was allowed pick up the tab anywhere. “We had to pay his ‘Irish pride’ for the affair of the old shoes […] He would not let us off. He was entirely unrelenting and we found it impossible to outmanoeuvre him.”

Sweny’s aside, this year’s Bloomsday will be mostly Zoomsday as events normally held indoors or on the streets turn virtual. These include a new commemoration that, while being virtual, is less than virtuous. Celebrations usually follow Leopold Bloom’s wanderings around the city. But while he is out and about on the afternoon of June 16th, as fans of Ulysses know, his wife Molly is entertaining a gentleman, the roguish Blazes Boylan, at home.

This year, for the first time, Boylan’s 4pm knock on her door will be re-enacted across the globe, starting in Sydney.  Participants will be encouraged to “eat fat pears” and “drink sloe gin”, while indulging any other earthly appetites they can think of. And in its own bold way, the event is pandemic-friendly. As chief instigator Senan Molony explains, the inaugural “Blazesday” will commemorate Boylan’s achievement, essentially, of being “inside the house”.

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