The book now arriving on Platform 2 – Frank McNally on commemorating Ulysses in a Paris railway station

An Irishman’s Diary

Written from exile during the years of Ireland’s original Troubles, Ulysses was James Joyce’s Easter Rising and War of Independence combined.

But insofar as the centenary celebrations in Paris on Wednesday involved the reading of a proclamation, the honour fell not to the author but to his publisher, Sylvia Beach (played by Cécile Morel) who, watched by supporters and some curious passers-by in a Parisian railway station, read out in French her own breathless account of the events of 100 years before.

This told of how, on February 2nd, 1922, at break of day, she was standing on a platform of the Gare de Lyon, in a state of feverish excitement:

"The Dijon express entered the station; a man jumped from one of the leading carriages with a package in his hand. I ran to him. It was the first two editions of Ulysses. In under ten minutes, the time it took a taxi, one of the editions was in the hands of James Joyce. "

The other was soon in the front window of her bookstore, Shakespeare & Co, securing her permanent fame, and the shop's, as well as the author's.

So it was that, exactly a century later, the commemorations began in the same station, with the "books" on this occasion taking the form of a birthday cake. Joyce had not been present for the 1922 arrival. But played by actor John Shevlin, he was there for the re-enactment, albeit without a speaking part, other than to say (of the book-shaped cake) that he looked forward to eating his words later.

History aside, the other reason the Gare de Lyon lent itself to inaugurating the centenary events is that no modern train station is now complete without a public piano, something also crucial to celebrating a novel so full of music as Ulysses.

Sylvia Beach’s proclamation proclaimed, the colourful collection of Joyceans – Irish, French, and the odd American – gathered around a keyboard to sing Happy Birthday to the book, in two languages. They then also briefly becalmed the busy railway concourse with a rendition of Love’s Old Sweet Song, a classic ballad from Joyce’s “dear dead days beyond recall”.

The main site of commemorations was the bookstore, relocated since Beach’s time to a riverside location opposite the Cathedral of Notre Dame, a forlorn spectre these days. Joyce supposedly quipped once that, if necessary, Dublin could be rebuilt from the pages of Ulysses. Maybe he should have done the same for Paris, just in case.

Notre Dame is still enveloped in scaffolding, after the fire, and although the famous twin towers stand undaunted, it is still without a working spire. In another reminder of Paris’s recent troubles, groups of armed soldiers continued to patrol the tourist areas nearby, their uniforms now complete with face masks as well.

But Shakespeare & Co has gone from strength to strength through the crises of the last century, thanks in part to the credibility it gained in taking a gamble on Joyce when he was still a start-up project. It even has its own café now, next door, although that wasn’t serving any Leopold Bloom-style breakfasts, involving the inner organs of beasts and fowls, on Wednesday. The menu is mostly vegetarian.

The actual book took centre-stage in the shop's commemorations. And in keeping with the numerology that dictated the date of publication, on 2-2-1922, the readings there began at 2.02pm. Perhaps optimistically, Susan Leybourne of the Ulysses 100 Project assured me that such precise timing would continue well into the evening, with the launch of their online e-book scheduled for 8.22pm at the Centre Culturel Irlandais.

Optimistic or not, it seemed wise that the schedule would end there, because the e-book was to be launched in conjunction with a special cocktail commemorating Joyce and made from Writer’s Tears (the whiskey, that is, not any actual outpourings of literary tear ducts).

The inspiration was a line in Ulysses where Joyce’s alter ego Stephen remembers “The studious silence of the library of St Genevieve, where he had read, sheltered from the sin of Paris, night by night”.

Naturally, therefore, the cocktail is called Parisian Sin. And according to Leybourne, the large quantities of it being supplied by the distiller were an example of a Molly Bloomesque phenomenon whereby, at every juncture of the Ulysses 100 project, those asked to contribute had said "Yes, I will, yes."

Assuming that this attitude extends to recipients of the 8.22pm cocktail launch, it seemed just as well that the military precision of the day’s events would end there, and that there was nothing scheduled for 9.22pm or later.