There has never been a concentration of outstanding literary and artistic talent such as that in the Paris of the 1920s. The city heaved with outrage and ecstasy at the paintings of Piccaso, and Henri Matisse, the music of Igor Stravinsky, and the wild dancing of Joséphine Baker at the Folies Bergere, and the most extraordinary avant-garde literature, where new boundaries were created by a wave of modernist writers, the most celebrated being James Joyce.
A large Bohemian community lived and loved in the city’s Left Bank, and crowded its cafés and salons. Many of the writers and artists were still finding their way, and eagerly sought out an audience for their ideas. The city moved to the rhythm of American jazz. Musicians such as George Gershwin and Aaron Copeland played for their supper, literally; writers such as TS Eliot, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Jean Rhys, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Ford Madox Ford, Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, F Scott Fitzgerald, and many more, all thrived bitching about each other, even sometimes praising a new work.
It was a world of potential stars, which circulated around the famous Paris bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, run by the indefatigable Sylvia Beach and her partner Adrienne Monnier. It was far more than a bookshop. Sylvia had a welcome for all writers and artists, sometimes offering board in one of its rambling rooms up several flights of stairs, or lending money till pay-checks arrived. Its famous 12 Rue de L’Odéon address was a mail box for her American expatriate writers. It was the venue for readings from works in progress, and her natural kindness, and generosity made her a friend to all.
As the sales for Ulysses soared, and the reviews were generally unrestrained in their praise, Joyce held court at the back of the shop every day. He could be seen sorting through 12 kilos of notes left over from Ulysses, looking for material that might be adopted for a new work, while dreading the beginning of a series of eye operations.
‘Pieces of luck’
A self-made influencer over this febrile crowd, was the art collector, writer, and gossip Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B Toklas. She imagined that her weekly salon could make or break reputations, certainly she had a caustic tongue. She had the nerve to call Ernest Hemingway, probably the toughest man in the writing business, ‘yellow’ which must have had him reach for his elephant gun. However he simply stormed out of the room.
But there was one man she could not bear, even to have him discussed in her presence, and that was James Joyce. It is believed that she was insanely jealous of his success. She hated most male writers but hated their wives more. She instructed Alice to keep ‘boring spouses’ out of her sight.
Not that Nora was in the slightest bit concerned. She held her own among often extremely wealthy and intimidating women, was forthright and confident in her opinions, and was proud of her husband’s achievements, despite his drinking bouts which infuriated her.
Sylvia believed that despite his drinking, his endless writing on bits of paper, never knowing what time of day it was, their marriage was one of the best pieces of luck that ever befell him.
And Nora, who was for so long a sexual rebel, running off with her man, not getting married, and having two children, found that her misdemeanours paled into insignificance compared to some of the women she met. The famously wealthy Peggy Guggenheim collected art and men, boasting that she had slept with every man she ever met (in her memoirs she denied the rumour that the number of men she had actually slept with was a thousand ). Lesbians met openly and courted at the Friday afternoon salons of Natalie Barney. While Nancy Cunard sported a Black lover and covered her long, white arms with primitive African ivory bracelets.
One woman that Nora adored was the writer Djuna Barnes, a tall, glamorous, and hard drinking American illustrator, journalist and writer who became involved in lesbian sub culture. She was the lover of the American artist Thelma Wood. She wrote her rabelaisian, feminist epic, Nightwood, and named her main character Nora after her Irish friend.
And for the first time, thanks to Miss Harriet Shaw Weaver, the Joyces had money, enough to buy a third floor apartment just off the Square Robiac, and furnished it themselves. Their friends crowded in to see what they had done, and privately found the furnishings and decor ‘dreadful’.
Perhaps surprisingly Joyce was a middle-class family man. He did drink to excess at times, and while inebriated, would be the centre of attention for play-acting and making up rhymes; but the Joyce parties were very respectable, even dull. Although reminiscences of his singing Irish ballads at the piano, or reading from Ulysses add glamour to the memory, the double-birthday parties held annually for Joyce and Ulysses, were usually quiet and often formal affairs.
The money, however, allowed them to splash out on clothes. Nora’s new friend, Helen Kastor, married to Leon Fleischman, a wealthy American, brought Nora and her daughter Lucia to her apartment and let Lucia try on her stunning wardrobe. Everything Lucia tried on looked wonderful. She proudly walked up and down the room like a model. Helen insisted she took her entire wardrobe away with her.
But Helen, a naturally generous woman, had an ulterior motive. She had a predilection for artists, and openly admired Joyce. He was not available. Instead, at 31 years of age, she began having a very hush-hush affair with Joyce’s son Giorgio (20 ). The affair blossomed into a full-on romance, and to the delight of Paris gossips, three years later after Helen’s divorce, they were married. In due course she was pregnant, and a major row erupted in the family.
Nora and Jim were astonished at the love affair, and demanded that Giorgio immediately come to his senses. But in the end they had to accept the inevitable.
Then Joyce let it slip to his children that he and their mother were never married, and this was a thunder bolt. Although Nora had expressed a wish to be married from time to time, and wore a wedding band on her visits to Galway, Joyce contentedly believed himself to be as married as anyone else. Helen however, had other ideas. She did not want a child by a man who was illegitimate who did not have a claim to the famous Joyce name. She insisted that Nora and Joyce should marry, so the name would pass on to her child. She was adamant on the point.
Helen, whom Joyce became fond of, soon became part of the family, reading for Joyce in the afternoons, writing letters for Nora, helping Nora smarten her wardrobe, and making a fuss of her 46th birthday. Meanwhile Helen’s influential family in America brought forward legal muscle to smooth the way for the Joyce’s wedding, and to ‘tidy up’ the Ulysses’ contracts with Sylvia Beach, meaning that Sylvia lost all rights to the manuscript which she had so courageously published, almost to the point of financial ruin. The Joyce industry had just started.
Helen gave birth to a boy, Stephen James Joyce, who would in time inherit the copyright to all his grandfather’s work. Stephen’s extreme guardianship caused great angst among scholars and publishers for many decades.
Joyce chose their wedding day, July 4 (his father’s birthday ), 1931, and in order to keep it as secret as possible, married in the registrar’s office Kensington, London. But they were spotted. Paparazzi followed them about all day. Joyce was furious, but Nora was ashamed. Her poor mother would find out that for 27 years her daughter was ‘living in sin’. It was far from a happy day.
Defects in her beauty
Their daughter Lucia, was deeply wounded by the recent happenings in her family. Her mother’s thoughts of marriage were concentrated on her daughter, and she was saddened when Samual Beckett, who was her father’s secretary for a time, made it clear he was not interested in a relationship with Lucia. Turning 23 in 1930, she was becoming desperate to find a husband. Her parents had each other. Giorgio had Helen. She laid the blame for her lack of success to defects in her beauty, particularly the cast in her eye, which was twice as noticeable when she was nervous. She became promiscuous and was taken advantage of. She had violent outbursts, which greatly distressed her parents, who were beginning to believe that Lucia was losing her mind.
Next week: Lucia’s madness progresses, and she left behind in Nazi occupied France as the family seek refuge in Zurich, December 1940.
Notes:Sources this week include Nora - A biography of Nora Joyce by Brenda Maddox, published by Hamish Hamilton Ltd., 1988. Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation, by Noel Riley Fitch, published by WW Norton and Co., 1984.