A story of two fathers and two children

Week III

 James Joyce and Paul Léon, whom Joyce visited almost daily to discuss his correspondence, and his work in progress, Finnegans Wake. Léon was fluent in seven languages.

James Joyce and Paul Léon, whom Joyce visited almost daily to discuss his correspondence, and his work in progress, Finnegans Wake. Léon was fluent in seven languages.

The final chapter in the history of Shakespeare and Company, the famous Paris bookshop, began with the publication of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, in May 1939. The shop closed in December 1941 when a Nazi officer saw a copy of Joyce’s book in its window and asked to buy it. Sylvia Beach refused saying it was her only copy, and was not for sale. The officer threatened to return and confiscate her entire stock, and left. He returned the next day and demanded she sold him the book. Again Sylvia refused, and the officer, ‘trembling with rage’ warned that he would be back that afternoon and seize all her books.

Immediately he left, Sylvia and her partner Adrienne, with two others, using boxes and clothes baskets, began to carry more than 5,000 books, manuscripts and photographs, up four flights of stairs, to leave in the attic rooms. Next they stripped all the electric light fittings, tables and chairs, and signs and hid them out of sight. Finally she called a carpenter to remove the shelves, and a painter to cover the name of the shop on the building. It was as if Shakespeare and Company had never existed.

There is no record if the Nazi returned to buy his book. If he did he might have had difficulty even finding the shop. Although Sylvia was arrested the following year, and interned with other Americans for six months, the shop and its contents remained hidden until Saturday August 26, 1944, the day after the German surrender of Paris. Ernest Hemingway and a fleet of cars with journalists and soldiers, came into the street, horns blaring, and ‘liberated’ the shop. Sylvia describes the moment, the dramatic conclusion of her memoirs published 15 years later: ‘I flew downstairs, we met with a crash; he picked me up and swung me around and kissed me while the people in the street and in the windows cheered.’

Paul Léon

There was no such happy ending for the Joyce saga. After the success of Ulysses, and the totally unfounded belief that Sylvia Beach was making a lot of money selling the book, and not giving Joyce his due, Joyce moved into a new circle of admirers which both protected and isolated him from the Bohemian friends of the 1920s.

Paul Léon, a wealthy Russian-Jewish émígré, a lawyer, philosopher and sociologist, who had fled with his wife Lucie to Paris in 1918, now gave Joyce his undivided attention. Léon, and new influential friends, were proving to be more in sync with what Joyce needed than whatever Sylvia or former friends, could offer. This was a time of Joyce’s great fame, his continual worry about the gradual descent into madness of his daughter Lucia, his fear of blindness, his eyes agitated by his continued writing, as he wrestled for 17 years with his new book, Finnegans Wake. Eager and unpaid Léon worked with Joyce daily and dealt with all his correspondence.

The king of Paris

In the closing months of 1938, and Europe on the edge of war, Joyce wrote the close of Finnegans Wake. He was so exhausted that he sat for a long time on a street bench, unable to move, yet, rarely for him, satisfied. These were the last pages he was ever to write, and they were among his greatest. However obscure much of the rest of the book, these pages justified Joyce’s insistence ‘If anyone doesn’t understand a passage, all he need do is to read it aloud.’*

The book, however, was not greeted with the same enthusiasm as Ulysses. Its genius was a slow burner. Critics generally found its language difficult. Time magazine, for its second time, had a full colour photogrpah of Joyce, taken by Gisele Freund, on its May 9 1939 cover.

Geoffrey Grigson, in the British Picture Post, judged the book ‘an Irish stew with passages of real beauty’, and its ‘new’ language basically English, but ‘mixed up with everything from Irish to Icelandic.’

As if to justify Joyce’s self-indulgence in inventing his own language, Grigson said that Joyce had become the king of Paris, worshipped by writers as painters worshipped Picasso. Adulation, Grigson implied, had not done Joyce any good.

‘A cure was possible’

Joyce was more shaken by the open accusations hurled at him by Nora and others than the constant shift from country to country, from language to language, and the continual rupture of ties with friends and relatives, created textbook conditions for a confused identity. Their way of life hit Lucia hardest. Joyce and Nora were wrapped up with each other. Giorgio, who always made friends effortlessly, was scooped up early by Helen. Nothing came easily to Lucia: friends, career or lovers.

In an extraordinary act of friendship Léon talked his wife’s brother, Alex Ponisovsky, into proposing to Lucia. Alex had been escorting her occasionally to dinner and theatre, and he accepted because he was an admirer of Joyce, to whom he had taught Russian. Of course it was impossible. Lucia was under medication, and spent most of every day lying down beside an open window.

Later Joyce’s sister Eileen, and her two daughters, offered to keep Lucia for a while at their home in Bray, Co Dublin. Believing that a complete change of surroundings would be just the thing, Nora brought Lucia on a shopping spree, and sent her to Ireland with two trunks of Paris fashions. But after two months Lucia’s behaviour changed from the bizarre to the dangerous. She wandered away, meandering through Dublin, once walking into Trinity College offering to make a present of Joyces letters. She slept in the college park, until eventually she was picked up by the police. Nora’s uncle Michael Healy eventually found her, and with the help of relatives found a nursing home to take her into care.

Lucia, relieved to be looked after at last, became less agitated, and wrote a loving letter to Nora. She seemed for the first time in years settled and healthy.

Friends advised Joyce to make arrangements for her to remain in Ireland, and if she had she might have spent the World War II years at peace. Instead Joyce, who could never accept that his daughter was suffering from schizophrenia, kept believing that a cure was possible. He refused to commit her to long-term hospital care; instead kept moving poor Lucia form one carer to another, from one clinic and doctor to another.

‘War on Germany

Tragedy in the form of madness struck the family for a second time when Helen, Giorgio’s wife and mother of Stephen, became a patient in a mental clinic in Montreux. She suffered from deep depression. The marriage had been floundering for some time, Giorgio was drinking heavily, and women, chasing the Joyce star, were at his beck and call.

All this against the background of World War II which began on the first day of September 1939, when German tanks rolled into Poland. Two days later England and France declared war on Germany, and as Paris was likely to be bombed, American and European expatriates left the city for the south of France or home. In April 1940 German troops occupied Denmark, then Norway; Holland and Belgium fell in May. The British army were evacuated from Dunkirk in early June. Everyone believed that now it was Paris’s turn.

Helen’s family had been insisting that she, with her son Stephen, return at once to America. Helen was too ill to travel, so her brother, Robert Kastor, who had always adored his sister, came over from America, accompanied by two doctors and two nurses, and led Helen, under sedation, to Genoa, where they caught a liner for the United States.**

Leaving France

The Joyces too were on the move. James and Nora, Giorgio and Stephen took up residence in a small village St Gérand-le-Puy, inside the French Vichy collaborationist area. From there Joyce began torturous negotiations with the German and French governments to allow his family to leave France for Switzerland. Lucia was at the Delmas clinic at Pornichet, south of La Baule, in occupied France; and at the last moment the German authorities withdrew her permit to travel. Joyce hoped that once in Zurich he would petition for her join them. The Swiss authorities demanded a large sum of money be deposited before they were allowed to cross their border. As all Joyce’s finances were blocked by the war, he had to borrow on a large scale even from their friends the Giedion-Welckers in Zurich who were arranging their accommodation. But eventually, on December 16 1940, the Joyces left France clutching documents, suitcases and Stephen’s bicycle.

Paris was dangerous

Paul Léon was not so fortunate. Joyce was worried that they had left their Paris apartment in such a hurry that there were private letters and documents he did not want to fall into a stranger’s hand. Léon and Lucie were returning to Paris as their son was about to take his baccalaureate exam. Léon went round to Joyce’s place and climbed in a window. He gathered all the documents and brought them to the Irish legation in Place Vendome, giving them to the Irish consul, Count Gerald O’Kelly, with two stipulations: If he were to die the papers would go to Joyce; if both men die the papers would go to the National Library in Ireland and not be opened until 50 years after Joyce’s death.

As a Jew Léon knew his time in Paris was dangerous. He remained in his apartment while his son was finishing his exam. That parental gesture cost him his life. The Gestapo came and took him away. He was taken to a camp near Compiegne, which turned out to be a staging post for onward transport. In 1942, he was sent to Auschwitz. As he was being marched with some other prisoners, Léon was ordered out of line by a guard, and shot dead.

Next week: Joyce’s death, and Nora carries on ….

NOTES: * Practically all of Finnegans Wake had been published piecemeal in various literary reviews, but unlike Ulysses there was no problem finding a publisher for the complete text. Faber and Faber published it in London, Viking Press in New York.

** Helen spent the war in a sanatorium in Connecticut. Later the family sent for Stephen who went to school in Massachusetts, and later to Harvard.

Sources include Nora - A Biography of Nora Joyce by Brenda Maddox, published 1988, and Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation by Noel Riley Fitch, published 1984.

 

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