The following post is by Keri Walsh, editor of The Letters of Sylvia Beach:
“What do you do?” Joyce inquired. I told him about Shakespeare and Company. The name, and mine too, seemed to amuse him, and a charming smile came to his lips. (From Shakespeare & Company, by Sylvia Beach)
James Joyce and Sylvia Beach both liked to play with words. The name of her Paris bookstore, like T.S. Eliot’s “Shakespeherian Rag,” threw together the erudite and the everyday, bringing the bard down an affectionate peg or two (“my associate, Bill Shakespeare,” she calls him in one of her letters). Another of her coinages was “Bloomsday,” the spritely phrase she invented to commemorate June 16, 1904. It was the date on which James Joyce first stepped out with Nora Barnacle, and also, of course, the date on which Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus stepped out in the pages of Ulysses (1922).
Joyce’s Irish epic, published just in time for his fortieth birthday, had Parisian roots as well as Dublin ones. “After years of wandering,” Beach told the Radiophonique Institut in 1927, Joyce “had come to France to finish his book, ULYSSES.” Paris was the spiritual home of the Irish artist in exile. Oscar Wilde, who died here in 1900, had established the standard. And Joyce, though not so direct a victim of the English courts, was a victim of English censorship, and sometimes he liked to adopt the Wildean pose. “‘Melancholy Jesus,’ Adrienne and I used to call him,” says Beach, and on his first visit to Shakespeare and Company, “he inspected my two photographs of Oscar Wilde.” In Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus declares that Wildean paradox could no longer sustain Irish art, but the image of the suffering Wilde held its fascination for Joyce.
Wilde had been eviscerated in London, but it was at home in Dublin that Joyce sustained the emotional wounds that drove his art. Occasionally these were renewed by new barbs. The contrarian G.B. Shaw, elder statesman of Irish letters, responded to Beach’s invitation to buy a copy of Ulysses with a flamboyant refusal. He detailed—in gleeful prose—the sordidness of the book, and suggested to Beach that she misunderstood what kind of novels the Irish reading public would pay for. But while Shaw counted on Dublin to be philistine, in Paris, as in Zurich and Trieste, Joyce found a home he could write in. “Mr. Joyce…has many friends in Paris,” Beach wrote to Harriet Weaver in 1922: “The French writers…have received him with open arms and have the greatest admiration for him.” A 1924 article noted that the author of Dubliners and Portrait was a local celebrity whose draw was more than literary: “Mr. Joyce, with his strikingly good-looking face,” confessed Morrill Cody, “has indeed attracted many people to the shop.”
At today’s Shakespeare and Company on the rue de Bûcherie, the attraction seems no less great, as crowds gather throughout the year to explore the shop’s many nooks, rub elbows with fellow travelers, and perhaps leave with a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses or Beach’s memoirs. This year, Bloomsday celebrants who find themselves in Paris can see David Norris, the Irish politician, activist, and scholar, performing his one-man Joyce show at the Centre Culturel Irlandais. And if they’re near the Arc de Triomphe, they can stop by the James Joyce Pub for a pint of Guinness served up by an Irish staff against the backdrop of a dozen stained-glass windows narrating the plot of Ulysses.
So what shall we do on this Bloomsday in Paris? It is early afternoon on June 16. Let us turn off the Boulevard Edgar Quinet, into the Montparnasse cemetery. There we will find one of Joyce’s most faithful followers, and one who drew his own artistic lessons from the fluidity of Joyce’s prose. His plays turned modernist speech into modernist silence. In the 1930s, Samuel Beckett was Joyce’s most willing and talented pupil. He wrote one of the first critical reflections on Finnegans Wake, and it appeared in a volume published by Shakespeare and Company, “Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress.” Though he shared Joyce’s artistic integrity and Wilde’s knack for turning Irish stage comedy to fresh purposes, Beckett stuck out like a sore thumb among the Irish Parisians. He lacked the personal charms of Joyce and Wilde, and he was immune to the aesthetic temptations of Roman Catholicism—even a decadent, blasphemous, worldly Catholicism of the imagination, like Wilde’s or Joyce’s.
As we venture inside the cemetery walls, pausing to take a map from the porter, we find ourselves in a museum of modernist Paris: the ornate stained-glass temple that houses the famed tragic actor Mounet-Sully; the elegant, intellectual, eminently respectable tomb shared by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beavoir; Baudelaire’s resting-place strewn with fresh roses and letters from admirers; Serge Gainsbourg’s monument covered in the pop ephemera of photographs, cigarette lighters and metro tickets. With all these shrines to personality, one wonders what Beckett’s place in eternity will look like— austere or absurd? Does it, like Wilde’s Art Deco tomb in nearby Père Lachaise, do him poetic justice? Will it be strewn with turnips or carrots, leashes, tattered bootlaces? Perhaps the vaudeville spirit of his best-known plays will be honored, and atop the bones of Samuel and Suzanne Beckett we’ll find the marble forms of two quizzical tramps in trash cans, a final visual one-liner.
Beckett’s grave can be picked out as soon as it comes into view, not by its wit, but by its plainness. Though he may have indulged his characters with humor, for himself there was only an iconoclastic anti-regard. His tomb is a slab without adornment, formed of the most generic grey granite, with just one word— “BECKETT”—carved in chilly capitals on the edge. It declares the Protestant sensibility that made Beckett a different kind of Irishman in Paris, the sort who certainly didn’t expect any pleasure and rebuffed the adulation that later came his way. This austerity was his moral force, the temperament that served him so heroically as a member of the French Resistance. His aversion to the myths, cults, and romances of the Celtic twilight, more uncompromising even than Joyce’s, his refusal not just of the Christian imagination, but of the imagination in general, is shocking in this romantic and consolatory graveyard.
Yeats’s headstone in Drumcliff may counsel a similar stoic restraint, but it gives lyrical expression to the sentiment in the poet’s verse:
Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death,
Horseman, pass by!”
Joyce’s grave in Zurich, surrounded by lush green grass, has all the living charm we could hope for. First, there is the capitulation to death—a regular plot in the ground for Joyce and his family—and then, at a slight remove, a statue of the artist seated, a book in hand and his cane at his side, contemplating matters from a distance, just as though on a walk through the park. But Beckett’s tomb has no adornment at all: no images, no epigraphs, no height, no texture, merely names and dates. No devotee has left behind a tribute on its forbidding surface. Beckett’s silence still echoes through Montparnasse. But on Bloomsday, just as we revel in Joyce, it is also good to pause and consider the influence he meted, and the service he was rendered, by this plainer servant of Irish letters.