Ulysses at 100: What Paris is doing to celebrate
The Times, 31/1/22
James Joyce’s classic is having a big birthday, and the French capital is putting on a special bash. What better reason to head to the City of Light!
A hundred years ago this Wednesday James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in Paris on his 40th birthday. This month, the French capital began putting on a series of events to mark the centenary of one of Ireland’s most famous pieces of literature.
But what would music lover James Joyce have thought of performers such as Wyvern Lingo, Inni-K, Kíla and Ballet Poulet? Or the Donegal group Altan, Irish-Iranian collaboration Navá, mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught and other artists that are Paris bound this spring for a “grand fête” in his name?
Nora Hickey M’Sichili, director of the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris (CCI), the body behind the main Ulysses 100 celebrations, is hoping that he would be delighted. Amid Covid-related uncertainty over the past year, she has been working (with a team supported by the Irish Embassy in Paris and Culture Ireland) on a programme to commemorate the centenary.
“I’d say the idea of a celebration of him as a European, with events not only in English and French but also in Portuguese, Italian and Hungarian, would really appeal,” she says. “The added bonus of an Irish context in Paris would surely have pleased him, merging both worlds.” If Joyce could attend, she adds, she would be “asking him for a song”.
Ulysses 100 kicks off in earnest on the date of the book’s publication — February 2 — and events in various forms run until July, a perfect excuse to visit the City of Light (if any was needed).
The CCI, located in a former townhouse transformed into the Collège des Irlandais in 1775 and since restored by the Irish government, will be the main venue. Its location on Rue des Irlandais, near the Panthéon on the Left Bank, couldn’t be more central, with many events being held in its large gravelled courtyard against the leafy backdrop of horse chestnut trees.
Joyce was 20 when he moved to Paris in 1902 to study medicine and hang out with writers and poets. After a brief trip home that Christmas, he left Paris the next April having received a telegram from Dublin that read: “Mother dying come home father.”
When he returned in July 1920 with his partner Nora Barnacle and their children Giorgio and Lucia he had planned to stay just a week, but remained there for 20 years, according to his biographer Richard Ellmann. During that time the family changed address at least 19 times, mainly living in the 6th, 7th, 8th and 16th arrondissements with the financial support of the English feminist and magazine publisher Harriet Shaw Weaver.
Sylvia Beach, who owned the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, and Adrienne Monnier, a Parisian bookseller, championed the publication of Ulysses, as did the French writer Valery Larbaud. Joyce by now had failing eyesight and endured at least ten eye operations during his years in Paris, when he worked on Finnegans Wake.
“If we go to the river, we will not be alone, Joyce loved the river, this river that dissects the city like a flea’s back,” writes Rachel Ní Chuinn, the sound artist, performer and co-director of the Dublin Laptop Orchestra. The line is part of her introduction to an audio ballad and walking trail of Joyce’s Paris, which is one of the many highlights of the Ulysses 100 programme.
Joyce and Europe is the theme of the centenary celebrations, which include a number of international collaborations, such as a photographic installation by the Italian artist Leo Pellegatta and a sonic installation by the French artist Nicolas Laffererie.
“Cardboard boxes aren’t homes” reads the protestor’s sign in one of a series of stunning black-and-white photographs of contemporary Dublin taken by the photographer Deirdre Brennan. Brennan, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Time and Stern, explores themes of culture, politics and social struggle for her exhibition Following Ulysses, which will open at the CCI on February 2. Brennan’s images are intended to reflect the 18 episodes of Ulysses, addressing many issues affecting women, Hickey M’Sichili notes.
“A Nation under the Influence: Ireland at 100” is the theme of an exhibition of the same name, involving six artists, that traces the links between Ireland’s independence and Joyce’s Ulysses, including the impact of colonisation, religious zeal and nationalism.
You don’t have to be in Paris for Ulysses Journey 2022, a series of six new commissions of music and film inspired by the book, which will be screened simultaneously on February 2 at the CCI and in Dublin’s Meeting House Square in Temple Bar. However, you might want to be at the CCI for the guitarist, composer and musical director Max Zaska — and there’s still time to book a trip. Zaska has teamed up with the musicians Gemma Dunleavy, Melina Malone and Kean Kavanagh to combine funk, neo-soul, jazz, R’n’B, hip-hop and more at gigs on February 9, 16 and 23.
The packed music segment ranges from the aforementioned Wyvern Lingo, Kíla, Altan and company to the Afro-soul vocalist Fehdah, Ye Vagabonds, the Irish National Opera and a fête on June 21 with a Franco-Irish-Senegalese hip-hop ensemble.
Theatre includes Pat Kinevane’s Before, performed by the Fishamble theatre company, a talk by the Brokentalkers theatre outfit and Yes! Reflections of Molly Bloom, created by Aedín Moloney and Colum McCann. Literature events include an evening celebrating the life and work of John McGahern.
The actor Barry McGovern and composer Roger Doyle present Ulysses 100: Happening 1, combining sound and images, at the CCI on the evening of February 17, while Happening 2 on February 24 focuses on gender and Joyce’s muse, as in Nora, and is hosted by Denis Kehoe as the drag queen Esther Raquel Minsky.
A series of evenings on the theme of Joyce in translation, involving French, Italian and Portuguese translators, will be introduced by Professor Clíona Ní Ríordá of the Sorbonne University on February 8, while work from the Dutch collector Leo Koenders, who commissioned a series of books inspired by Ulysses, is among several other exhibitions.
The Liam Swords Foundation, named after the late Irish priest who pioneered restoration of the Irish College in Paris, is hosting a conference on The Year of the French. And running concurrently with Ulysses 100 is the centenary of the Irish Race Congress held in Paris in January 1922 and spearheaded by Éamon de Valera, where speakers expressed their hopes and aspirations for the new free state.
Former president Mary Robinson, Professor Declan Kiberd, Panti Bliss and Fintan O’Toole are among contributors to the congress’s centenary, with a series of short talks between now and June, which will be recorded for podcasts.
Many events for both programmes are free, some require booking, and tickets are still available, according to Hickey M’Sichili. And if the CCI Ulysses fete isn’t enough, there are celebrations at home in Dublin and in Rome as part of the University of Notre Dame’s Global Ulysses festival.
If the solitude of rural France is more appealing, the small French village of Saint-Gérand-le-Puy has its own Ulysses programme (jamesjoyce-a-saintgerandlepuy.com). It was here in the countryside northeast of Vichy that most of the Joyce family spent their last happy Christmas together.
That was December 1939, the Second World War had begun, and close family friend Maria Jolas had moved her international school from Neuilly in Paris to a château in Saint-Gérand-le-Puy.
One of her pupils was Joyce’s only grandchild, Stephen. She invited the Joyce family down, with Stephen’s grandparents, James and Nora, and his father, Giorgio, at that point estranged from his mother. They arrived on Christmas Eve and stayed 12 months. Locals remember the man with the blackthorn stick who took walks and went to the barber at ten o’clock each morning.
Stephen Joyce and his wife, Solange, visited Saint-Gérand-le-Puy frequently after he moved to Paris to work with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the village built on the connection with a plaque, museum, library, square and an annual Jour d’Ulysse just after Bloomsday in June.
L’Association James Joyce à Saint-Gérand-le-Puy has invited primary school children to create birthday cards, and two “book cakes” commemorating the first two copies of Ulysses will be baked by Marie Boudouard, daughter of the village’s now retired patissier.
The cakes, cards and chocolates will be delivered by train, arriving in Paris’s Gare de Lyon on February 2, according to the association’s incoming president and artistic director Marion Byrne. Cards are expected from Trieste in Italy, Zurich in Switzerland and Dublin — all home cities for Joyce — and there are plans for an e-book.
The village also intends to host an exhibition entitled French Leave: How James Joyce Managed to Escape from Saint-Gérand-le-Puy in 1940, with a Little Bit of Help from His Friends.
Aer Lingus, Air France, Transavia and Ryanair have frequent flights to Paris, the latter two flying to Orly and Beauvais respectively. If you have more time and want to avoid Covid-19 travel stress, Irish Ferries sails from Dublin to Cherbourg, while Brittany Ferries has weekly sailings between Rosslare and Cherbourg.
Where to stay
Aside from the regular hotel circuit in the city, limited accommodation is available close to the action, in the Centre Culturel Irlandais (CCI), near the Panthéon in Paris’s 5th arrondissement. Places are limited, but it is worth inquiring, the college says, and it can also furnish a list of nearby partner hotels. The CCI is at 5 Rue des Irlandais, 75005 Paris (+33 15 85 21 030; centreculturelirlandais.com).
Saint-Gérand-le-Puy is 20km from Vichy, with limited public transport links, so car hire is recommended. Accommodation in the village is limited to the Château de Saint Étienne (doubles €140 a night, minimum two-night stay; chateausaint etienne.fr). There is more scope in Vichy, while Moulins is 40 minutes away by car, and Clermont-Ferrand an hour away.
In the bag, you might pack a copy of A Little Circle of Kindred Minds: Joyce in Paris by the former RTE journalist Conor Fennell (Green Lamp Media, €14.99), which looks at Joyce’s relationship with Paris-based Irish and international writers including Ezra Pound and his drinking buddy Samuel Beckett.
Two guides to the masterpiece have recently been published — Ulysses Unbound: A Reader’s Companion to James Joyce’s Ulysses by Terence Killeen is in its fourth edition and is an indispensable companion (Penguin, €9.99), while Daniel Mulhall, the historian and Irish ambassador to the US, has written Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey (New Island, €15.95). Et Voilá!, the Franco-Irish podcast by the French embassy in Ireland’s cultural section, has two episodes about Joyce’s last year in France, presented by the French honorary consul for Connacht and Donegal Catherine Gagneux, with readings by actors Olwen Fouéré and Páraic Breathnach