Saturday, February 5, 2022

Joyce's Birthday and Sylvia Beach

February 2nd, 2022 marked 100 years since the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses by Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris. The day of 2/2/2022 was also the 140th birthday of James Joyce. Ten years ago at my other blog I wrote a short summary of Joyce's life for his 130th birthday. Back then I also wrote a piece describing with 16 reasons why James Joyce is the greatest writer ever. Both older pieces seem to hold up well I think, even though that was from before I had ever read Finnegans Wake. Finnegans Wake also had a birthday on February 2nd, it marked 83 years since Joyce's final masterwork first appeared in print after nearly two decades of serialization under the title Work in Progress. Joyce told a friend, "since 1922 my book has been a greater reality for me than reality." (Ellmann, 695) Back in 2010 after Danis Rose and John O'Hanlon brought out their new-and-improved "corrected" edition of Finnegans Wake, I wrote about the frantic final stages in the proofreading and publication of such a bizarrely written book. This was how the Wake came into the world:
Joyce finished composing the book on November 13, 1938 after laboring on it for nearly 17 years and then for the next month and a half, Joyce, with help from his friends Stuart Gilbert and Paul Léon and some professional proofreaders, frantically worked around the clock to proofread the book as Joyce insisted that it be printed by his birthday (February 2nd) no matter what. During this time, Joyce barely slept at all and once collapsed during a walk in Paris. In his famous Joyce biography, Richard Ellmann tells another story from this "frenzy of proofreading":
Léon supplied a last drama by forgetting a section of the revised proofs in a taxi. He rushed back to stop the driver, but the taxi was gone. Bitterly ashamed, he hurried to Joyce's flat to inform him; Joyce did not reproach him, seemed rather to take it as the usual sort of bad luck. Léon telephoned to London to send more proofs, but the taxi driver, after two hours, miraculously appeared with the missing package. (JJ, Ellmann, pg 714)
Joyce received a printed copy of the book from his publishers, Faber & Faber, on January 30th and for his birthday party on February 2nd, he celebrated the culmination of his years of work with friends and family. Paris' best caterer baked seven cakes, each one a replica of Joyce's seven books, with icing the color of the books' bindings. At the dinner celebration, Joyce told the guests how the idea for the book came to him in 1922 when he was at Nice in France and, after dinner, Joyce and his son sang a duet and his son's wife read aloud the last pages of Finnegans Wake.

When Ulysses was published in 1922 the era was fraught due to obscenity charges which led to Joyce's most famous book being declined by publishers in the English-speaking world for fear of legal action against them. Instead the owner of a small bookshop in Paris, American expatriate Sylvia Beach, took on the task of publishing the first edition of Ulysses. By the time Joyce was wrapping up Finnegans Wake in the late 1930s, he was the biggest literary celebrity in the world. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine and Faber & Faber published and promoted his new book.

Joyce had in his hands the first printed copy of Finnegans Wake for his 58th birthday. He would not live to see the age of 60. He died January 13th, 1941 in Zurich after escaping Paris with his family before the Nazis took over France. With the Wake turning 83 years old, I was thinking what year would it have been had Joyce lived to the age of 83? 1965. One can only imagine. Ezra Pound died in 1972. Joyce's son Giorgio lived until 1976 and daughter Lucia died in 1982. 

Sylvia Beach died in 1962. That same year she recorded an interview that's available to watch on YouTube, shared below. It's a fantastic clip for Joyce fans, she describes what kind of person Joyce was, and (starting at 15:00) she tells the story of how, after the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, a group of German officers came to her shop demanding to have her final copy of Finnegans Wake. She refused, and after they threatened to come back and confiscate all her stuff, she hurriedly emptied the shop and shuttered up Shakespeare and Company.