James Joyce is truly loved worldwide... so why doesn’t he get the same respect in his home country?
THE taxi driver, a man in his 70s, was sitting in his gleaming Mercedes outside the Savoy Hotel. I’d heard all about the price of taxis in Zurich, namely that they are the most expensive in the world.
Already forced to jettison the tram option upon realising that on a Sunday morning the one I needed wasn’t running, I toyed with the idea of abandoning my plan altogether and heading into the city’s legendary Sprungel café instead.
But no, I wasn’t going to do that. I’d come this far and, come hell or high water, I was determined that before I left in a few hours’ time, I was going to stand at the grave of James Joyce.
‘How much will it cost?’ I asked the taxi driver who, I later found out, was called Graziano, courtesy of his Italian mother who, together with his Swiss ‘Papa’, was also buried, like Joyce, in the city’s Fluntern cemetery.
We struck a deal on the spot, and yes, he would wait for me.
As the taxi glided through the streets and began to climb in the direction of the cemetery, it started to snow. I smiled to myself. In honour of my James Joyce pilgrimage, obviously, snow was now general all over Zurich.
I had always loved The Dead, his wonderful final story in the Dubliners collection, set in a house on Ushers Island in a snowbound Dublin on the day of the Epiphany. It was also the story that John Huston turned into what would be his final film.
So am I a Joyce aficionado? Not really. Dubliners and A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man I read as a teenager and have re-read many times. Ulysses I waded through at university because it was a text on my course. Some of it I found difficult, some invigorating. Finnegans Wake? You’ve got to be joking.
But, despite a rather scant knowledge of Joyce’s work, I’ve always been fascinated by the man. By his refusal to bend the knee to Church or State, by his love affair with Nora Barnacle, by the way he bounced around the world, family in tow, from Ireland to Trieste, to Zurich, to Paris, and back to Zurich where he died, following complications from a longstanding stomach ulcer, in January 1941.
Some 77 years on, James Joyce still looms large in Zurich, a city whose people took him to their hearts and in whose hearts he still remains to this day. It’s actually quite humbling to witness how celebrated he is there, and not just among the literati.
‘You’re from Ireland?’ queried the breakfast waitress in my hotel.
‘You must have a coffee in Café Odeon – it’s where your James Joyce used to meet his friends.’
‘Look,’ said Elizabeth, my guide on the Saturday morning, pointing towards a distinctive historic building in the Old Town, ‘that’s the James Joyce Foundation.’
I told her I had contacted them in advance but that they were closed on Saturdays and Sundays.
‘Hmmm,’ she said. ‘Let’s see if we can get in anyway. It wouldn’t be right for you not to see it. It’s wonderful.’
And then there was the Kronenhalle, still one of the most famous restaurants in Zurich. I knew that Joyce was a regular here, that owner Hulda Zumsteg used to feed him for free because he had no money, and that after he died she continued to look after Nora.
So I’d booked a table for lunch well in advance.
It’s a beautiful brasserie-type restaurant and I experienced one of those tingle-down-the-spine feelings as I sat there, in the very room where Joyce used to meet friends and where he actually wrote part of Ulysses.
The manager came over to me just before I left. I had mentioned that I was Irish when I’d booked online. ‘I am so sorry,’ he said. Sorry? ‘Yes, I wanted to give you that table over there,’ he said, indicating one a few feet away. ‘That’s where Mr Joyce always sat – look, you can see that we have his photograph and a portrait of him hung beside it. I wanted you to sit there today but, as you can see, it is occupied.
‘That gentleman and his wife are regular diners and they always ask for James Joyce’s table. We love Mr Joyce in this city.’
I felt a flush of pride that I can’t quite explain.
In Zurich, without doubt, they love Joyce. But do we? Do we celebrate him enough here at home, this man who left such a mark on the world?
God knows we celebrate all other kinds of people who have left little of worth behind them.
Yes, I know that Bloomsday comes around every year and visitors love it. But how about us? I’ve only participated once in the day itself – on the centenary of Leopold Bloom’s Dublin stroll, celebrated with much ado on June 16, 2004. And I’m ashamed to say that I have never set foot in the James Joyce Tower in Sandycove, now a museum.
Nor am I the only one guilty of not giving Joyce his due. The very fact that this Joyce museum is only open because of the goodwill of volunteers says it all.
But then, there’s form here, for the Irish State never accepted James Joyce. He didn’t play the game, after all. And even when Nora wanted his body repatriated, as Yeats’s had been after his initial burial in France, that dignity was denied her.
And so he remains in lovely Fluntern cemetery, high above the city that still loves him so well.
As Graziano parked the taxi on Sunday morning, he kindly told me to take my time. The meter wasn’t running was what he meant. So he walked with me into the cemetery and before he veered off to the left to pay his respects to his own longdead parents, he told me exactly where I’d find James Joyce, the ‘wonderful… schriftsteller’, he said, unable to find the English word for writer.
And so, finally, I found myself standing at the grave. A flat tombstone, difficult to read, but with inscriptions that indicate that James, Nora, their son Giorgio and his wife are all entombed below. Beside the grave sits a sculpture of the man himself – legs crossed, slim walking cane by his side, book in hand and cigarette between his fingers.
The snow was falling faster now as I stood there, cascading from the Swiss sky, falling softly on James Joyce, and, appropriately, and to quote himself, ‘on all the living and the dead’.
I felt a strange sense of pride wash over me, a pride in this man who left such a mark, a man rejected in Ireland yet celebrated around the world, and loved and honoured to this day in his adopted city of Zurich.
So maybe when Bloomsday comes around again this June, we should take stock. And acknowledge that when it comes to celebrating him on home turf, James Joyce shouldn’t just be for Bloomsday. James Joyce should be for life.