Phillippe Soupault, ‘James Joyce’ (1963)

[ Bibliographical note: From ‘Profils perfus’ (Paris: Mercure de France 1963), pp.49-70; rep. as ‘James Joyce’ [trans. Carleton W. Carroll], in Portraits of the Artist in Exile: Recollections of James Joyce by Europeans, ed. Willard Potts (Dublin: Wolfhound Press 1979), pp.108-18. See also an earlier version in Souvenirs de James Joyce (Paris: Charlot: 1945), from which a brief excerpt appeared in translation in James Joyce Yearbook, ed. Maria Jolas (Paris: Transition Press 1949previously given in part as a lecture ’]


I speak with some authority because I had the privilege of knowing him during several phases of his life. WhenI met him in 1918 [sic] he was [108] writing Ulysses. He as famous asmong only a few, ut he neither doubted nor marveled at his genius. He alread had given himself over to that kind of daily hell, the creation of the Joycean world.

What strikes one about this phenomenon, one of the purest, in the scientific sense, that the hsitory of literature offers, is its unity. [...] The writer refuses to lie. He rejets everything that we peoratively call “literary”. All poses, all tricks, all ambivalences are rejected - the most compelte good faith ever kept.

As soon as Joyce felt compelled to write, he gave himself over it it entirely. All his actions, all of his readings, his studies, his joys, his pains were dedicated to his work. He was the exact opposite of a dilettante,

That life dictates the reader’s attitude. I demands that in order to approach the work an effort must be made. It restores to reading a different sense and a dignity that most contemporary novels had caused it to lose.

[...] since he is no longer indpendent of the writer but an associate the reader should read Dubliners before the Portrait, then go on to Ulysses, and end with Finnegans Wake. Let us repeat, Joyce has created a wordl, and this world is acceessible to us only if we can humbly obey the writer’s wishes.

Of equal necessity with tht obedience is a knowledge of Joyce’s life. It is, moreover, a life of great simplicity. But it is little know. The many biographies already published are generally inaccurate. They always lack an element that, for want of an more exact word, must be called poetry. James was a poet, a great poet, who knew [109] what poetry meant and who lived by it and for it. The whole first part of of his life is told by himself, with an intensity that borders on despair, in his youthful book A Portrait and later in the first part of Ulysses. He has depicted himself under the name of Stephen Dedalus. Everything that went into his formation, the whole background, the whole nature of his future life, is fixed with a precision and carefulness that makes all later accounts vain. When Joyce stopped writing his biography it was because he thought that he no longer pertained to his work. One knows that after he left Ireland he came to Paris to study medicine, that he passed through Zurich and went to settle in Trieste, where he taught English in the Berlitz Schools The Trieste period, which predates 1914, is without doubt the most important of all his life. He completed Portrait, but it was also at this time that he became aware of the grandeur and importance of his life’s work; it was at this period that he detached himself definitively from our world in order to conceive the Joycean universe.

I have found Joyce’s tracks in the unrecognized city par excellence, this city that the vicinity of Venice obscures so unjustly. (And wasn’t it only to find evidences of Joyce that I myself went there?) On the edge of Austria and across from Italy, Trieste, where Stendahl meditated and Fouché died ignominiously, is the most beautiful, the most European crossroads in all Europe. Joyce lived there ten years in a poverty that bordered on destitution. I have visited the building where he began writing Ulysses; I have walked through the streets that he frequented; I have retraced his daily route; above all, I have listened to the stories, the sounds, the cries, the language (one of the most varied, one of the richest, one of most “composite” in the world) that Joyce listened to with a passionate attention.
Others more learned than I will be able to describe the influence that the Triestine language, and above all the life and the richness of that language, had on Joyce’s thought. In my opinion it was considerable. Trieste also provided Joyce with a necessary detachment: he felt himself far removed from Ireland, still distinguishing images and echoes of Dublin, but seeing, feeling, and hearing better from afar that city where he had loved and suffered and where he was to set all of his work. Distance gives harmonies to love and confers a supernatural appearance on it. (pp.107-10.)


Can one say that Joyce worked? He “lived” his books. I have observed him many times during his leisure, or so-called leisure. Together we often went to the theatre, which, like all good Irishmen,
he loved. It was the theatre as theatre that he loved. I mean that he was attracted less by the play than by the atmosphere, the footlights and spotlights, the spectators, the kind of solemnity in a theatre. He preferred opera. When he had decided to go, he was happy as a child. He chose a companion, refused to dine (I prepare myself for a sacrament, he told me, explaining this abstinence), and after the performance he had supper at a restaurant, where he had arranged to have his favorite white wines. At the theatre, seated in the first row—presumably because of his very bad eyesight—he carefully watched the action and listened closely to the performers. Only children are as passionately attentive as Joyce was. He was always the first to applaud and to shout “encore” after the great arias. One evening at the Paris Opera he was responsible for two repetitions of the great aria in William Tell. The singer, it is true, was Irish and one of his childhood friends [i.e., John Sullivan]. He liked everything, even the crudest vaudeville. Obviously what he sought on these occasions was that atmosphere which remains one of the fascinations of the theatre. He also took a singular pleasure in contact with the crowd.

It was doubtless this same pleasure that he sought in bringing together his friends to celebrate special occasions. [...] (p.113.)

[...] each day, and each hour of the day, he thought of Ireland; he lived and relived his memories; thousands of times he mentally traversed the streets and squares of the city, the pathways of the surrounding area; he looked at every house, he conversed with the inhabitants; he described, painted (and with what minute detail) the hours and the colors. Since his departure in 1904, he never wanted to retrace his steps. At the urging of an Irish friend, I one day asked him the reason for his refusal. In reply, he only looked at me and with his elongated hand stirred, like a blind man, the pages he was writing at that time. Have I mistranslated his response in thinking that to complete his work it was necessary for him to avoid comparing the reality and the evocation, to avoid disturbing his image of Dublin by an inevitable disappointment?

It never can be sufficiently emphasized that Joyce lived in exile voluntarily, lived in exile in order to complete his work. It would have been sweet and exalting, especially for an Irishman, to be received in Dublin, to take his revenge thirty years later on those who mocked the [116] poor student into exile. His work was not finished. That was enough to silence his desire.

Many people, in my prsence, came to himbearing news of Ireland. Pat, or of Mother X, the one who had such a strange nose .. He laughed, he laughed, but one sensed in the childlike laugh a kind of pain, a regret, and doubtless a sense of remorse. [...]. (p.117.)

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