Memories of James Joyce
16 June 1904 was the date when James Joyce met his future wife, Nora Barnacle. It is also the day, known as ‘Bloomsday’, on which his epic novel Ulysses (1922) is set.
Our Bloomsday celebration last year was a performance of songs from Burgess’s musical Blooms of Dublin (his adaptation of Joyce’s Ulysses) and a public lecture by Paul Phillips, the author of A Clockwork Counterpoint.
This year’s Bloomsday treat takes the form of a discovery from the archive. A few months ago, we were both delighted and puzzled to find a short memoir of James Joyce, dated 1982 (the year of Joyce’s centenary) in our collection. Burgess was involved in a number of Joycean celebrations in 1982, including Make It New, a film about Joyce and Stravinsky broadcast on Swedish television. He also writes in You’ve Had Your Time about visiting Dublin in June 1982 to take part in the Bloomsday celebrations there, dressed as the character Blazes Boylan.
This memoir, written in Burgess’s distinctive handwriting, speaks of a series of meetings with Joyce in Paris, but there is no evidence to suggest that Burgess and Joyce ever met. If such a meeting had taken place, surely he would have mentioned it in his autobiography, or in one of his critical books about Joyce.
At first we wondered if the document was a piece of extravagant boasting, a short story, or a chapter from an unfinished novel. Further enquiry made it clear that the text is Burgess’s English translation of a memoir by Georges Belmont, one of Burgess’s French translators, who had known Joyce in the 1930s and 1940s. A distinguished poet and novelist, he appears in Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce under the name Georges Pelorson. Working with Hortense Chabrier, he translated most of Burgess’s early novels for the publishers Robert Laffont and Acropole. He also translated the works of Graham Greene, Henry Miller and Erica Jong.
This extract from the Belmont memoir appears here for the first time in English. The full text will be published later this year in The Burgess Review, a scholarly journal published by the International Anthony Burgess Foundation and distributed to all of our members.
Memories of James Joyce by Georges Belmont (1982)
Translated by Anthony Burgess
Each time I hear or read the name James Joyce in a conversation, or in the anniversary articles of which we’re having an expected plethora, or in the travestied versions of his life one meets in books or on the stage, he comes back to me as a living person, and I recall with gratitude my seven years’ good luck of knowing him.
He returns so vividly to my memory that it is as though he is still somewhere around. I tell myself: tomorrow afternoon, at three o’clock – the hour he liked people to call – I’ll take the arthritic lift – solemn and slow as a public notary – in a house just two steps from where I’m living today, on rue Edmond Valentin, and go in to his apartment with its smell of stale Virginia cigarettes, the grey light of its bourgeois salon, and there meet his long silences and his sighs, with the long cylinders of ash settling into the folds of his Buck Mulligan flowered waistcoat.
Or else, some evening at the house of affluent American friends, suddenly, from the fastness of grouped armchairs where he was settled with Eugene Jolas and a bottle of Moselle, facing a corner of the large dining room, he would break into a dance, with all his surprising Irish gaiety, celebrating the departure of Gertrude Stein – brought here to meet him and furious only to have spent an hour looking at his back.
In my final view of him – the most precious of all – at the end of February 1940, I left him at about two in the morning. I was taking the dawn train. Back in Paris I remember telling some friends that I’d never see him again – it was all over. And I wasn’t thinking merely of the inevitable separation of war – I was thinking of Goethe after Faust Part II, Wagner after Parsifal, of the death – the most natural of deaths – which seizes the great creators after they’ve said all they have to say.
In that little hotel at Saint-Gérand-le-Puy, when I asked him if he was working at something, he replied with a smile and a sigh – “I’m adding commas to Finnegans Wake.” Then, after one of his long silences, he laughed and said: “If I write anything new, it will be something very very simple.” It was the best way, the quietest and most resigned way, of telling me that he’d write no more.
English translation copyright (c) Estate of Anthony Burgess