Thomas F. Staley & Randolph Lewis, editors Reflections on James Joyce: Stuart Gilbert’s Paris Journal.
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center/University of Texas Press, 103 pages, $24.95
reviewed by Jeffrey Meyers
Stuart Gilbert (1883-1969) took a First at Oxford, joined the Indian Civil Service in 1907, and spent nearly twenty years as a hanging judge in Burma, where, toward the end of his long career, he was a contemporary of George Orwell’s. Gilbert once sentenced a Burmese to death for murder, but after the man used political influence to escape the penalty, Gilbert chatted affably with him when they met. Gilbert also had a brief stint in Mesopotamia in 1918-19, two years after T. E. Lawrence tried to bribe the Turkish generals to raise the siege of Kut. In his introduction to Gilbert’s Paris Journal, Thomas Staley writes: “Although Burma was an English colony, a version of French remained the practical language of civil administration.” But Burma was not a British colony; it was administered as part of India until 1937. Though adjacent to Indo-China, it had never been under French rule and remained independent until the British finally conquered the country after the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885. Under British rule, as one would expect and as Orwell and Maurice Collis’s Trials in Burma (1938) confirm, English was the language of civil administration. (Less serious errors occur on page 90, where the names of Stanley Spencer and Geoffrey Wolff are misspelled, and on page 51, where “alla Lucia” is correct in Italian and requires no tedious sic.) Much more is needed in the brief introduction, especially since the book itself is so short, on Gilbert’s background, education, character, career in Burma, marriage, wife, and children (if any). It would also be useful to know about the quality of his numerous translations and the events of his later life. And Staley offers no explanation of why Gilbert is pensioned off yet so worried about money, so physically exhausted and utterly world-weary, so arrogant and yet so full of doubts, so caustic, acrimonious, and dyspeptic.
In 1927, according to Gilbert himself and Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann (Staley gives the date as 1925), Gilbert, who had recently retired from Burma and settled in Paris, saw passages from a forthcoming French translation of Ulysses in the window of Sylvia Beach’s bookstore, Shakespeare & Company. He informed her that the translation was inadequate and Beach passed this unwelcome information to Joyce, who called Gilbert and arranged a meeting. This eventually led to Gilbert’s collaboration on the French Ulysses that appeared in 1929, to his pioneering book (written with Joyce’s assistance) James Joyce’s “Ulysses”: A Study (1930; revised 1952), to his editing and introducing the first volume of Joyce’s Letters (1957), and to an uneasy friendship that lasted until Joyce’s death in 1941.
Though Sylvia Beach said of Gilbert: “I don’t think anybody, except perhaps Joyce, knew as much about [Ulysses] as he did,” Joyce told Nabokov in 1937 that his collaboration on Gilbert’s study of Ulysses was “a terrible mistake, an advertisement for the book. I regret it very much.” Yet Joyce also suggested that Gilbert write his biography and Gilbert, realizing he would be controlled by Joyce, declined the task. Besides placing himself at Joyce’s service for fourteen years, Gilbert translated several seminal works into English: Edouard Dujardin’s We’ll to the Woods No More (1938), which Joyce cited as an early, influential example of stream-of- consciousness writing, Martin du Gard’s The Thibaults (1939), Saint-Exupéry’s Night Flight (1942), Sartre’s No Exit (1946), Camus’s The Plague (1948), and Malraux’s Voices of Silence (1953).
Gilbert’s journal, which runs from January 1929 to March 1934, is complemented by an acidulous two-page note on Joyce, Herbert Gorman, and Paul Léon, prompted by Gorman’s biography of Joyce in 1941, and by seven previously unpublished notes from Joyce to Gilbert. Unfortunately, the most interesting of the Joyce-Gilbert letters have been suppressed by the always difficult Joyce Estate, and those included in this volume are trivial and even faintly absurd. One postcard, sent from Hamlet’s castle in Elsinore, reads in its entirety: “Greetings from here.” This book is useful because we want to know as much as possible about Joyce; it is disappointing because it does not tell us very much that is new about him. If, as Gilbert suggests, Joyce was a radically defective human being who wasted the last two decades of his life on the dead end of Finnegans Wake, then it is difficult (though not impossible) to justify the publication of this insubstantial book.
Staley writes that “this journal is clearly at odds with the previously published comments that Gilbert made.” It would be more accurate to say that the journal bluntly states the views he had expressed more diplomatically when, after Joyce’s death, reverence had obliterated resentment. In his introduction to the Letters, Gilbert states that Joyce used “his incomparable command of the English tongue merely to play havoc with it.” In the journal, written some twenty-five years earlier, while intensely irritated by Joyce’s literary personal megalomania, he disapproves of Joyce’s collecting girls’ magazines (which influenced the epistolary style of Leopold Bloom’s daughter, Milly, in Ulysses) for use in Finnegans Wake. He also dislikes having to read aloud to Joyce the entries for thirty cities in the Encyclopaedia Britannica: “Whenever I come to a name (of a street, suburb, park, etc.) I pause. Joyce thinks. If he can Anglicise the word, i.e. make a pun on it, [we] record the name or its deformation in the notebook. Thus ‘Slotspark’ [Castle Park] (I think) at Christiania [Oslo] becomes Sluts’ park. He collects all queer names in this way and will soon have a notebook full of them. The system seems bad.” Though it would be difficult to conceive a more mechanical or boring way to write a book, Joyce defended himself by declaring: “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” Evelyn Waugh, however, agreed with Gilbert when he observed of Joyce in his Paris Review interview: “He started off writing very well, then you can watch him going mad with vanity. He ends up a lunatic.”
Overweening vanity, in his work and in his life, accounts for many of Gilbert’s charges against Joyce. In his note on Gorman’s biography, Gilbert is perceptive about the complexities and contradictions in the “real Joyce—a great man with a little mind; highly sensitive and quite ruthless; a natural intriguer, born litigant, slave driver, and on occasion, the most charming companion; so self-centered that he took no interest in others [i.e., Gilbert] except in their relations to himself.” This was later softened, in the introduction to the Letters, to “Joyce was not an easy person to be intimate with” and “claimed assistance and allegiance from his friends, publishers, agents and fellow-artists as a right.” In Paris bars, for example, when the timid, weak-eyed, but aggressive genius got into dangerously drunken disputes with strangers he could scarcely see, he would turn to his huge companion and exclaim: “Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!” The “diplomatic handling of prickly situations” in the introduction becomes in the journal a Byzantine manipulation of loyal friends: “[Joyce’s] fixed principle is—never act oneself, cultivate ostensible ‘aloofness’ and pull strings.”
Grateful for the friendship of a genius but annoyed by his imperious behavior and resentful of the way Joyce exploits him, Gilbert pours into his journal the cathartic comments he dare not voice directly to the Master. In the journal, Joyce, grumpy and unwilling to help (as he had promised) with Gilbert’s book on Ulysses, is “a spoilt god.” Narcissistic, selfish, and even paranoid, Joyce is also greedy, extravagant, and ruined by his patrons’ money, which allows him to “follow caprice instead of sticking to his work.”
Gilbert criticizes the Joyces’ hostility to Jews, even though the son, Giorgio, is married to one and the daughter, Lucia, engaged to another. To Joyce, the provincial Dubliner, “foreign is funny.” But Gilbert himself expresses traditional English prejudice about the Irish. “The Irishman is accustomed to sloppiness,” Gilbert notes. “Whiners & blusterers, the Irish all.” He also records Joyce’s frequent drunkenness, another typical Irish weakness. When Joyce makes “a fool of himself” (though he is quite a nimble dancer), his wife, Nora, compels him to leave a lively party. On another occasion Joyce gets blind drunk, falls off a chair and on to the floor, and babbles unintelligibly. His habitual drinking makes Nora threaten to leave him. She cannot endure his “tumbling about” every night, blames him for their unbearable life, and wishes he would drown himself. But he wins her round, and they resume their fretful and capricious existence.
Another problem is the schizophrenic Lucia, who, like Zelda Fitzgerald, was treated by Dr. Forel at Prangins Clinic near Geneva. Joyce complains to Gilbert that Lucia is not “normal” and cannot stick to anything, but, writes Gilbert, “Joyce in quest of normality in his family is comic.” Joyce arranges an operation to correct Lucia’s squint, which he claims some people find attractive, but does not know how to handle her. Conceited, idle, and illiterate in three languages, spoiled and selfish like her father, Lucia is allowed to rest in bed instead of getting “the smacking she rightly deserves.” Gilbert believes what Joyce is reluctant to accept: that Lucia is “genuinely out of her wits” and ought to be confined in a madhouse.
Gilbert’s acrimony extends well beyond the Joyce family to professional singers whose voices do nothing more than “talk at concerts,” the “capering bitches” of the Russian ballet, and the pandemic lack of “decent conduct or aesthetic taste.” He particularly dislikes his personal rival Paul Léon, the sweet-tempered Russian Jew who was later arrested by the Nazis and murdered in a concentration camp. “I am no longer useful,” Gilbert mordantly observes, “as [Joyce] has a permanently attached slave” in the half-witted and doggedly devoted Léon.
Gilbert could neither withdraw from Joyce nor accept the rather astringent terms of his friendship. He recorded the activities of the Joyce circle though the people did not interest him, and even doubted the worth of his own work: “What have I to say—merely eternal commentaries on J.J.?” But the real cause of Gilbert’s bitterness was his recognition of the vast difference between Joyce’s creative imagination and his own rather arid intellect: “It is a sad fate to be a parasite, incapable of acting for oneself—to have ideas, but not constructive ones; to be able to express oneself, but with nothing to express. … Are other people’s ideas, then, more real to me than my own?”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 9, on page 68
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