ON the boulevard one night at the aperitif hour we encountered McAlmon. “What are you doing tonight?” he asked.
“Nothing, as usual.”
“I’m having dinner with Jimmy Joyce and his wife at the Trianon. Why don’t you join us?”
Jimmy Joyce! “No,” I said quickly. “I understand he hates being with strangers and won’t talk about anybody’s work.”
“Who told you all this?”
“Oh, nuts,” he said, curling his lip. “Don’t you want to see Jimmy. You’ll like him. You’ll like Nora, too.”
“Well, of course we want to meet Joyce.”
“See you in about an hour and a half at the Trianon,” and he went on his way.
He had made it sound as if anyone could drop in on the Joyces at any time. Jimmy, he had called him. Yet Sylvia Beach kept on throwing up her protextive screen as dozens of English and American scholars tried to get close to the Irish master. What kind of magic touch did McAlmon have? Was it possible that Joyce had the same sneaking respect for McAlmon that I had myself and liked drinking with him? We’d soon see. At twilight we approached the Trianon just as casually as we might approach a bus stop.
It was a restaurant near the Gare Montparnasse, where the food was notably good. Just to the right as you go in we saw McAlmon sitting with the Joyces. The Irishman’s picture was as familiar to us as any movie star’s. He was a small-boned, dark Irishman with fine features. He had thick glasses and was wearing a neat dark suit. His courtly manner made it easy for us to sit down, and his wife, large bosomed with a good-natured face, offered us a massive motherly ease. They were both so unpretentious it became impossible for me to resort to Homeric formalities. I couldn’t even say, “Sir, you are the greatest writer of our time,” for Joyce immediately became too chatty, too full of little bits of conversation, altogether unlike the impression we had been given of him. His voice was soft and pleasant. His humour, to my surprise, depended on puns. Even in the little snips of conversation, he played with words lightly. However, none of his jokes made his wife laugh out loud, and I was reminded of McAlmon’s ? story that she had once asked the author of the comic masterpiece Ulysses, “Jimmy, have we a book of Irish humour in the house?”
No matter what was being said, I remained aware of the deep-bosomed Nora Joyce. The food on the table, the white tablecloths, our own voices, everything in the restaurant seemed to tell me Joyce had got all the stuff of Molly Bloom’s great and beautiful soliloquy at the close of Ulysses from his woman sitting across from me; all her secret, dark night thoughts and yearning. Becoming a little shy, I could hardly look at her. But the quiet handsome motherly woman’s manner soon drove all this nonsense out of my head. She was as neighbourly and sympathetic as Joyce himself. They both gossiped with a pleasant ease.
The sound of Joyce’s voice suddenly touched a memory of home which moved me. My father, as I have said, didn’t read modern prose, just poetry. Fond of music as he was, he wouldn’t listen to jazz. He wouldn’t read Anderson. I had assumed he would have no interest in experimental prose. When that copy of This Quarter carrying my first story, along with the work of Joyce, Pound, Stein, Hemingway and others, had come to our house, my father sat one night at the end of the kitchen table reading it. Soon he began to chuckle to himself. The assured little smirk on his face irritated me. Passing behind his shoulder, I glanced down at the page to see what he was reading. “Work In Progress”, by James Joyce, which was a section from Finnegans Wake. Imagining he was getting ready to make some sarcastic and belittling remark, I said grimly, “All right. What’s so funny?”
But he looked up mildly; he had untroubled blue eyes; and he said with genuine pleasure, “I think I understand this. Read it like Irish brogue… Shem is short for Seamus just as Jem is joky for Jacob. A few toughnecks are gettable… It’s like listening to someone talking in a broad Irish brogue, isn’t it, Son?” “Yeah,” I said But I felt apologetic.
And now, after listening to Joyce in our general gossiping, I blurted out that my father had said the new Joyce work should be read aloud in an Irish brogue. Whether it was Joyce or McAlmon who cut in quickly, agreeing, I forget. It came out that Joyce had made some phonograph records of the work; in the way he used his voice it had been his intention to make you feel you were listening to the brogue; much of the music and meaning was in the sound of the brogue. So my father had helped me; I wanted to go on: had Joyce read the proofs of A Farewell to Arms which I knew Hemingway had taken to him? Why not ask him? But there had been that warning from Hemingway, “He doesn’t like to talk about the work of other writers.” I felt handcuffed, exasperated, and therefore was silent. So Joyce had to make most of the conversation. Were we going to London? Sooner or later? He wrote down the name of an inexpensive hotel near Euston Station.
McAlmon, who had been drinking a lot as usual, suddenly got up, excused himself and went towards the washroom. And then, almost as soon as McAlmon’s back was turned, Joyce, leaning across the table, asked quietly, —“What do you think of McAlmon’s work?”
Surprised, I couldn’t answer for a moment. Joyce? Someone else’s work? Finally I said that McAlmon simply wouldn’t take time with his work; he had hypnotized himself into believing the main thing was to get down the record.
“He has a talent,” Joyce said. ’A real talent; but it is a disorganized talent.“And as he whispered quickly about this disorganized talent, trying to get it all in before McAlmon could return, I wanted to laugh. How had the story got around that the man wouldn’t talk about another writer? Then Joyce suddenly paused, his eyes shifting away. McAlmon was on his way back from the washroom and like a conspirator Joyce quickly changed the subject.
As McAlmon came sauntering over to us with his superior air, I noticed a change in his appearance. He looked as if he had just washed his face and combed his hair. From past experience I knew what it meant. When with people he respected he would not let himself get incoherently drunk; he would go to the washroom; there he would put his finger down his throat, vomit, then wash his face, comb his hair and return sober as an undertaker.
It was now ten o’clock. Turning to his wife, Joyce used the words I remember so well. “Have we still got that bottle of whisky in the house, Nora?”
“Yes, we have,” she said.
“Perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Callaghan would like to drink it with us.”
Would we? My wife said we would indeed and I hid my excitement and elation. An evening at home with the Joyces, and Joyce willing to talk and gossip about other writers while we killed a bottle! Stories about Yeats, opinions about Proust! What would he say about Lawrence? Of Hemingway? Did he know Fitzgerald’s work? It all danced wildly in my head as we left the restaurant.
Looking for a taxi, McAlmon had gone ahead with Mrs. Joyce and Loretto. Joyce and I were trailing them. The street was not lighted very brightly. Carried away by the excitement I felt at having him walking beside me, I began to talk rapidly. Not a word came from him. I thought he was absorbed in what I was saying. Then far back of me I heard the anxious pounding of his cane on the cobblestones and turned. In the shadows he was groping his way towards me. I had forgotten he could hardly see. Then headlights of an approaching taxi picked him up, and in the glaring light he waved his stick wildly. Conscience-stricken, I wanted to cry out. Rushing back, I grabbed him by the arm as the taxi swerved around us. I stammered out an apology. He made some pun on one of the words I used. I don’t remember the pun, but since I was trembling the poor quick pun seemed to make the situation Joycean and ridiculous.
The Joyces lived in a solid apartment house, and in the entrance hall Mrs. Joyce explained we would have to use the lift in shifts; it was not supposed to carry more than two people at one time. For the first ascension my wife and Mrs. Joyce got into the lift. When it returned, McAlmon offered to wait while Joyce and I ascended. No, said Joyce, the three of us would get in. The lift rose so slowly I held my breath. No one spoke. Out of the long silence, with the three of us jammed together, came a little snicker from Joyce. “Think what a loss to English literature if the lift falls and the three of us are killed,” he said dryly.
The Joyce apartment, at least the living room in which we sat, upset me. Nothing looked right. In the whole world there wasn’t a more original writer than Joyce, the exotic in the English language. In the work he had on hand he was exploring the language of the dream world. In this room where he led his daily life I must have expected to see some of the marks of his wild imagination. Yet the place was conservatively respectable. I was too young to have discovered then that men with the most daringly original minds are rarely eccentric in their clothes and their living quarters. This room was all in a conventional middle-class pattern with, if I remember, a brown-patterned wallpaper, a mantel, and a painting of Joyce’s father hanging over the fireplace. Mrs. Joyce had promptly brought out the bottle of Scotch. As we began to drink, we joked and laughed and Joyce got talking about the movies. A number of times a week he went to the movies. Movies interested him. As he talked I seemed to see him in a darkened theatre, the great prose master absorbed in camera technique, so like the dream technique, one picture then another flashing in the mind. Did it all add to his knowledge of the logic of the dream world?
As the conversation began to trail off, I got ready. At the right moment I would plunge in and question him about his contemporaries. But damn it all, I was too slow. Something said about the movies had reminded McAlmon of his grandmother. In a warm, genial, expansive mood, and as much at home with the Joyces as he was with us, he talked about his dear old grandmother, with a happy nostalgic smile. The rich pleasure he got out of his boyhood recollections was so pure that neither the Joyces nor my wife nor I could bear to interrupt. At least not at first. But he kept it up. For half an hour he went on and on. Under my breath I cursed him again and again. Instead of listening to Joyce, I was listening to McAlmon chuckling away about his grandmother. Quivering with impatience I looked at Joyce, who had an amused little smile. No one could interrupt McAlmon. Mrs. Joyce seemed to have an extraordinary capacity for sitting motionless and looking interested. The day would come, I thought bitterly, when I would be able to tell my children I had sat one night with Joyce listening to McAlmon talking about his grandmother.
But when McAlmon paused to take another drink, Joyce caught him off balance. “Do you think Mr. and Mrs. Callaghan would like to hear the record?” he asked his wife.
“What record?” asked McAlmon, blinking suspiciously, and for a moment I, too, thought Joyce had been referring to him. Now Mrs. Joyce was regarding my wife and me very gravely. “Yes,” she said. “I think it might interest them.”
“What record?” McAlmon repeated uneasily.
Mrs. Joyce rose, got a record out of a cabinet and put it on the machine. After a moment my wife and I looked at each other in astonishment. Aimee Semple McPherson was preaching a sermon! At that time everyone in Europe and America had heard of Mrs. McPherson, the attractive, seductive blonde evangelist from California. But why should Joyce be interested in the woman evangelist? and us? and McAlmon? Cut off, and therefore crestfallen, he, too, waited, mystified. Joyce had nodded to me, inviting my scholarly attention. And Mrs Joyce, having sat down, was watching my wife with a kind of saintly concern.
The evangelist had an extraordinary voice, warm, low, throaty and imploring. But what was she asking for? As we listened, my wife and I exchanging glances, we became aware that the Joyces were watching us intently, while Mrs. McPherson’s voice rose and fell. The voice, in a tone of ecstatic abandonment, took on an ancient familiar rhythm. It became like a woman’s urgent love moan as she begged, “Come, come on to me. Come, come on to me. And I will give you rest… and I will give you rest… Come, come…” My wife, her eyebrows raised, caught my glance; then we averted our eyes, as if afraid the Joyces would know what we were thinking. But Joyce, who had been watching us so attentively, had caught our glance. It was enough. He brightened and chuckled. Then Mrs. Joyce, who had also kept her eyes on us, burst out laughing herself. Nothing had to be explained. Grinning mischievously, in enormous satisfaction with his small success, Joyce poured us another drink.
Before we could comment his daughter, a pretty, dark young woman, came in. And a few minutes later, his son too joined us. It was time for us to leave.
When we had taken Robert McAlmon, publisher of the city of Paris, home, we wandered over to the Coupole. That night we shared an extraordinary elation at being in Paris. We didn’t want to go back to the apartment. In the Coupole bar we met some friends. One of them asked Loretto if she could do the Charleston. There in the bar she gave a fine solo performance. A young, fair man, a Serbian count, who had been sitting at the bar holding a single long-stemmed red rose in his hand, had been watching her appreciatively. But one of our friends told him the dancing girl was my wife. With a shy, yet gallant bow to me from a distance, he asked if he had permission to give Loretto the rose. It was a good night.