On 12 January 1893 Maria Jolas was born.
A grandniece of Thomas Jefferson, Maria McDonald was born in Louisville, Kentucky. She trained as a singer in New York and Berlin, and in Paris where she met poet and journalist Eugene Jolas. They married in New York in 1926 and moved to New Orleans, but soon returned to Paris where they established the magazine transition with Elliot Paul as editorial assistant.
Together with Sylvia Beach, Adrienne Monnier, and Elliot Paul, the Jolases visited the Joyce apartment on the afternoon of Sunday 12 December 1926 when Joyce read the first section of his new novel. That first section appeared in the very first edition of transition in February 1927, and parts of Work in Progress appeared in eighteen of the twenty-seven issues of transition published between 1927 and 1938.
Maria Jolas worked as secretary, correspondent and translator for transition. She translated works by Hofmannsthal, Sarraute, and Bachelard among others, and she and her husband translated works by Kafka, Broch and Döblin. She also ran the Ecole Bilinge, a school for English and American students.
The Jolases hosted Joyce’s birthday party in 1939 when Finnegans Wake was revealed for the first time. Later that year, Maria Jolas moved her school to St Gérand-le-Puy, and the Joyces joined her there on Christmas eve. Uncertainty about the political situation in Europe added to the Joyces’ worries about their children, and they relied on Maria Jolas for help and advice: “They cling to me considerably,” she told her husband.
By August 1940, Maria Jolas was preparing to travel with her two daughters to America. She advised the Joyces to go to the US as well but, as she wrote to her husband, “They’re very stubborn and undecided…” When she left on 28 August, Joyce gave her his list of corrections for Finnegans Wake. They never saw each other again.
After Joyce’s death, Maria Jolas kept in touch with Nora, Giorgio and Lucia Joyce. In 1949 she was involved with the Joyce exhibition at the La Hune Gallery in Paris, and she edited the James Joyce Yearbook. In 1968 the State University of New York at Buffalo acquired her transition galley proofs of Work in Progress.
Maria Jolas became an important source of information for Joyce biographers and scholars, but another view of her has emerged since her death in 1987. Brenda Maddox, in her biography of Nora Joyce, says: “Maria Jolas dominated Nora as well as Joyce…what Mrs. Jolas planned they followed.” Maddox claims that some people, like Beckett and Arthur Power, resented Maria Jolas’ influence, and she also claims that, since Maria Jolas outlived almost every member of the Joyce circle, “she reigned unchallenged as the authority on the events of the Joyces’ later lives. She imposed, with the sheer force of her personality, her version of events on the clouded and contradictory record…”
Dillon, Eilís: ‘The Innocent Muse: An Interview with Maria Jolas,’ in James Joyce Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 1, Fall 1982, pp. 33-66.
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Jolas, Eugene: Man from Babel, edited, annotated and introduced by Andreas Kramer and Rainer Rumold, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
Kain, Richard M (ed.): ‘An Interview with Carola Giedion-Welcker and Maria Jolas,’ in James Joyce Quarterly, vol. 11, no. 2, Winter 1974.
Lidderdale, Jane, & Mary Nicholson: Dear Miss Weaver – Harriet Shaw Weaver 1876-1961, London: Faber & Faber, 1970.
Maddox, Brenda: Nora – A Biography of Nora Joyce, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988.