Letters from Hell

The James Joyce Centre were delighted to welcome Professor Mary Gallagher from UCD for a talk on her work translating a collection of letters from Paul Léon on Monday 5th November 2018. The lecture was introduced by Dr Luca Crispi, lecturer in James Joyce Studies and Modernism in the School of English, Drama and Film and in the UCD Centre for Research for James Joyce Studies.

 Mary Gallagher teaches and researches 20th/21st-century writing in French at UCD. Her most recent publication is the translation of Paul Morand’s Caribbean Winter (Signal, 2018) and her current work on Paul Léon resonates with her main specialist interest: the writing of traumatic injustice in the post-slavery and post-colonial contexts of Francophone Africa and the Americas.

Paul Léon was, to his fingertips, a man of letters. Ireland remembers him firstly as a most loyal friend to our expatriate literary giant over the last twelve years of Joyce’s life. We also remember him, though, as the hunted, Russian-born Jew for whom the young Republic was disinclined to speak up when he was interned by Vichy France. Léon spent seven months in France’s infamous concentration/transit camps at Drancy and later at Compiègne, before being deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau on 27 March  1942, where he was assassinated shortly afterwards.

The lecture situated Léon’s letters in relation to their author’s life and work as an ‘homme de lettres’. It also characterised the distinctive voice that emerges within Léon’s writing, relating it, for example, to some of the other voices spirited out of the camps. The importance of this distinctiveness derives from the fact that the Hell of Drancy existed precisely in order to deny and destroy the distinct personhood of the human beings that it had swallowed up. As Léon’s letters show, it failed most abjectly in this enterprise, thanks largely to the enduring power of testimony and to the reach of the written word.