On 7 December 1921 Valery Larbaud gave a séance on Ulysses.
Larbaud was one of the first and the most enthusiastic of the writers who supported Joyce’s Ulysses. His séance on 7 December 1921 was intended to introduce Joyce’s work to a French audience ahead of the publication of Ulysses in 1922.
Larbaud was a respected poet and novelist in his own right, but his opinion on the works of others was also highly respected. He frequented Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop, La Maison des Amis des Livres, and was introduced to Joyce by Sylvia Beach just before Christmas 1920. Having asked about Ulysses, Larbaud was sent copies of the Little Review, and in February 1921 he wrote to Beach to say ‘I am raving mad about Ulysses.’ He compared Joyce with Rabelais, and claimed he had been unable to write or sleep since he started reading it.
Larbaud wanted to write an article about Joyce for the Nouvelle Revue Française and decided he would preview it in a lecture at Monnier’s bookshop. Joyce was still expecting to finish the book in April or May 1921, and Larbaud’s lecture and article had to be put off while Joyce continued work on the book. In fact, Joyce had to finish the final episode of the book, ‘Penelope,’ before finishing the second-last episode, ‘Ithaca,’ so that Larbaud could see how the book ended.
Monnier enlisted the help of twenty-year-old Jacques Benoîst-Méchin, a friend of composer George Antheil’s, to translate some passages of Ulysses for Larbaud’s lecture. Benoîst-Méchin wanted to see the schema of the book, parts of which Joyce had revealed to him, but Joyce was reluctant to make the whole thing available, claiming that he would lose his immortality if he did. In the end, he did show the whole thing to Benoîst-Méchin.
On Wednesday 7 December 1921 250 people crowded into Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop for Larbaud’s ‘séance consacrée a l’écrivain Irlandais James Joyce.’ The séance was advertised as a benefit for Joyce, and those attending paid 20 francs apiece for the privilege. Larbaud’s lecture was the first complete criticism of Ulysses, but he also gave a biographical introduction and discussed Joyce’s works up to Ulysses. Joyce was a little disappointed afterwards that, despite having supplied Larbaud with biographical information, Larbaud managed to get several things wrong.
Larbaud claimed that, in writing Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, Joyce had done as much as ‘all the heroes of Irish nationalism to attract the respect of intellectuals of every other country toward Ireland.’ Joyce, he said, had done for Ireland what Ibsen had done for Norway, Strindberg for Sweden, and Nietzsche for Germany. ‘With this Ulysses…’ he said, ‘Ireland is making a sensational re-entrance into high European literature.’
After giving his assessment of each of Joyce’s works from Chamber Music to A Portrait of the Artist, Larbaud started into his discussion of Ulysses. ‘All the elements,’ he explained, ‘are constantly melting into each other, and the illusion of life, of the thing in the act, is complete: the whole is movement.’ Larbaud paid particular attention to the parallels with Homer’s Odyssey and brought up the matter of the schema, saying ‘If one reads Ulysses with attention, one cannot fail to discover this plan in time. But when one considers its rigidity, and the discipline which the author imposed upon himself, one asks how it can be that out of such a formidable labour of manipulation so living and moving a work could issue.’
The reputation for obscenity that Ulysses had already acquired because of the ban in the United States was another matter. Even the fliers advertising Larbaud’s séance carried warnings about Joyce’s shocking language, and Larbaud alluded to this in his lecture. ‘The English language,’ he told his audience, ‘has a very great store of obscene words and expressions, and the author of Ulysses has enriched his book generously and boldly from this vocabulary.’
During the reading from the ‘Cyclops’ episode, the lights went out, but the audience waited patiently until the light was restored and the lecture continued. When Larbaud finished, the American actor Jimmy Light read a section from ‘Sirens’ in English, having been rehearsed by Joyce himself. At the end, Larbaud pulled Joyce from behind a screen, where he had been hiding during the lecture, so he could accept the loud applause of the audience.
Larbaud’s article on Joyce appeared in the Nouvelle Revue Française in April 1922. Part of it was translated into English and published in first issue of the Criterion in October 1922, and it also appeared as a preface to Gens de Dublin, the French translation of Dubliners, in 1926.
Sources & Further Reading:
Deming, Robert H: James Joyce – The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – new and revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. I edited by Stuart Gilbert, London: Faber & Faber, 1957.