On this day…9 May

On 9 May 1927 Stuart Gilbert contacted Joyce for the first time.

This letter of 9 May 1927 was Joyce’s first contact with Stuart Gilbert who was to become an important friend and promoter of Joyce’s work. He played an important role in correcting the text of Ulysses and in producing the French translation of Ulysses. He wrote the first book about Ulysses and edited the first volume of Joyce’s letters, and his journal provides important insight into Joyce’s working methods in the 1930s.

Gilbert was born in England in 1883 and studied at Oxford where he obtained an honours degree. He went to Burma where he worked as a judge for nineteen years. He took early retirement in 1925, and in 1927 moved to Paris with his French wife, Moune. In addition to his close association with Joyce, Gilbert also translated many French writers into English, including Georges Simenon, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry among others.

Shortly after his arrival in Paris, Gilbert visited Shakespeare and Company where Sylvia Beach showed him a recently-published part of the French translation of Ulysses. Gilbert pointed out a mistake in the translation, and after comparing it with his copy of the English text (which he’d read in Burma) he noticed several other discrepancies. Beach suggested that he get in touch with Joyce, and in his letter of 9 May, Gilbert included a list of discrepancies. Not only that, but he said there were other errors that he would be happy to discuss with Joyce, and he even offered to go through the entire translation to make suggestions.

Gilbert hoped he could offer his assistance tactfully and without officiousness, and offered to work without remuneration or acknowledgement. He hoped that a good French translation would have the same effect on French literature as Ulysses had had on English literature. Joyce was delighted with the offer, and the French translator, Auguste Morel, eventually agreed. Gilbert’s assistance was acknowledged when the translation appeared in 1929.

Gilbert became very familiar with Ulysses while working on the translation and decided, with Joyce’s encouragement, to write a study of it. Apart from helping to explicate Ulysses, Gilbert’s study, with its lengthy extracts from Ulysses, was also intended to get around the ban on Ulysses in America. By demonstrating the parallels between Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey, Gilbert’s study also claimed Joyce’s novel as an epic work of European literature in the tradition of Homer. Joyce was careful to steer Gilbert to certain sources, and to let him know if he disagreed with his ideas. The book, James Joyce’s Ulysses, was the first full-length study of Ulysses.

Gilbert also contributed an essay on Work in Progress to Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (1929), and he helped Joyce over a number of years with writing and proofing what became Finnegans Wake. He also used his familiarity with Ulysses to edit and correct the text for the Odyssey Press edition, published in Hamburg in December 1932. With a few additional corrections in subsequent printings, this edition stood for a long time as the most correct text of Ulysses, and many subsequent printings were based on it.

After Joyce’s death, Gilbert edited the first volume of Joyce’s letters, published by Faber & Faber in 1957. A journal that he kept in the early 1930s has since been published, and provides interesting insights into Joyce’s working methods while he was writing Finnegans Wake.


Sources & Further Reading:

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Gilbert, Stuart: James Joyce’s Ulysses – A Study, London: Faber & Faber, 1930.

—: Reflections on James Joyce – Stuart Gilbert’s Paris Journal, edited by Thomas F Staley and Randolph Lewis, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.

—: ‘Prolegomena to Work in Progress,’ in Samuel Beckett et al: Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, London: Faber & Faber, 1979.

Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. I, edited by Stuart Gilbert, London: Faber & Faber, 1957.