Letters to Strabo — James Joyce meets Clara Clemens in Zurich

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By the time she arrived in Münich six months after her father’s death, Clara Clemens, Mark Twain’s surviving daughter, was no stranger to pain. She’d suffered almost twenty years of family tragedy, including two near fatal accidents, but was still remarkably hopeful:

At last if nothing happens to my husband I have really landed in a beautiful harbor & soon enough [can] worship every ripple in the delicious blue sun flecked water. Even father’s & Jean’s deaths cannot take from me this longed for happiness which is actually mine.

But the reference in her letter to what might happen to her husband was eerily fateful. By the summer of 1914, the pieces on the European chessboard were moving rapidly, perhaps more rapidly than they’d ever done before. She escaped with her husband, who as a Russian had been arrested, to Zurich with the help of a friend, the Prussian Ambassador. At the same time, James Joyce, stranded as an English teacher in Trieste, began work on Ulysses while plotting his flight to Switzerland. Four years later, in 2018, he was still there. He’d published Portrait of an Artist and was still slaving away at Ulysses. But Clara Clemens had returned back to the US with her husband.

Much of this period has been captured in Tom Stoppard’s work Travesties. But I too have been wondering, like Stoppard, what would have happened if the chronology had moved in slightly different ways? It’s given me an idea for my own take on Stoppard’s play, a sort of sequel. But in my version, Clara Clemens makes an, as yet historically unremarked, second appearance in Zürich.

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“The atmosphere at the Pfauen was jubilant. The English Players’ first performance of The Importance of Being Earnest had been a triumph. James Joyce and Claud Sykes, a former actor in Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s company, had started up the acting troupe the previous year in an attempt to earn some ready cash. Joyce was holding court, reading from his latest manuscript, occasionally breaking into song while swilling down bottles of Erzherzogin Fendant de Sion.

“‘White wine is like electricity. Red-wine looks and tastes like liquefied beefsteak,’ he declared.”

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“His black jacket, grey flannel trousers and little round black hat; his pale blue eyes; the small tuft of hair under his lower lip and smart moustache all gave him a slightly rakish appearance. His appearance was that of a friendly, very competent man of the theater rather than a figure that would eventually change the world. None of Joyce’s closest friends thought of him as a potential international celebrity.”

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“The Joyces: James, Nora (still Miss Barnacle, as they married many years later), Giorgio (12) and Lucia (10), lived in an apartment on the first floor of Universitätstrasse 38. Lucia Joyce was a happy and hard-working schoolgirl but she hated the damp and crowded poverty they lived in, the struggle to obtain food, the all-consuming obsession of her father’s master work in progress. More seriously, of course, she was well aware of her father’s failing eyesight and increasing drunkenness and her mother’s slow descent towards a nervous breakdown.”

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The previous year Joyce had suffered a recurrence of attacks of iritis and synechia, connected to severe toothaches. The pain made it impossible for him to work. He was also suffering attacks of glaucoma and his doctors advised an operation. But Joyce resisted, blaming the weather for his eye problems. He agreed finally, however, to leave Zürich for the Italian part of Switzerland over the winter, where the weather might aid his recovery.

But on that wet late-April evening, he was walking home from the Pfauen when he collapsed in the street with an acute attack of lumbar pain. The attack left him motionless for twenty minutes before he could move at all. There was nobody around to help him. Slowly, he began to crawl along the sidewalk. He was in total agony, already bitterly regretting his decision to ignore his medics’ advice.

“‘Can I help you, sir, are you all right?’ shouted a pretty young woman in evening dress from the window of her passing cab. Joyce looked up. The woman spoke oddly precise German. She must have seen him lying there on the pavement through the lights of her cab. Her husband was sitting beside her on the back seat. The night had turned cold; it was no weather to be out alone on the streets.

“Joyce was surprised but certainly relieved to hear the hint of an American accent. ‘Yes, I’d greatly value your help,’ he replied, in his calm but slurred Irish-German. ‘I’m in quite some pain as you can probably tell.’

‘Oh my Lord, but it’s Mr Joyce, isn’t it? Why, we were only at your play a few hours ago. Mein Herr, bitte helfen Sie ihm, so schnell wie möglich einzusteigen. Wir müssen ihn sofort nach Hause bringen. Ossip, don’t just set there, give the poor man a hand, won’t you?’

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“Clara Clemens, her Russian- Jewish husband and their seven-year old daughter Nina, had recently arrived back in Zürich from the States. They’d made a long and arduous journey to fulfil a promise to fundraise for those that had helped them escape four years earlier. Before the outbreak of hostilities, Ossip had been conductor of the Munich Konzertverein. They’d fled following his arrest as a possible spy after the outbreak of the war. He’d only been freed following the personal intervention of Herr von Treutler, the Prussian Ambassador to Bavaria, an intimate friend of the German Emperor and great fan of Mark Twain.”

A week later they met up again with Joyce and his partner Nora Barnacle for dinner:

“‘So, Mr Joyce, are you working on a new book?’ Ossip asked changing the subject.

“‘Indeed, yes I am. I’m working on a novel. It’s a sort of reworking of Homer’s The Odyssey.’

“‘How very interesting, Mr Joyce. My father was familiar with Homer, you know,’ said Clara. ‘He was a great travel enthusiast. Of course, his first book Innocents Abroad was about his tour of the Mediterranean. He visited many of the sites mentioned in The Odyssey,’ she added.

“‘I know of the work, although I confess I haven’t read it. I’m afraid that although Homer was a master of poetry, he was a pretty unreliable travel writer; most of the sites he mentions are almost impossible to identify nowadays. Interestingly, I’ve recently come across an amusing epigram written by Eratosthenes that Strabo quotes in The Geography: ““You will find the scene of Odysseus’s wanderings when you find the cobbler who sewed up the bag of winds.”’

“They all laughed.

“‘In fact, my interest in Ulysses is not that of a traveller, nor even a warrior; it’s in his humanity. I believe his story is not only one of the earliest but also one of the most human in literature. He didn’t want to go to Troy; he viewed the war, rightly, as a pretext for Greek mercantilism. You may recall that when the recruiting officers arrived on Ithaca to take him with them, he pretended at first to be ploughing, then pretended to be mad. That was, of course, till they pushed his two-year-old son Telemachus into the furrow in front of his plough. His decision to go to war was purely that of a father and husband. It was a simple choice really, a matter of parental love, of flesh and blood. He had no choice.’

“‘My father would have loved to hear this; he hated the stupidity of war, you know!’ added Clara.

“‘Indeed, I’d have loved to discuss this with him. You know one day I have it in my mind to do my own Huck Finn story. I’ll name it in his honour of course. Finnegan’s “fin” or “wake”. It’s a play on words; my own homage to one of your father’s finer wisecracks! If I can ever get around to reading the original properly, that is!’

Letters to Strabo

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