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Finding James Joyce – A visit to James Joyce’s Grave

by Jennifer Eisenlau

If you love the works of James Joyce, then you must go, as odd as it sounds, to Switzerland.  Ulysses, the great novel that changed the shape of modern literature forever, was written in part in Zrich (Zurich). Even more surprisingly, its author is buried in this Swiss city. I set off to find his grave, but at the end of my journey, I found much, much more.

The History

Joyce left Ireland in 1905 with Nora Barnacle (who eventually became his wife in 1931) never to return as a resident. He first moved to Switzerland to work at the Berlitz School, but there was no job. He and his family returned in June 1915 and lived at many rental properties. Of these residences, #29 Universitatstrasse is best known as the home in which he worked upon Ulysses. In 1920, the family moved to Paris, where the novel was finally published by Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare & Company in 1922 on Joyce’s 40th birthday. However, the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1940 sent the Joyce family back to Zrich.

James Joyce died in 1941 of complications from a perforated ulcer. He was laid to rest by Nora on January 15 in snowy weather. His widow hoped he would be repatriated by the Irish government. Unfortunately, Constantine Curran, a Dublin lawyer, expressed regrets to Nora Joyce that Ireland had no intention of helping return Joyce to Ireland. After all, he was the author of Dubliners, a collection of stories considered to be so obscene, it was censored for eight years in Ireland.

Ulysses, never published in Joyce’s native land, was banned in the United States until 1933. Many people shared the Provost of Trinity’s sentiments of Joyce. The Rev. Sir John Pentland Mahaffy thanked God that Joyce had “cleared out of Dublin. But not before [he] had squirted his stink upon all the decent people like a skunk.”

The Visit

I stood outside the apartment house on Universitestrasse and looked up. No signs, no decals, no historic markers. Just a house number, #29. I looked at the photograph I downloaded from the Internet: I had a match. It was all I had, and fortunately, the house had not changed in all these years. However, without that scarp of paper, I would have never found #29.

I recalled the display at the National Library of Ireland on James Joyce in the summer of 2005. Monica Frawley recreated the rented apartments that the Joyces lived in: a messy unmade bed full of laundry, toys, books, and bread crusts. His notes for Ulysses were pasted onto the wall. I was amazed that such a novel, so esteemed, so crucial, so complex  considered the pinnacle of academic challenge – was created from such slovenly surroundings. According to the guidebook to the library’s exhibit James Joyce: Ulysses, “[He worked wherever he could find space – at a kitchen table, in the living room, or sometimes even propped up in bed.”

How tidy Joyce’s mind must have been, I thought as I gazed at the facade of the Swiss apartment building. A genius lived in a messy house with small children underfoot and trams clanging just outside the windows and university students yelling as they walked to classes.  On that windy Swiss street, my comprehension of Joyce’s works was taking shape.

From the university district, I walked up toward Flutern Park, a large green blob on my city tourist map. The air was fresh and clean; the views of the Limmat below were lovely. The waterway cut the city into two halves, much like the way the Liffey splits Dublin. Something was starting to come to me: Why did Joyce pick Zrich? Was it an alpine Dublin? Were Zrich’s green mountains surrounding the city merely larger cousins of Dublin’s hills? The steeples I saw, Joyce saw-like the spires that also dotted the Dublin skyline. Was Zrich a fresher and cleaner, albeit more European, Dublin? Joyce found it to be rather too clean, claiming you could eat off the Bahnhofstrasse, and too dull, calling the mountains, “those great lumps of sugar.”

Once in Flutern Park, finding Joyce’s grave was a bit tricky. Very few local citizens seem to know of Ireland’s literary giant. I asked as I wandered, “Excuse me, but can you tell me where Flutern cemetery is? I am looking for Joyce’s grave.” People were polite but unhelpful. “Joyce?” they would reply. “No, sorry.” Many had no idea of where to find Flutern cemetery, for that matter. I walked through the park, a bit lost, hoping someone would know of a Flutern Cemetery, but no one did.

Earlier that week, an American I met told me on the Bern-Zrich train that the Swiss people are very private. This respect of privacy seemed to carry over to even the dead. Finally, one gentleman told me that there was a Flutern Church, and perhaps I would “find Mr. Joyce there.” I continued on for another half hour. When I saw a sign for the zoo, I decided to walk over. I was tired and cross, and confused too. When I was about to give up, I found what I was looking for. In front of the zoo were the Flutern Cemetery gates.

I entered, took one step, and a little man popped out from behind a grave. Perhaps he was a caretaker, or maybe he was a ghost? Before I could say, “Pardon me, but.” He said, in English, “Joyce? Straight back. Find the sign.”

A sign. There was a sign, finally. It was tiny, about the size of the piece of printer paper, and Joyce shared it with another writer. Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti rests next to Leopold Bloom’s creator. Canetti, I later learned, was a Jewish writer and theorist. The irony made me smile, like a little inside joke inside Finnegan’s Wake.

Up a quiet lane and in a private hedged garden, there I saw stone James Joyce, his glasses prominent, his leg crossed casually over the other, his hand holding a book, with a cigarette dangling between his fingers. The sculpture at the permanent plot site is by Milton Hebald. This area was dedicated in 1966, after the Joyces were moved from their temporary graves.

A simple slab marks the births and deaths of the writer, his wife, son, and daughter-in-law. Someone before me left a little spring of flowers wrapped in aluminum foil on Joyce’s stone book. Fresh snow covered the carved lettering, so I wiped it off with my mittens. The wind blew through the trees and holly berries winked through the evergreens. It was so peaceful and calm – what a nice place to rest in eternity. And rest James Joyce must do, for no one else visited the spot while I was there that afternoon. Had he been sent home to Ireland, surely there would have been an interpretive centre by his grave, like William Butler Yeats.

Bord Failte estimates that over 90,000 visitors stop by Drumcliff annually. If Joyce’s grave was in Ireland, I doubt, very much, that I would have found the grave in so peaceful a setting. There  would have been, certainly, other literary pilgrims. Or worse yet, I would have shared the time with tourists not terribly interested in Joyce. Yeats’ grave outside Sligo is on the coach bus route, a stop between New Grange and Trinity College: Yeats’s burial site is overrun with thousands of people each year.

Ireland’s loss is whose gain? Perhaps Joyce was never meant to be an attraction, an easy stop, an easy product of tourism. However, he may have liked the company; after all, he did enjoy a good knees up in the pubs once in awhile back in Dublin with Oliver St. John Gogarty. Of  Flutern, Nora Joyce is to have said of the cemetery’s proximity to the zoo, “‘My husband is buried there. He was awfully fond of the lions–I like to think of him lying there and listening to them roar.'”

However, if Joyce liked to roar in a Zrich hofbrahaus or keller, you would be hard pressed to know it. Unlike Dublin’s 1000 proud pubs, where guidebooks point out spots so loyal readers can soak up literary ambience at “moral pubs” like Davy Byrnes, no such thing exists in Swiss guidebooks. Surely Joyce had ein Rotwein near the Universitatstrasse or ein Bier across the River Limmat, but Zrich keeps Joyce’s drinking habits a secret.

As I searched the city for traces of Joyce, I came across Strauhof Zrich, a writers’ museum. There is a collection of Joyce materials available for a visit or scholarly work, but only at specific times twice a week and for limited hours at that. Just across the platz there is a wall with “James Joyce Corner” painted on the building, next to a small blue plague. The sign in German read [translation mine]:

James Joyce Corner-Tankard.  Built shortly after 1330 . The house served for a time also as a wine tavern, since 1401 gave it the name “By the Tankard.” Since 1996 it has been termed “James Joyce Corner” to honor the Irish writer (b. 1882 in Dublin, d. 1941 in Zurich).

Why this wall? I asked around, but no one seemed to know. A small wall plaque without translation is very meager stuff for the literary pilgrim, especially if you compare the Joyce exhibit at the National Library in Dublin, where tours were offered daily in English, Irish, French, and German.

The Result of the Search

Nothing came easily to me in Zrich. Constant work was required to find remembrances of Joyce. Seeking out his trail in Dublin was so easy. You cannot walk Ireland’s capital with seeing a restaurant with a brass plaque citing lines of Ulysses: “Hot mockturtle vapour and steam of newbaked jampuffs rolypoly poured out from Harrison’s.”

There are museums, centers, statues, and street signs, all dedicated to Joyce. Only a few years ago, the Irish 10-pound Irish Punt displayed Joyce’s smiling face. And while it is too easy to find Joyce in Ireland, Switzerland is hard. And this conundrum, to me, is like the works of Joyce himself.  The short stories in Dubliners like “Evelina” are easy to consume and digest.

Michael Meyer writes that Dubliners is the “most accessible of Joyce’s works.” Compact and understandable, the answer is there for you in stories like “The Dead.” Find the epiphany–what Joyce himself called “a sudden spiritual manifestation”–and you find the story’s center. But Ulysses is like Joyce’s grave in Zrich, you have to look and look again, asking the right questions and making a few mistakes until luck steps in, and you see a glimpse of what you are searching for.

Your walk around Switzerland’s banking capital searching for Joyce will be like that of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, as he moves his way through Dublin on June 16th:

Mr. Bloom walked unheeded along his grove by saddened angels, crosses, broken pillars family vaults, stone hopes praying with upcast eyes, old Ireland’s hearts and hands. More sensible to spend the money on some charity for the living. Pray for the repose of the soul of. Does anybody really? Plant him and have done with him.

Your journey will be meandering, confusing, and yet, eventually satisfying. The epiphany will come, as it finally did for me. I arrived at Zrich’s Hauptbahnhof in December, just as the Joyces did years before in December 1940. And as I stood in the dark, the snow flakes drifting down, I had an epiphany. I felt like Gabriel in “The Dead” when “his soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Was it the snow? The cold? The city? The cemetery holding its celebrated dead? I cannot say, but at that moment, everything clicked for me. James Joyce was a worldly man, a European, and a Dubliner. He based Ulysses on a universal theme, not an Irish one. And as Richard Ellmann said in his excellent biography of Joyce, “Ulysses is an epithelium: love is the cause of motion.”

How very true these words were for me in the cold of that Swiss train station. My love of a text sent me into motion, onto a trip of discovery and to the city that helped to shape Joyce’s world view and now holds his mortal remains.