Spirit of Joyce still roams Zurich

Joyce and Frank Budgen in Zurich's Pfauen Café Zurich's James Joyce Foundation

The Irish writer, James Joyce, was very much at home in Zurich - having lived and died in the city. More than 60 years after his death, his work is still celebrated and debated by the city's admiring cognoscenti.

This content was published on February 16, 2001 - 08:41

It's Thursday evening in Zurich. Businessmen rush along Bahnhofstrasse to catch their tram; others crowd into the city's trendy and traditional restaurants and bars.

Above the bustle, in Augustinergasse, an alley leading off Zurich's most prestigious street, a light shines on the top floor of number nine - the home of the city's James Joyce Foundation.

Inside, a group of elderly and middle-aged men, and a few male and female students sit around a long table. They're dissecting a passage from "Finnegans Wake" - arguably the most difficult work in modern English literature.

Swiss-German references

Thick dictionaries, reference guides to slang, and notebooks clutter the table. There's much agreement, and disagreement, on the meaning of Joyce's prose. But the discussion is always lively, and visitors are welcome.

"He was very much interested in how people talk," says Fritz Senn, who runs the foundation. "He could imitate idioms quite well. There are Swiss-German references (in his writing)."

Senn still remembers when, as a young man, he discovered a reference to Switzerland in an odd passage in Finnegans Wake. It read: "mean fawthery eastend appullcelery, old lady he high hole".

When spoken aloud, Senn found that it sounded very much like a well-known Swiss-German song "Min Vatter ischt en Appezeller" (My father is an Appenzeller), with a yodelling refrain tacked on.

Senn went further with his interpretation of the passage, uncovering political and religious metaphors. His fascination with Joyce also led him to build up what is arguably the most extensive Joyce library and collection of memorabilia, now proudly displayed at the foundation.

The foundation boasts first edition novels, walking sticks, a "Jacob's biscuit tin" featured in Ulysses and even a 1904 copy of "Thom's Dublin Directory" - which Senn says Joyce must have used as a reference guide.

The foundation offices are not the only premises in Zurich where the spirit of Joyce lingers. The writer led a nomadic lifestyle between 1915 and 1919 - his longest stay in the city, taking rooms in no fewer than seven inns, houses or apartment blocks.

Mr Blum's residence

Miraculously, none of the buildings have been torn down, even though some are in a dilapidated state, including the house on Seefeldstrasse 54. It's a squat grey building hidden in an alley behind the street.

Joyce stayed in a room on the ground floor. That was in 1916. Today, the door to the room has been freshly painted blue, and a neat white sign announces that it's now, coincidentally, the residence of a certain Mr Blum, pronounced Bloom, like the surnames of two of the main characters in Ulysses, Leopold and Molly Bloom.

While living on Seefeldstrasse, it would have taken the author about 10 minutes on foot to meet friends at the Kronenhalle restaurant. The place is legendary, thanks to Joyce's patronage and that of countless other intellectuals and artists who passed through Zurich in the 20th century.

The Kronenhalle is still the place to be seen. Patrons today sit below original Chagalls, Miros and Picassos hanging from the walls.

But the Finnegans Wake reading group doesn't frequent the Kronenhalle. Instead, after their Thursday session, they head for the James Joyce Pub - a short stroll from the foundation headquarters.

The pub was formerly Jury's Antique Bar of Dublin, immortalised by Joyce in Ulysses. When the building housing it was to be torn down in the 1970s, the interior was bought by a Swiss bank and moved to Switzerland.

A table in the corner of the pub is reserved for the reading group every Thursday evening, where members continue their discussion, albeit in a less serious tone. The group orders a few pints of Guinness beer and English chips and talk about the appeal of Finnegans Wake.

"Taking part in the reading group is as close as I can get to going to another planet for the evening," says Ron Pearson.

"It's a gigantic crossword puzzle," says Ron Ewart. "Joyce's brother called it a 'cross-mas' parcel, which is a crossword puzzle and a Christmas parcel at the same time."

I went to university in Dublin many years ago and I became interested in Irish writing," Ewart continues.

Buried beside zoo

He is possibly the only person who can claim having been thrown out of the Antique Bar as a student and then later becoming a regular in its Zurich reincarnation.

The Zurich Zoo is the last stop for passengers travelling on tram number six. It's also the last stop on a tour of Joyce's Zurich. He's buried in the Fluntern Cemetery beside the zoo.

Joyce's wife reportedly said it would be a good place because Joyce would be able to hear the lions roar.

"Joyce was always a city person," Senn explains. "Zurich is a bit like Dublin in that it's the most important city in the country, yet still small enough to be somehow manageable."

Senn knows more than anyone about Joyce's life in Zurich, but he's never heard the lions roar at the Fluntern cemetery.

by Dale Bechtel

In compliance with the JTI standards

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

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