Statue of the Republic, Paris, c. 1890, from Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)
In producing this small, slightly piffling series of blog posts dedicated to expat writing, or members of the literati that we might class as expats, one thing that keeps holding me back somewhat and that is that I frankly dislike the term “expat writer”.
Expat writer: say it quietly to yourself and no doubt it conjures up thoughts about Peter Mayle and his numerous imitators, and do we really want to be conjuring up thoughts about Peter Mayle and his numerous imitators? If it’s not careful, expat writing can seem to be mostly about a rather self-satisfied soul who is a little too pleased with himself and a little too enchanted with his surrounding. And if, like me, you’re one of those fusty souls who thinks that any writer worth their salt is more concerned with internalising thoughts and emotions, poor expat writers, who seem interested purely in the external, can drive you mad.
I was reminded a little about what this expat writer conundrum when on Twitter I stumbled across a discussion led by some of this parish about whether James Joyce should be considered an expat writer or not. Of course, it seems simple. Joyce spent most of his adult life living in continental Europe. It logically follows that we can lay claim to the title of expat writer for Joyce on account of him being both an expat and a writer. But it seems others would argue that Joyce is not an expat writer. And it is true, I grant you, that he certainly not in the Peter Mayle mould of expat writer. Paris, on the surface, does not seem to have inspired him. It never nourished, on the surface, his work in the way that Dublin did. But we could argue that Joyce needed the intellectual climate of France in the 20s and 30s to feed his own modernist work. If we were to be glib we might say that Finnegans Wake was conceived in Dublin, but Paris was its midwife.
With this in mind, for this week I’m drawing attention to an interesting essay from the New York Times first published in 1982 which takes a closer look at Joyce’s Paris and its effect on his work. An extract follows, but the full article can be found here at the New York Times Website.
N o. 7, Rue Edmond Valentin. A six-story facade, heavy ornamental moldings, a wrought-iron grille door, the Eiffel Tower in sight down the street: the heartland of upper-bourgeois Paris. Poodleland. Beneath the city’s winter overcast, these arrondissements – the 7th, the 8th, the 16th, the 17th -are an endless yellow-gray undercast: bland and impermeable. They are a chilly mask: and for the later James Joyce, who cloaked his turbulence with formality, they made an oddly appropriate residence.
Joyce spent 20 years in Paris – almost as long as in Dublin – but that is like counting the time we sleep. In 1922, two years after he arrived from Zurich, he immersed himself in the elusive dream that took him 16 years to finish: ”Finnegans Wake.”
In ”Ulysses,” the tangible presence of Dublin is memorialized: paving-stone and brick wall, legend and grilled kidneys, gab and gossip. ”Finnegans Wake” is a sleeping packrat dragging the world in, bit by bit. There are slivers of Paris in the pack but they are transmuted, as a dream transmutes the sound of a passing car into an army in flight.
So how is the pilgrim to find Joyce in Paris? There is, of course, his biographical presence, which will be attended to in a moment. But mostly what we look for in a literary pilgrimage is the cafe the characters drank in, not the one where the author did. Not, that is, unless the author is materially incorporated in the characters. We follow the characters Stephen and Bloom in and about Dublin; and we follow Joyce too, because he gave them his meanderings. In Paris, Joyce’s work and his life diverge d. How do you follow the sleeping Hum- phrey Chimpden Earwicker, whose dream is ”Finnegans Wake”? Strictly speaking: by eating an indigestible dinner, falling asleep, and letting the toots and stirrings outside and an uneasy memory infiltrate your dreams.
By the time Joyce got to Paris he was approaching middle age and near-blindness. He was not inactive, but he did not throw himself into the life of the city in order to find himself or his subjects or his art. He had them already. He used Paris for its quiet, its elegance and the congenial atmosphere it offered a writer.
He had company and diversion. He had the material support of Harriet Weaver, who sent him astonishing sums from London, and of Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, who got ”Ulysses” into print when nobody else dared to. He had a reasonable amount of lionizing; but he also had the privacy and aloofness that Paris allows to its lions, because it possesses so many of them.
Mostly, except for brief visits in 1902 and 1903, Joyce’s Paris geography is a series of respectable apartments, such as the one on Edmond Valentin, where he sat and wrote. They were havens of a sort, but invaded more and more by shadows. Literal ones: He had at least 10 eye operations, and at times could barely see to write. Correcting proofs, he would lay his head sideways on the page to achieve the only odd angle at which he still had some vision.
There were other troubles. The lion grew moth-eaten, as his Herculean labors on ”Finnegans Wake” were rewarded by puzzlement and distress on the part of many of his admirers. Even the American poet Ezra Pound, not exactly a clear-running stream, wrote him: ”I will have another go at it, but up to present I make nothing of it whatever … I don’t see what which has to do with where …”
Question: I’d be fascinated to know your own thoughts on what constitutes an expat writer. Do you need to focus your work on the expat life to be one?
Expat writer? That’s like saying you’re an Italian writer or a disabled writer or an elderly writer. The descriptor is irrelevant other than the fact that it adds a different twist to your life experience and surroundings, which is what enriches one’s writing. Yes, many writers who live outside of their home country do write about living as an “expat” but not all expats, who are writers, write about expat life.
Good question. As an expat, I guess some would say I’m an expat writer when writing specifically on expat issues. I write much more than merely on expat issues, so I consider myself a writer, period.
Apologies for the late response. I’ve been in transit and am now exceedingly jet-lagged, so that’s the excuse if this is comment is even more rambling, incoherent, or weary than normal.
@Anne On the idea of such a descriptor being irrelevant. I disagree with you. Strongly disagree, as it happens. Descriptors are important, are entirely relevant in many cases. An alternative comedian, a free-form jazz musician, an abstract painter, yes you can reduce them all down to being a comedian, a musician and a painter, but such reducitionism does them no service to what they’re respectively trying to achieve.
Likewise with writers it’s not a meaningless adjective when we call Graham Greene or Anthony Burgess Catholic writers. That descriptor enables us to get to the heart of the matter about their work. And it infuses novels such as A Clockwork Orange or Our Man in Havana just as much as more obviously Catholic-y* themed works such as Earthly Powers or The End of the Affair.
Now Expat writer is an awful term that I’m not entirely happy with and it’s being used retroactively, but I think something like displaced writing sits comfortably with the examples I’ve used so far.
With this particular post I was wondering aloud if thwaw displaced writers have to write about their expat life (or displacement) in order for us to consider them as being expat (or displaced) writers. Joyce is such an interesting example as we immediately associate him with Dublin, but what I wanted to get people thinking was that Joyce’s experience of his displacement (I could perhaps argue the same with Beckett too) come not from the content of his writing, but from the form. How much did he need Paris to encourage him with modernism? In this sense, I don’t think the expat (or displaced) element adds a “different twist”, it might do for a Peter Mayle type take on writing which is the literary equivalent of comfort food, but instead is a vital part of why they work as artists. I think this is perhaps starting to encroach on the artist as outsider idea.
@Linda. Thanks for commenting
*Catholic-y: I’m going to try and drop this into conversation from now on.
I’m no expert on Joyce, but, as far as I know, he was raised in a family environment and era where rigid Catholic thinking attempted to thwart individual thinking. He may have experienced a forced migration from his homeland, caused by the standard of thinking then — moral persecution of anything immoral, specifically, his novel, “Ulysses.” This may have led to a sense of internal displacement: feeling banished, with no hope of permanently returning to Dublin if, indeed, before writing that novel, he ever longed to return. (I’m a Catholic myself.)
Thanks for commenting. I’m not sure Joyce ever longed to return. After 1912 he didn’t even return to Ireland for a visit despite invitations from Yeats.
What about those of us who just happen to leave our home country for reasons of the heart or education, eventually end up living all our adult lives abroad? We never shed our origins yet see things , live in a different atmosphere.
Hi Mary Jane,
Thanks so much for commenting.
“What about those of us who just happen to leave our home country for reasons of the heart or education, eventually end up living all our adult lives abroad?”
I’m a little confused by this, what about them? The four main contributors to this site (myself included) have all left our home countries for one of the reasons you cite above, nearly every post on this site is from that perspective.
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