Wednesday 24 May 2017

Review: Non-fiction: A Little Circle of Kindred Minds: Joyce In Paris by Conor Fennall

Green LampEditions, €19.99

The title comes from James Joyce's short story, A Little Cloud, in which the hapless Little Chandler, a clerk with unfulfilled literary ambitions, fantasises about writing a well-regarded volume of poems: "He would never be popular: he saw that.

He could not sway the crowd but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds." This, however, would necessitate leaving Ireland because "if you wanted to succeed you had to go away".

By the time he came to write A Little Cloud in 1905, Joyce had done just that, but it would be another 15 years before he settled in the French capital and began to acquire the friends, acquaintances and admirers who are at the heart of Conor Fennell's book, which aims to describe "some of those who came to Paris and who became part of the Joyce circle".

The author, a former RTE producer, must be admired for his bravery, or perhaps chutzpah, in entering a very crowded literary arena.

Joyce's two decades in Paris have been extensively covered by many biographers, most notably Richard Ellmann and (recently) Gordon Bowker, while there are numerous memoirs of the period by such major and minor participants as Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Beach, Ford Madox Ford, Robert McAlmon, Jimmy Charters, Arthur Power, James Stephens and Mary and Padraic Colum.

Fennell makes much use of these and other sources. Indeed, his book, which would have been unthinkable without them, can be read as an an amiably chatty ragbag of some of their best anecdotes, along with material gleaned from letters.

It's a pity, though, that he opted for a structure which compartmentalises his characters into separate chapters. This means that the narrative keeps jumping backwards and forwards in time -- we follow the arc of Joyce's relationship with George Moore, then with Padraic Colum, then with James Stephens, Thomas McGreevy, Samuel Beckett, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and so on, and this constant chronological hopping about becomes wearyingly repetitive.

It also forces the author to keep reminding us who the various characters are as they pop in and out of each other's stories, though all too often it's he himself who needs reminding about what he's already told us.

Thus, having introduced us to "Eileen Gray, the Irish designer" on page 12, he feels obliged three pages later to tell us of "the designer Eileen Gray". Similarly, Sylvia Beach, who is "the owner of a bookshop called Shakespeare & Company" on page 14, is "the proprietor of Shakespeare & Company" on page 34.

Just as carelessly, Gertrude Stein is mentioned on five separate occasions before we're told that she's "the American writer Gertrude Stein", and Harriet Weaver keeps popping up as a name until we're belatedly told something informative about her.

There's a fondness for unwarranted conjecture, too. On one page alone, we're told that when Joyce and Desmond FitzGerald met "there can be little doubt" that Ezra Pound "would have featured prominently in their conversation" and that Joyce "might have read" of the Irish Race Congress that was taking place in Paris at the time -- indeed, he "might have glimpsed" the cars ferrying dignitaries to and from it. Or, then again, he might not.

Still, there's no doubting Fennell's enthusiasm for his subject, which he narrates with gusto, and if his book has a unique selling point it's that we learn more background detail about McGreevy, Colum, Stephens and such subsidiary Irish figures as Patrick Tuohy and Kenneth Reddin than is to be found in either Ellmann or Bowker.

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