Saturday 17 August 2019

Leo Cullen: 'Visions of genius in a hotel window'

Joyce found sunshine and inspiration in Nice, writes Leo Cullen who came across his lodgings

Hotel Suisse in Nice
Hotel Suisse in Nice

Leo Cullen

I'd been burrowing about in the narrow streets of the old quarters of Nice, Angelus bells ringing, when I emerged on to the Promenade des Anglais, famous seaside boulevard two-and-a-half miles long, I gasped at the expanse of it. But my eye was already taken by the tree-topped height on its eastern end.

"That's where I'll go," I thought. "I'll see everything from up there."

So, facing the hill, I walked along the boulevard; enjoying the sight of flaneurs on the way: studious arty types; ''where do you go to my lovelies"; weaving cyclists; locals calling their dogs: alors, d'accord, allez!

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The sun was high, a breeze blew in off the blue Med, strapping waves rattled the beach stones. A tour group stood at the sea's edge, one of them donning a bikini. When she ducked in the water, the lone swimmer among them, they all clapped wildly.

Reaching the end of the promenade, I came upon the impressive Hotel Suisse. It leaned against the high-cliffed hill and alongside it a steep set of steps meandered towards the summit.

That'll be me I said, noting the spider-like progress of climbers. But now something had caught my attention: a white marble plaque fixed against the brick-red wall of the hotel. It said: ''L'ecrivain Irlandaise James Joyce (1882-1941) sejourna dans cet hotel en octobre 1922, il ya a commenca son roman Finnegans Wake.''

So into the hotel I beetled in search of more information, first lowering the rucksack from my back, an image of the dandy Joyce in my mind.

Yes, the young receptionist said, it is so. Room 32 he stayed in. If you look from outside, it's on the third floor, the window below the sign Hotel Suisse, small balcony. I thanked her.

I began my climb of historic Castle Hill. At each viewing point along the way were information signs on the history of the hill and of the notables who'd visited Nice. The hill and battlement was for six centuries a strategic stronghold of the Duchy of Savoy. Back in much earlier times the site on the top of the hill was the cradle of the old town of Nice; a fortification occupied by the Celtic Ligurians.

But all the while I climbed and learned, my thoughts were of Joyce, a man whose sight, always poor, had been failing, and yet a man of far-reaching vision, that artificer, itinerant of hotels throughout Europe. Tinker, you might say, tinsmith, wordsmith, who'd left Ireland, as he'd declared in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ''to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race''. Collector of word sounds. But when he'd commenced his roman, Finnegans Wake, here in October 1922, while he'd named it ''Work in Progress'', could he have known the Celtic Ligurians had been here before him, had spattered their word sounds about the place. Could his Celt, Finnegan, millennia ago, have here fallen into his interminable wake?

Had Joyce's booking agent - as we might call his benefactress, the American, Harriet Weaver - known of the Celtic connection? When in Paris he'd complained to her about his failing sight, his poor health and his need for a warmer winter clime, it was she who'd suggested Nice. But when he'd left Paris for Nice that late autumn time, Finnegan had not come into his life. For he was still involved with the book he'd published earlier that year - Ulysses; still vainly promoting it to bring about much-needed cash.

And then, on the journey to Nice with his wife Nora and daughter Lucia, he stayed a night in Dijon. There, following his first scribbled notes of something new, he decided to finally relinquish Ulysses to its own fate. A further five pages of the work he'd add at the third-floor window in the Hotel Suisse. Then he'd write to Harriet telling her he'd begun a new venture. He stayed only the month that time; the weather was damp, but he came again. The venture would take 17 years to complete.

Over that hill I'd walked. Like an insect over a skull, the cracked skull of James Joyce. My peregrinations would continue: I've come across a painting by Raoul Dufy of a room interior in the Hotel Suisse. Two tall windows are overlooking the Promenade des Anglais and the bay. It was painted in 1928, six years after Joyce's stay here. Could it have been room 32?

Judging by the drop to the bay it could have been. The shutters are open, lilies stand in a blue vase, there's a simple chair; it's a room which pours benediction on the clamour of life outside, a room where wrote a lone swimmer against the tide.

Riverrun past Eve and Adam's… ladies first. All clap wildly the lone swimmer.

Sunday Independent

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