Thursday 14 November 2019

Roslyn Dee: 'Joyce belongs to Zurich, the city that took him to its heart'

'He refused to bow the knee to either Church or State. Even in death we still spurned him, the request to repatriate his body refused.' Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
'He refused to bow the knee to either Church or State. Even in death we still spurned him, the request to repatriate his body refused.' Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Roslyn Dee

IN THE historic Kronenhalle restaurant in Zurich - all white tablecloths, fresh flowers and sparkling crystal - the walls are chock-a-block with an eclectic collection of art, including originals by the likes of Chagall, Miró and Picasso.

In the main room of this Swiss brasserie, about half way along the wall farthest from the door, it's not the artist that catches the attention but, rather, the subject. James Joyce. Not once, but twice.

For there, beside the very table where the writer himself used to sit (and where he wrote part of 'Ulysses'), hangs both a painting and a photograph of the Dubliner.

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Joyce spent a lot of time in this restaurant, largely because of the generosity of the original owner Hulda Zumsteg, a woman who knew that the writer was stretched financially and so allowed him to dine there for free. After Joyce's death she continued to extend the same kindness to his wife, Nora.

When I lunched there last winter, having declared my Irish credentials when I booked, I found myself the recipient of an unexpected apology as I was leaving.

The manager was sorry, he said, that he had been unable to give me James Joyce's table that day, but two regular diners had already requested it. "They always ask for Mr Joyce's table," the manager said. "You see," he explained, "we love Mr Joyce in this city."

As indeed they do.

On my first morning there I got talking to the waitress serving breakfast in my hotel.

On discovering that I was from Ireland, her response was immediate: "Oh," she instructed me, "you must visit Café Odeon. It's where your Mr Joyce used to meet his friends."

Later, on a walking tour of the Old Town, my guide Elizabeth pointed out the James Joyce Foundation building.

Although closed to the public at weekends, Elizabeth was undaunted.

"You must see it," she told me. "It's wonderful." And so it was that she talked her way in.

We should never forget how Zurich embraced James Joyce when the Irish State rejected him.

He refused to bow the knee, of course, to either Church or State and so, as an Irishman in exile, he bounced around Europe all his life - from Trieste to Zurich and on to Paris before returning to Zurich again, where he died, unexpectedly, in January 1941.

Even in death, however, we still spurned him in this country and Nora's request to have his body repatriated was refused.

Which is why he still lies, together with Nora, their son Giorgio and his wife Asta, in Zurich's Fluntern cemetery.

And despite the latest well-intentioned efforts by Dublin City Council to have him returned home in time for the 'Ulysses' centenary in 2022, surely it is in Fluntern that "Mr Joyce", as the Zurich people so respectfully call him, should remain.

In the beautiful graveyard, high above the city that took James Joyce to its heart, on my own final morning in Zurich and with no trams running, I made my way to Fluntern by taxi.

And as the gleaming Merc glided slowly through the city streets, driven by the elderly Graziano, suddenly, it started to snow.

How appropriate, I thought to myself with a smile, casting my mind back to Joyce's story 'The Dead', that snow was now "general" all over Zurich.

Arriving at the cemetery, Graziano courteously walked me in before pointing me in the specific direction of "your wonderful Irish… schriftsteller", he finally said, unable to manage the English word for writer.

And so I found myself standing alone in the snow at the schriftsteller's grave, tucked away at the back of the cemetery, and with that distinctive sculpture of the man himself sitting close to the grave's flat-to-the-ground headstone.

And that is exactly where he should stay. In Fluntern. Alongside his loved ones. In a city that embraced him - and embraces him still.

Irish Independent

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