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Luxembourg a welcome distraction for Joyce

Luxembourg a welcome distraction for Joyce

by Sarita RAO 4 min. 26.04.2022
The National Library’s latest exhibition reveals what Irish author James Joyce had on his mind during his visit in 1934
Joyce's emotions and thoughts during his stay are expressed through his letters and postcards
Joyce's emotions and thoughts during his stay are expressed through his letters and postcards
Photo credit: Bibliothèque nationale du Luxembourg/Sven Muhlen

A week-long stay in Luxembourg by Irish author James Joyce is the subject of the Bibliothèque nationale du Luxembourg’s (BnL) latest exhibition.

At a glance, you might think this is Luxembourg once again embellishing a visit from a famous author into something more significant, worthy of a two-room exhibition, but as with the immaculately-curated one on photographer Francis Frith, the BnL once again comes up trumps.

The exhibition broadly divides into three areas – James Joyce at the time of his visit, Luxembourg in that era, and the various local journalists and essayists who praised Joyce’s writing, including a young Armand Petitjean.

Where the BnL outdoes itself, is in the detail it has so lovingly compiled to take viewers on an interesting journey. It doesn’t matter that Joyce installed himself for only one week at the city’s Grand Hotel Brasseur, because through the exhibits visitors dive into the letters, postcards and telegrams sent by Joyce, to discover his thoughts and emotions at that exact time.

Ulysses legal issues

Joyce and his wife Nora left Paris in the summer of 1934 while their apartment was being refurbished, and headed first to the Belgian towns of Liege and Spa, before coming to Luxembourg for the week of 16-22 August, to escape bad weather.

A well-curated exhibition on Joyce's visit to Luxembourg for just one week in the summer of 1934
A well-curated exhibition on Joyce's visit to Luxembourg for just one week in the summer of 1934
Bibliothèque nationale du Luxembourg/Sven Muhlen

At the time, Joyce’s landmark book Ulysses was still battling an obscenity lawsuit in the United States. Although the court ruled in favour of Judge Woolsey and Joyce in early August that year, the author’s nerves had been severely tested. Added to this, he had not heard from the physician treating his daughter Lucia, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.  

Joyce’s trip was purely for leisure and there are no records of meetings or contact with journalists, writers or publishers. He spent his time visiting Luxembourg’s attractions and proofreading his latest novel, Finnegan’s Wake.

The exhibition documents the telegram, letters and postcards that Joyce sent his friend and family administrator Paul Léon. These are mostly of a workaday content – things to sort out and do, and the progress of the court case in the USA, but also fragments of his worries about his daughter’s condition and treatment.

Joyce’s fondness for Luxembourg

And then there is family correspondence to his brother and his son. In the latter he talks about his stay in Luxembourg, the casemates, Vauban, and the Rose Night Ball at the Casino de Bourgeois. He refers to the history of the city, which started out as a castle and was transformed into a formidable fortress by Vauban. The latter was at the time of Joyce’s visit, the subject of an exhibition heavily featured in the local media.

Posters and guidebooks from the time show that Luxembourg was developing its tourist industry. In the 1890s, local hotelier Alexis Heck had even put up posters in London train stations and published a guidebook in English, presenting Luxembourg as a place for “mental rest, charming walks, drives, some good fishing, and good and cheap living”.  In the 1930s the government pushed tourism as a potential solution to the economic crisis, and the first Belgium-Luxembourg Michelin Guide was published in 1934.

Visitors can see an original copy of P Beyens-Wehrli’s Guide, written for the Hotel Brasseur and which Joyce possibly used, and which highlights the magnificent rose nurseries, showcasing 2,000 varieties of the flower and receiving tourists with enthusiasm. The Rose Night Ball took place when Joyce was in Luxembourg City, and the terrace and staircase were strewn with over 20,000 roses.

Joyce delighted in Luxembourg saying “This is a lovely quiet rose-growing part of dirty old Europe”.

An audio cabin brings to life correspondence and writing
An audio cabin brings to life correspondence and writing
Bibliothèque nationale du Luxembourg/Sven Muhlen

The author’s visit also coincides broadly with the birth of Radio Luxembourg, which challenged the BBC monopoly to broadcast in English to audiences in Britain and Ireland, from its studio in Junglinster. Twice-weekly, the shows were pre-recorded in England and flown from Croydon to Luxembourg’s airport at Esch-sur-Alzette. Joyce’s son even undertook to sing for the radio station.

Petitjean’s unpublished essay

The final piece of the puzzle looks at the role of Luxembourg in Joyce’s works – with references to the rivers Alzette, Sauer and Mamer in Finnegan’s Wake, but also the definitive Essay on the Situation of Joyce, penned by a 20-year-old Armand Petitjean. Joyce wrote of him: “A young Frenchman…..has written a book, an amazing study of Work in Progress. I never even saw him. It will be out in July. He is only 20 and began it three years ago.”

The essay remains unpublished to this day, despite Petitjean’s stay in Colpach under the patronage of Luxembourg socialite, Aline Mayrisch. She became estranged from his friendship after he joined the Vichy government in a junior role. Joyce left Paris in 1940, and one of the last letters he penned was to Petitjean.

Joyce died of a perforated ulcer on 13 January 1941 and is buried near Zurich.

More information

The free exhibition is on the second floor at the BNL in Kirchberg, and runs from 26 April to 10 September. It’s open from Tuesday to Friday from 10.00 to 19.00 and on Saturday from 10.00 to 18.00. Guided tours are available in French, German and Luxembourgish. While the information panels are in French, there is a full guide to the exhibition available in English.

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