Can there be a “first” line in a book which is a circle?
Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s notoriously perplexing final work, takes beginning in medias res to a whole new level. Its first line dumps the reader into the middle of Dublin’s murky River Liffey, starting the story literally mid-stream:
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
A reader unfamiliar with the Wake might wonder if I’ve misquoted here, omitting the first word or neglecting to capitalize the already-puzzling compound “riverrun.” I have not: Finnegans Wake opens lowercase, mid-sentence, mid-thought. If one makes it all the way through Joyce’s abstruse text, they’ll see why. The closing sentence of the Wake’s final chapter reads—
A way a lone a lost a last a loved along the
—to which one might think to add, “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s…”, making the whole book a circle. You could begin reading from the start of any chapter, in the middle of a chapter, in the middle of a line, and still end up in the same place.
Start Anywhere You Want To
Because the Wake doesn’t have a plot or characters in the strictest sense, it doesn’t have to be read from start to finish, and the story can be picked up from just about anywhere. In fact, many readers do not start with the first page at all! This is especially helpful when one is considering joining a Finnegans Wake Reading Group, such as our very own here at Modernist Studies Ireland.
Instead of telling a linear narrative, the Wake universalizes the story of an Irish family—a father, mother, daughter and twin sons—through the ages, repeating and restarting and remembering and refashioning the basic facts over and over until they encompass, somehow, the history of the world itself. Let us, for a moment, consider a few of “the charictures in the drame” (302.32) you might see in this book, and the forms you might encounter them in:
The Father, HCE: Keep your eye out for words that spell out HCE, or HEC; in the first line quoted above, this is “Howth Castle and Environs” (3.3), but throughout the book these letters appear to signal the presence of our patriarch, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. He is sometimes known as “Here Comes Everybody” (the universal man) or “Haveth Childers Everywhere” (the prototypical father). He is our Finnegan, forever falling, whether off a ladder (as in the song “Finnegans Wake”) or from social graces. HCE has been accused of a terrible crime—a sexual impropriety in Phoenix Park involving two girls, possibly witnessed or interrupted by three soldiers—and his reputation is at risk, but his wife, ALP, has written a letter in his defense.
The Mother, ALP: HCE’s wife, Anna Livia Plurabelle, is a manifestation of all women and mothers (All Ladies Present). Where her husband, the giant Finn MaCool, is a mountain or land, she is the world’s rivers, and Dublin’s Liffey in particular. She is the perfect balance to HCE: “If Dann’s dane, ann’s dirty, if he’s plane she’s purty, if he’s fane, she’s flirty” (139.22-3). She has dictated a letter to her son Shem, a writer, and entrusted it to her other son, Shaun, the postman, in defence of her husband, HCE. The exact contents of this letter, Anna’s “untitled mamafesta” (104.4), are constantly in question, as is the precise nature of the crime HCE is accused of.
The Twins, Shem and Shaun: Shem the Penman and Shaun the Post are opposites. They are opposing brothers Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, and Brutus and Cassius; they also sometimes represent concepts such as light and dark, tree and stone, eye and ear, angel and devil. Shem is sometimes figured as Joyce’s alter-ego, an experimental writer who delights in his work pushing boundaries, whereas Shaun, unhappy as a deliverer of others’ messages, would rather be a priest than a postman, but is stuck conforming to societal expectation. Constantly at war between themselves, they fight over their sister, Issy, in a pseudo-incestuous romance.
The Daughter, Issy: Like her mother the river, Issy is water: a little cloud, who, with every tear, threatens to disappear into thin air. She is torn between the affections of her brothers, and between aspects of herself. Issy’s personality is fractured, and her mental illness (multiple personalities) manifests in her being represented as the colours in the rainbow (seven girls) or days of February (twenty-nine ‘Leap Year Girls’). She is Isolde of the Tristan and Isolde love story (Tristan, born of sadness, is both twins—tree and stone, Shem and Shaun).
The Others: Other characters you might encounter are four old men (sometimes called MaMaLuJo, or Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John, the gospels), who gossip at the bar and are outside observers or narrators; Kate and Sackerson, the family’s servants; the two girls who are part of HCE’s crime, and the three soldiers that witness it; and the customers (twelve members of a jury, twelve apostles, the months of the year) who appear as customers in a pub owned by HCE and ALP.
Wherever you start the story, you will find versions of this family hanging about, though they frequently change names, occupations, and personalities. Versions of HCE’s fall from grace, interpretations of ALP’s letter, and scenes of the twins chasing Issy are told in different words, in different times, in different languages. The story comes together through these vignettes, and the order in which you read them does not matter.
Reading as a group
The repetition of the same stories makes the book intensely readable, despite most critics’ views to the contrary. Critics who didn’t ‘get it’ and readers who gave up on the Wake likely tried to tackle this incredible book alone—which does not make for the best experience. Unlike most books—which are solitary exercises—Finnegans Wake is best read aloud and in a group.
Why? Finnegans Wake is extremely intertextual. It is made up of references to other texts, stories, songs, languages, poems, jokes, faerie tales. Because it tries to be this ‘universal’ text, no single person’s worldly experience is enough to decode it. As a group, we stand a better chance.
Let’s start with the first line on page 3 as an example of ‘how’ to read Finnegans Wake:
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
What does this line tell us about the mysterious and wonderful book that is to come?
We start off with this lowercase “riverrun”, already on the move. An experienced reader of the Wake will bring up that it follows from the end of the last line on page 628: “A way a lone a lost a last a loved along the”. Riverrun is a perfectly good word in English, though not typically used this way; it means the course of the river. The movement of the water is the first sensation of the text: the running water, the current of the Liffey. Next, we are given a landmark: “past Eve and Adam’s.” Where are we? Well, Dublin, as is usually the case with Joyce’s work. There is both a church known as Adam and Eve’s – a Roman Catholic church located on Merchants Quay, Dublin – and a pub of the same name. Here Joyce combines two of the most common stereotypes about the Irish—drinking and religion—but also, as anyone with knowledge of the Bible will know, an association with original sin. Eve and Adam (traditionally in the reverse order) cause the Fall of Man, the first of many “falls” taken by our Everyman, HCE.
In this first line, Joyce takes his reader on a sort of tour of Dublin’s coastline, “from swerve of shore to bend of bay”. Swerving already feels erratic, as though we are being pulled into this crazy book’s current, but if that isn’t enough, once we get to Dublin Bay we are caught in a “commodius vicus of recirculation”! And what, you might ask, is that? Recirculation is apparent enough, perhaps. We go around again. But commodious? Vicus? The Latinate word “commodious” means “roomy” or “spacious”; but what is it doing here? For me, it evokes the commode: the toilet, through which water swirls circularly and, at one point or another, ends up in the Liffey. Another interpretation might be of a vicious cycle, or a situation in which a cause produces a result that itself produces the original cause (a loop, not unlike the Wake itself). “Vicus” is a Latinate word for a small settlement, typically Roman. However, it also recalls Giambattista Vico, an Italian thinker from the 1660s who speculated on the origins and evolution of human language. Vico will come up many times throughout the Wake. Flushed out of the river’s mouth, we are brought unceremoniously “back to Howth Castle and Environs”, the isthmus which juts into Dublin Bay. This land mass is also HCE, our protagonist—if, indeed, a book like Finnegans Wake can be said to have one.
So much contained in so short a line!
Every reader brings something new to the often-obscure text. In the example of the first line presented above, a different reader might supply each of the glosses: one brings up toilets, another vicious cycles, another Vico. Each of us has something unique to contribute, a speculation here or an observation there. Whether it’s knowing another language, remembering a snippet of a folk song, or decoding an obscure clue, every member of a group encounters the text differently and brings something unique to the table.
Where to from here?
I am always excited to introduce Finnegans Wake to new readers, because those least familiar with the book’s overall themes and motifs often come up with the most creative and innovative interpretations. A new perspective is always welcome in a Wake reading group for just that reason: the way your mind works is different than mine, and you will see things that I don’t.
As “difficult” as this text is purported to be, reading Finnegans Wake is also deliciously rewarding. Joyce manages to pack every line of Finnegans Wake with overlapping associations and references of all kinds, all of which awaits the reader tempted to pick up their copy. The Wake is part poetry, part history, part family epic, part song. It defies all categories as a matter of course. I enthusiastically recommend diving right into the “riverrun” if you’re up for a challenge! Join us every other Tuesday from 4-6pm Dublin time as we drift together through this puzzling, ambitious, daring, stimulating, category-defying text.
In 1921, Joyce reportedly said of his ambitious novel, Ulysses,
I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.
In the 100 years since the publication of Ulysses, this much has at least been proven true: Joyce has kept us busy. In the 1950s, what we now call “the Joyce industry” was born–an absolute deluge of critical interpretations of Joyce’s work emanating, at that time, mostly from the United States. Michael Patrick Gillespie argued in 2009 that the industry has grown exponentially since that time, making it nearly impossible to “keep track of” let alone “read, assimilate, and then critique” the sheer volume of work on Joyce. Nevertheless, we continue to try. A bibliography of work on Joyce has been published in the James Joyce Quarterly as part of an ongoing project to keep a “Current JJ Checklist” for decades. This checklist has been maintained by the sustained work of William S. Brockman.
Despite the steady thud of trendy academics jumping on board, the Joycean bandwagon shows no immediate sign of subsiding under their weight.
Over the past seventy years of Joyce studies, our lives–and our work–have been changed by the Internet, globalisation, open access, easier travel, and geopolitical and social changes. Our world is not one that Joyce would recognize, but somehow readers of Joyce’s texts are still able to see ourselves in them. We have yet to work out every puzzle Joyce left in Ulysses (leaving aside the complex enigma that is Finnegans Wake for a moment) and the ways that we approach Joyce’s texts have been in continuous flux over the decades.
Now, with an increase in digital media studies, and with the impetus of the COVID-19 pandemic, many resources and events have become entirely virtual exercises. From digital annotation with hyperlinks to definitions, music, and video resources, to virtual reading groups (including MSI’s very own Finnegans Wake reading group, Tuesdays 4-6pm), Joyce Studies is alive and well in a virtual world.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Joyce’s Ulysses, and Joyce’s 140th birthday, I’ve put together this list of new and emerging projects on Joyce. Though our world and our views have changed, “the Joyce industry” chugs along, with scholars and laymen alike producing books, edited collections, articles, new editions of Joyce’s works, art exhibitions, podcasts, blogs and so much more!
The list was created using recommendations from Joyce scholars on Twitter and Facebook. Thank you to everyone who sent in suggestions for inclusion.
While by no means exhaustive, this taste of recent and upcoming work in Joyce studies is representative of the vibrant scholarly and public engagement with Joyce’s work, even 100 years since the publication of his iconic novel. Today, we celebrate that anniversary, and Joyce’s birthday. So, let’s all raise a glass tonight for the author that brought us all together:
James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (2 February 1882 – 13 January 1941)
Illustrating Ulysses: A mixed-media project by Tasha Lewis. A visual interpretation of the text created during a residency at the Tides Museum in Eastport, Maine. Lewis’s project incorporates unconventional art styles and diverse mediums, including collage. 2016. http://www.illustratingulysses.com/
Love, says Bloom, a temporary exhibition at MoLI curated by Nuala O’Connor. The exhibit complements the museum’s existing display of NLI treasures with an audiovisual exploration of Joyce’s intensely loving family unit through film, images, narrative and contemporary song. Runs 2 February – 3 July 2022, Museum of Irish Literature (Dublin, Ireland). https://ulysses100.ie/posts/love-says-bloom
Odysseys, curated by Flicka Small and Michael Waldron, is an exhibition celebrating the centenary of James Joyce’s Ulysses and his overlooked connections to Cork at Crawford Art Gallery (Cork, Ireland). Runs from 22 January until 3 April, 2022. https://crawfordartgallery.ie/odysseys/
One Hundred Years of James Joyce’s Ulysses, an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum in collaboration with the author Colm Tóibín. The exhibition showcases Joycean manuscripts and notebooks made possible through generous loans from American institutions, with major contributions from the James Joyce Collection in Buffalo. Runs 3 June through 2 October, 2022 (New York City, USA). https://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/ulysses
The “riverrun” exhibition. [concluded] An exhibition of Carol Wade’s Finnegans Wake paintings took place Monday 1-7 April 2019 at Waterways Visitor Centre (Grand Canal Dock, Dublin, Ireland) as part of the Five Lamps Arts Festival. Digital tour available: https://artofthewake.com/riverrun-exhibition
The Medieval Studies Research Blog is a multi-author blog site hosted by the University of Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute. Joycean blogger John Conlan is involved in a project where he examines questions of ethno-nationalism arising from Joyce’s engagement with 20th century Scandinavian historiography. This project is in collaboration with Dr. Richard Fahey and will conclude with an experimental sound-piece adapting the text from the Mutt and Jute section of the Wake, coming soon. https://sites.nd.edu/manuscript-studies/2020/09/18/how-james-joyce-used-the-middle-ages-to-have-a-good-laugh-at-history/
Pint of Ulysses, artist Robert Berry’s work in teaching and adapting Ulysses, new work from his ongoing Ulysses “seen” project (graphic novel adaptation), links to classrooms and podcasts as well as daily notes on Joyce. Available through Patreon (post are free to read, Patreon used for “tipping the host”): https://www.patreon.com/pintofulysses
Joyce County: Galway and James Joyce by Ray Burke with a foreword by Michael D. Higgins. New edition by Artisan House Editions, 2022. https://artisanhouse.ie/
Joyce Writing Disability edited by Jeremy Colangelo with contributions from Casey Lawrence, Boriana Alexandrova, Kathleen Morrissey, Rafael Hernandez, Marion Quirici, John Morey, Giovanna Vincenti, and Jennifer Marchisotto, with a foreword by Maren Linett. Forthcoming from University Press of Florida, 2022, as part of the Florida James Joyce Series, edited by Sebastian D. G. Knowles. Available for preorder: https://upf.com/book.asp?id=9780813069135
Rewriting Joyce’s Europe: The Politics of Language and Visual Design by Tekla Mecsnóber. University Press of Florida, 2021. Florida James Joyce Series, edited by Sebastian D. G. Knowles. https://upf.com/book.asp?id=9780813066981
“Caliban’s Mirror”: the 2022 Wilde and Joyce Symposium. May 5-7, 2022, Trinity College Dublin’s Long Room Hub. Registration opens February 2022. #WildeJoyce2022. Organized by Casey Lawrence and Graham Price, with Sam Slote. https://wildejoyce2022.wordpress.com/
James Joyce: Ulysses 1922–2022. The XXVIII International James Joyce Symposium. 12-18 June, 2022, Trinity College Dublin & University College Dublin. Registration is now open. #Ulysses100. Organized by Sam Slote, Tom Walker, Luca Crispi, and Anne Fogarty, with Valérie Bénéjam and Tim Conley. https://www.tcd.ie/English/ulysses-100/
The Folio Society’s Limited Edition leather-bound Ulysses, illustrated by John Vernon Lord and edited by Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon. Limited to 500 hand-numbered copies, all signed by John Vernon Lord. Includes introductory essays by Danis Rose, John O’Hanlon, and Stacey Herbert and an exclusive John Vernon Lord print. Priced at £495.00, this is an extravagant collector’s edition! https://www.foliosociety.com/ulysses-limited-edition.html
I Said Yes: A Celebration of Bloomsday at The Rosenbach. Rosenbach Museum, 2021, with commentators Paul Saint-Amour, Robert Berry, Vicki Mahaffey, Darina Gallagher, and Elizabeth E. Fuller. Readers courtesy of the Lantern Theater and Philadelphia Artists’ Collective. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Du6OCZDBp9E
Nora: A Love Story of Nora Barnacle and James Joyce by Nuala O’Connor. Irish writer Nuala O’Connor’s fifth novel, published January 2021 by Harper Collins in the USA & April 2021 in Ireland by New Island. https://nualaoconnor.com/home/novels/nora/
Journal Articles (nonexhaustive):
“‘Beard and Bicycle’: The Human, Nonhuman, and Posthuman Bicyclist in Ulysses” by James Alexander Fraser. James Joyce Quarterly 58(1-2), 2021, pp. 131-155.
“The Facts of Resonance: Sonic Warfare, Haptic Literature and the Vibrant Body in FW II.3” by John Conlan. Forthcoming in an upcoming issue of The Dublin James Joyce Journal.
“An Incident in Hyde Park: Basil Thomson, Roger Casement, and Wakean Coincidence,” by Mark David Kaufman. James Joyce Quarterly 57(3-4), 2020, pp. 245-262.
“Their natural selections: Anthropogenesis and the Curious Lifeworld of Finnegans Wake,” by John Conlan. Forthcoming in Costellazioni, 2022.
“‘The Sassenach wants his morning rashers’: The Colonial Market and the Commodified Animal in Telemachus’” by Robert Brazeau. James Joyce Quarterly 58(1-2), 2021, pp. 19-35.
“Starting Mid-Stream: riverrunning through the first line of Finnegans Wake,” by Casey Lawrence. The First Line Literary Journal 23(1), Spring 2021, pp. 83-5.
“James Joyce and the Modern Scots,” by Eleni Loukopoulou. The Journal of Modern Periodical Studies 12(1), 2021, pp. 87-124.
“Zooming Bloomsday 2020,” by Richard J. Gerber. James Joyce Quarterly 57(3-4), 2020, pp. 240-244.
Doodles Family Business, a UK-based online store created by Joycean scholar Dr. Cleo Hanaway-Oakley and her husband, Phil. The store sells Joyce-themed t-shirts and tote bags featuring Joyce quotes, doodles, and Joycean holidays such as Bloomsday and 2/2/22. https://doodles-family-business.teemill.com/
“Ulysses 100” commemorative stamps from An Post. A national stamp, international stamp, commemorative envelope and special cancellation mark designed by Amsterdam-based Irish designers, The Stone Twins, for the 100th anniversary of Ulysses. https://www.anpost.com/Shop/Special-issue-stamps/Ulysses-100
“The World of James Joyce and Other Irish Writers: A 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle,” a 27 x 19 in puzzle to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ulysses; the completed puzzle is a detailed illustration of Joyce’s Dublin is packed with real people and fictional characters to seek and find. Commissioned by Philip Contos with art by Michael Kirkham and an accompanying pull-out poster with guide by Joyce scholar Professor Joseph Brooker. https://www.laurenceking.com/product/the-world-of-james-joyce/ (use discount code JamesJoyce25 at checkout for 25% off)
“Elpenor in the Cities – Bloomsday 2021.” A non-linear experimental film by Vouvoula Skoura, based on the “Hades” episode of Ulysses. The narratives map a rhizome of the marks left by the people as they travel following routes of their memory / traveling to Mediterranean cities. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0XEo1ms6yY
Finwake. An online gloss of Finnegans Wake. Free annotations current until 2010; a premium paid subscription is needed to access updates from 2011-2022. Desktop and Apple/Android compatible versions available. https://finwake.com/index.htm
James Joyce’s Correspondence. Antwerp: University of Antwerp, 2021. https://jamesjoycecorrespondence.org. Digitization of previously unpublished letters, postcards, telegrams, and notes written by Joyce or by others at his dictation or direction. Editorial team: Dirk Van Hulle, Robert Spoo, Michael Groden, Kevin Dettmar, Ronan Crowley, William S. Brockman, Josip Batinić, Sabrina Alonso.
James Joyce’s Dublin, A Topographical Guide to the Dublin of Ulysses by Ian Gunn and Clive Hart with Harald Beck. The revised and expanded edition of this incredible resource is available to download as a free eBook at http://www.riverrun.org.uk/JJD2.html.
JoyceImages, curated by Aida Yared. An attempt to fully illustrate Ulysses using postcards, photos, and other documents contemporary with the events of the novel. https://joyceimages.com/
Joyce Tools. Resources made available in honour of Clive Hart, one of the pioneers of the empirical study of James Joyce’s work. A collection of maps, public domain works, publications (including the entire run of the now-defunct Finnegans Wake Circular), and much more. http://www.riverrun.org.uk/joycetools.html
Ulysses Ephemera by Sabrina Alonso and Tim O’Neil. A collection of images relating to Ulysses, used to create a guide of visual annotations. Contributions welcome. https://ulysses-ephemera.blogspot.com/
“#MeToo is Nothing New: Even James Joyce’s Ulysses depicts workplace sexual harassment,” an article by Casey Lawrence originally published in Issue 109 (March 2019) of the Dublin Review of Books. Republished on her Medium blog with corrections: https://clawrenc.medium.com/metoo-is-nothing-new-d429b2c1784c
Et Voilá!, the Franco-Irish podcast by the French embassy in Ireland’s cultural section, has two episodes about Joyce’s last year in France, presented by the French honorary consul for Connacht and Donegal Catherine Gagneux, with readings by actors Olwen Fouéré and Páraic Breathnach and contributions from Marion Byrne, Darina Gallagher, and our own Adrian Paterson (soundcloud.com/catherine-gagneux)
Blooms and Barnacles Podcast, a non-academic take on Joyce’s Ulysses from Kelly Bryan,featuring original art by Dermot O’Connor. 2018-present. https://www.bloomsandbarnacles.com/
“Modernist Studies Ireland Finnegans Wake Reading Group.” Founded by Tiana Fischer (NUIG) and Casey Lawrence (TCD). Weekly virtual reading group established in July 2020, which presently runs 4-6pm every Tuesday. Email Casey to get on the mailing list and join us via Zoom: firstname.lastname@example.org
“New York Ulysses Book Club.” Weekly virtual book club organized by the James Joyce Society, reading one chapter per week, starting February 8 and ending June 7, right in time for Bloomsday festivities. Register for $25USD: https://www.joycesociety.com/ulyssesbookclub
Sweny’s Pharmacy has a full programme of in-person and online reading groups for Finnegans Wake, Portrait, Ulysses (in various languages), and more. Check out their website for dates & times: https://www.sweny.ie/reading-groups
El monalogo de Molly, traduzione in triestino. Trieste Italian translation of “Penelope” by Fulvio Rogantin with a preface by Edoardo Camurri. Trieste: Libreria Ubik: Libreria antiquaria Drogheria 28: Libreria Minerva, 2020.
Estela de Finnegan una lectura anotada del primer capitulo de Finnegans Wake de James Joyce. Annotated Spanish translation of Finnegans Wake by Juan Diaz Victoria in Peru.
Odisio, a lipogramatic translation of Ulysses. Without using the letter A, Marcelo Zabaloy translates Ulysses into Spanish.
Samra Mahfoud is currently working on translating Joyce’s work into arabic. She has just finished a book of Joyce’s poetry and is currently working on a translation of ALP.
Yulisῑs (Ulῑs). Persian translation of Ulysses by Akram Pedramnia. London: Nogaam. Vol. 1, 2019; Vol. 2, 2020.
 Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, Oxford University Press, New York, Revised Edition, 1982, p. 521.
 Marvin Magalanger and Richard Kain. Joyce:The Man, the Work, the Reputation. New York University Press, 1956, p. 206.
 Michael Patrick Gillespie, “Past its Sell-by Date: When to Stop Reading Joyce Criticism.” Bloomsday 100: Essays on Ulysses. Ed. Morris Beja and Anne Fogarty. University Press of Florida, 2009, p. 215.
 David Norris, “Foreword.” Conversations with James Joyce by Arthur Power. Lilliput Press, 1999, p. 5-6.
In this month’s MSI New Writing about place in Modernism, TCD’s Casey Lawrence uncovers Berlin of the Modernist period, at once impoverished and decadent, as seen through the eyes of the oft-forgotten writer Robert McAlmon
Berlin underwent significant changes and took many names during La Belle Époque: The Garrison City. New Athens. The German Chicago. Elektropolis. Babylon-on-Spree. World City of the Future. This part of the city’s tumultuous history and its many identities can be hard to reconcile with the Berlin known today, but one might see traces of it written on the façade of the grand Adlon Hotel on Unter den Linden. Intended to compete with the luxury of The Savoy in London, L’Hôtel Ritz Paris, and New York City’s Waldorf Astoria, the Hotel Adlon opened in 1907 with 391 beds, 140 bathrooms (with both hot and cold running water), on-site laundry, its own power plant to supply electricity, a restaurant, café, library, barber shop, and numerous lounges and grand ballrooms. Though the building was largely destroyed in the closing days of World War II, literature from the period solidifies the hotel’s importance to the city’s identity and culture as a modern, up-and-coming metropolis to rival Paris in style, luxury, and debauchery. Today’s Adlon-Kempinski, rebuilt on its original site adjoining Pariser Platz and the Brandenburg Gate, is an homage to this epicentre of modernist decadence.
The road to Berlin’s reputation as a World City of the Future—and the construction of the extravagantly modern Hotel Adlon—was not a smooth one. Prior to the German unification of 1871, Berlin was a Prussian military base lacking in modern sanitation and sewage facilities. Though not the most idyllic start for the new capital, the barracks and training grounds were soon overtaken by commercial and residential development under Kaiser Wilhelm I. By his death in 1888, Wilhelm I had overseen the installation of Berlin’s S-Bahn, city-wide electric lamps, and in a few places, telephones. Yet in 1892, when it was proposed that Berlin host the next World’s Fair, his grandson, Wilhelm II was staunchly opposed. He wrote to Leo von Caprivi, Bismarck’s successor as Chancellor, that
Berlin is not Paris. Paris is—what Berlin hopefully will never be—the great whorehouse of the world; therein lies its attraction independent of any exhibition. There is nothing in Berlin that can captivate the foreigner, except a few museums, castles, and soldiers.
The Kaiser dreaded the attention a World’s Fair would bring to the still-developing city, believing that his uncle, King Edward VII of England, thought Berlin a “beastly hole.” To prove him wrong, Wilhelm II was relentless in his modernization of the city, preparing the capital to enter the world stage once he was sure it could rival London and Paris.
Berlin underwent an unprecedented technological transformation over the next decade to become a true “Elektropolis,” allegedly boasting more electrical lighting than Paris at the turn of the century. The U-Bahn opened in 1902, and automobiles and electric streetcars quickly filled the streets. By 1905, Wilhelm II seems to have decided that the city could now call itself a Welstadt and was ready to entertain foreign visitors. At the cost of US$250 million in today’s money, the Kaiser invested in the construction of the Hotel Adlon, which he hoped would become the heart of a new luxury tourism industry in Germany.
Berlin’s economy boomed in the first decade of the twentieth century, and decadence accompanied in short order. Despite Wilhelm II’s hope that Berlin would “never be … the great whorehouse of the world,” David Clay Large estimates that just prior to World War I, Berlin had upwards of forty gay bars and between one and two thousand male prostitutes active in the city.The Kaiser was also wrong that “nothing in Berlin … can captivate the foreigner,” as Berlin would soon be overrun with Americans who couldn’t care less about the city’s museums, castles, and war monuments.
Of course, catastrophic economic instability hit the Weimar Republic at the height of literary modernism and artistic prosperity elsewhere in Europe. From 1918 onward, political turmoil, assassinations, war reparations, debt and hyperinflation threw the city (and indeed the country) into a tailspin that contributed to the rise of Nazism. Mia Spiro writes in Anti-Nazi Modernism (2012) that “despite that which they could not know, the novels that Barnes, Isherwood, and Woolf wrote…reveal the historical, cultural, political, and social conditions in 1930s Europe that made the continent ripe for disaster”. To this list I would like to add Robert McAlmon, an oft-forgotten Modernist whose Berlin stories provide a unique flavour of the city at its lowest point, the early 1920s.
Unemployment and homelessness were rampant for native Berliners during the 1920s, but the city’s misfortune was a boon for expatriates, whose lavish lifestyles gave Berlin new life as a haven for queers, prostitutes, drug addicts, and artists from the West. By police estimates, there were 25,000 prostitutes active in Berlin by 1920. American money could buy any luxury for cents on the dollar; when McAlmon visited the city in 1921, the dollar was worth nearly 300 marks. While many businesses floundered, the Adlon Hotel thrived as Berlin became the European capital of sex, drugs, and decadence on the cheap. American tourists gorged themselves while Berliners starved, and when they ran out of money, they left. Set a decade before Isherwood’s Berlin Stories (1945), which would become the musical Cabaret (1966), McAlmon’s Distinguished Air (1925) documents the lives of such “awful rats who have come to Berlin because of the low exchange” in 1921. The stories, subtitled “Grim Fairy Tales” for their focus on queer characters and particularly gay men, offer an unsanitized look at a city on the verge of total collapse. Unlike Isherwood, McAlmon published his own work and thus had fewer concerns of censorship and public taste. As a result, his stories contain some of the frankest accounts of “under-world life in Berlin” (30), replete with homosexual sex, prostitution, cross-dressing, drag balls, violence, police corruption, and an astonishing amount of drug use, even to a contemporary audience.
One of the more startling features of McAlmon’s Berlin stories is the excessive use of cocaine. In his memoir, Being Geniuses Together, McAlmon writes: “Dopes, mainly cocaine, were to be had in profusion at most night places. A deck of ‘snow,’ enough cocaine for quite too much excitement, cost the equivalent of ten cents”. Throughout Distinguished Air, characters are depicted as “coked to the eyeballs” and often “completely intoxicated besides” (49). In the titular story, the unnamed narrator, who has never done cocaine, buys a ‘deck’ for the purpose of staying awake all night while giving a friend a tour of Berlin’s nightlife, and ends up partying until noon the next day. Hilariously inebriated characters flit in and out of the stories somewhat lightheartedly, yet the dual threats of overdose and withdrawal loom sinisterly over McAlmon’s Berlin. In the story “Miss Knight,” cocaine is served “by bowlful… [or] the barrel if you give them the sign” (4), and Miss Knight herself suffers several close calls. She describes waking “one night shivering all over” and worried that she “wuz going home in a crate” (6), and another time being “paralyzed from my nose to the top of my head with coke” (18). A friend of Miss Knight arrives at a party having “taken six decks of cocaine and uncounted cognacs—which she declared was the only safe drink to take when breathing snow” (10), but soon becomes belligerent and uncontrollable. Another woman is described rather glibly as being “batty in her belfry…from the d.t.’s” (27), and other addicts suffering withdrawal are similarly dismissed by the expatriate protagonists.
The dry comedy of McAlmon’s prose encapsulates the disassociation and dislocation of Americans benefiting from hyperinflation. The narrator of “Distinguished Air” travels the city in pursuit of decadence, wandering from the Tiergarten to Der Sturm and then lunching at the Adlon: “There were cocktails; pâté de foie; three bottles of wine, pheasant, Russian eggs, pastry, coffee, and afterwards several fines to round out the meal” (29-30). The day’s indulgence in high society is followed by a long night of drug-fuelled debauchery across Berlin: the Germania Palast, “a slow hangout, for men mainly” (30); the Palais de Danse, a dancehall; a Nachtlokal in the Kurfürstendamm neighbourhood; a nude burlesque on the outskirts of the city; a small queer café; and the O-la-la, an upscale men’s hangout. Yet this supposedly lighthearted café-crawl is in the shadow of Berlin’s penury. Between the Tiergarten and Der Sturm, the narrator encounters a gay aesthete who has lived in Berlin since before the war, Carrol Timmons. Timmons ironically remarks that “with this after-war atmosphere, and poverty amongst the few really likeable Germans one knows… [i]t’s all too tragic, I suppose, but I just can’t feel any further about that sort of thing. People will starve to death; people will die; or kill themselves; or drink themselves to death” (26). Haunted by poverty and death that surrounds him, the narrator sees his acquaintances in a new light at the end of the night, suddenly having the notion that “the circumstances [have] managed to make me feel confused and mean, as though I were in a way responsible for the economic condition of these people” (52). He proceeds to give the random followers he has collected each 500 marks, and Flora, the cocaine addict who showed them around, five thousand. The story ends with him lunching again at the Adlon in fashionable company, though he has decided to leave Berlin.
In “Miss Night,” the protagonist undergoes the reverse realization, blaming poor Germans for her financial woes. A bawdy drag queen with distaste for ‘refinement’, Miss Knight is on the hunt for cheap drugs, booze, and boys. The story is told mainly in anecdotal monologues as she trades stories for food, alcohol, cocaine, and companionship. Following a script beset with gay slang, Miss Knight’s dialogue is a time capsule:
‘I’m snowbound now, Mary,’ she confided to inform the others that she had just sniffed cocaine. ‘Just coked to the eyeballs, you know, an’ I’m looking for a bigger skatin’ rink.” (8)
‘But Paris wasn’t nothing like I’m getting’ it in Berlin, and I couldn’t even get a job in a house here. And do you know, last night I picked up a cop. How that guy had the nerve to go home with anybody I don’t get. You know I hate—well, you know—blind meat…” (18)
Miss Knight’s lowbrow, raunchy comedy serves as “relief from [the] after-war Berlin atmosphere” (9) for her companions, but only under specific conditions. Miss Knight is affronted to learn that “some of the people who were ready to encounter her in cafés which they had visited ‘to see Berlin night-life’ said it was a bore to have her greet them so familiarly in more respectable gathering places: the Adlon Hotel lobby, or semi-fashionable dance rendezvous” (9). While the affluent, straight-passing narrator of “Distinguished Air” is welcome in classy places like the Adlon, Miss Knight is not; her demeanour, camp, and elaborate costumes make it hard to resurface from the queer underground, and the dissonance between these spaces leaves her disoriented and vulnerable. She blames everyone but herself for her predicament when she overdoses on drugs and then suddenly leaves Berlin for New York.
The economic, political, and social conditions of the early Weimar years created a peculiar atmosphere that drew in societal rejects like Miss Knight. Like Paris, which was besieged by expatriates fleeing the repressive puritan values and Prohibition in America, Berlin became a hub of queer activity. In “Distinguished Air,” the Germania Palast is filled with “the queer types of Berlin, many of them painted up, two or three in women’s clothes, and great numbers…who were not obvious” (32). Earlier in the day, the narrator warns a “chichi” fairy, Foster Graham, that his camping might get him “picked up in a way you don’t want” (23), but he is unconcerned by the police, saying, “Tut, tut, this isn’t New York. It’s a shame for me to make an effort to get off with anybody here… I wouldn’t look like this in Paris, but it goes down alright here” (24). In chic clothes, with freshly ‘waved’ hair, plucked eyebrows, and waxed moustache, Graham advertises his queerness publicly without fear of arrest, and during the events of “Miss Knight,” a grand ball is arranged where “all queer people could go to the limit with costumes and there would be no police interference” (12). As Robert Beachy, author of Gay Berlin (2014), described in an interview with NPR, gay subculture managed to flourish despite homosexuality being illegal due to practical difficulties enforcing the law. As Beachy argues, conviction was impossible without a confession or credible witness. Seeing the futility in seeking prosecutions, the police commissioner at the time, Meerscheidt-Hullessem, implemented a policy of observing and monitoring suspected homosexuals, rather than arresting them. In practice, says Beachy, the police “simply tolerated all kinds of different…public accommodations, [such as] bars, cafes [and] eventually, large transvestite balls, where obvious homosexuals, or, at least, obviously suspected homosexuals, could congregate and socialize.”
In addition to police indifference, sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld had significant influence on the treatment of queers in Berlin. In 1919, Hirschfeld founded the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, a private research hospital where the first successful gender-affirming surgery took place over twenty years before similar procedures were attempted in the United States. Hirschfeld’s Institute is alluded to when “an elderly fairly, well known to various psychoanalysists in Germany” (32) arrives on the scene in “Distinguished Air.” Hirschfeld advocated for his patients extensively, eventually gaining them the right to “transvestite passes”, which would allow patients to present as their preferred gender in public without being arrested for cross-dressing.
Yet evading police is a common theme in McAlmon’s Berlin stories, and their presence is keenly felt by many characters. Though in theory private sexual acts were not policed and public cross-dressing was tolerated, the threat of police violence nevertheless persisted for gay Berliners. Police efforts were concentrated on finding male prostitutes, drug addicts, and pushers, effectively targeting poor Germans while affluent foreigners with rooms at the Adlon were left in peace. Despite one character’s claims that the “chief of police in Berlin is as queer as they make them” and places like the Palast were thus “protected by the police” (31), raids of queer spaces were not uncommon. In “Distinguished Air,” a raid is conducted on a queer café in search of “unregistered prostitutes,” and the women in the establishment are placed under arrest—including one poor woman who “couldn’t get off with a man if she paid him” (49-50). Miss Knight, in contrast, tempts fate by sexually pursuing cops while in drag: “But, my god Mary, these Berlin cops is different. Please, Mister officer, won’t you arrest me? …I’m tellin’ you, Mary, if I sticks around Berlin much longer they’ll take me home in a little wooden box” (5). On one of her benders, Miss Knight succeeds in picking up “a beautiful blond policeman who was real rough trade” (11), and he accompanies her around the city, though she believes that “the policeman was just a war-made queer” (12). Many of Miss Knight’s anecdotes revolve around attempting to evade arrest in America while in drag, and though her stories quickly become stale to her Berlin audience, readers of McAlmon will find them a poignant reminder of state-sanctioned homophobic violence.
Now known almost exclusively as a minor friend of James Joyce or husband-of-convenience to lesbian poet Bryher, Robert McAlmon was once described by Ezra Pound as a better writer than Earnest Hemingway and was seen by many as a rising star. Though his creative work has mostly been excluded from the modernist canon, McAlmon’s memoir, Being Geniuses Together, which collects anecdotal stories of some of the most famous modernist writers, is highly regarded. Joyce dismissed the memoir as “the office boy’s revenge” for its depiction of his drunken escapades on the streets of Paris in the 1920s, and certainly parts of it were exaggerated; in a particularly apocryphal anecdote, McAlmon claims to have ignored the placement of Joyce’s additions while typing handwritten pages of “Penelope” and merely inserted them “wherever [he] happened to be typing”. McAlmon’s recollection of events (which imply that Joyce did not care that he tampered with the text) have since been proven unlikely.
However, despite perhaps smudging the facts to increase his own importance when writing nonfiction, McAlmon’s “Grim Fairy Tales” capture the essence of the fragile queer spaces of Weimar Berlin. Unlike his recollections of Paris, which are full of name-dropping and exaggeration, McAlmon’s Berlin stories gently obscure the identities of its flamboyant characters to reveal essential truths about that moment in time without risking libel: the slang, the atmosphere, the sex, the drugs, the music, the strippers, the policemen, the cafés, the balls, and the not-so-underground gay subculture that would, in short order, be wiped out of Berlin. As with the Nazi book burning of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft’s entire library, which set sexological research and civil rights back decades, the “cleansing” of Berlin in 1935 is a great loss to queer historians and the identity of a city that was divided along the lines of class, race, gender, sexuality, and nationality long before the Wall.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Casey Lawrence is a PhD candidate at Trinity College Dublin. Her thesis, supervised by Sam Slote, compares literary representations of crossdressing in Modernist texts. She works primarily on the novels of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Djuna Barnes, with a soft focus on textual genetics and the historical context of queer cultural undergrounds in the early twentieth century. Casey is also a published fiction author, with two YA novels, Out of Order (2015) and Order in the Court (2016), published by Harmony Ink Press. Both of her novels were nominated at the Bisexual Book Awards. Together with Tiana Fischer of NUI Galway, Casey convenes the weekly online Modernist Studies Ireland Finnegans Wake Reading Group. She is currently co-organizing the 2022 Wilde and Joyce Symposium.
 Laurenz Demps and Carl-Ludwig Paeschke, The Hotel Adlon. Nicolai, 2004, p. 77.
 Letter from Kaiser Wilhelm II to Count von Caprivi dated July 20, 1892. In Norman Rich, MH Fisher and Werner Frauendienst (eds.), The Secret Papers of Friedrich von Holsteins. Vol. 3: Correspondence (January 30, 1861 to December 28, 1896), Göttingen, 1961, 375-6.
 See Victorino Matus, “The Once and Future Berlin.” Policy Review, 2001, pp. 61-71.
 David Clay Large, Berlin: A Modern History. Allen Lane, 2001, p. 97.
 Mia Spiro, Anti-Nazi Modernism: The Challenges of Resistance in 1930s Fiction. Northwestern UP, 2012, p. 244.
 Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1943). Banking and Monetary Statistics 1914-1941. Washington, DC. p. 671.
The Berlin Stories (1945) is a republished collection of two Christopher Isherwood texts: Goodbye to Berlin (1939) and Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935). The stories collected therein are set between late 1929 and early 1933.
 Robert McAlmon, Miss Knight and Others. Edited by Edward Lorusso, University of New Mexico Press, 1992, p. 24. Originally published under the title Distinguished Air (subtitled “Grim fairy Tales”), McAlmon and William Bird printed the book by hand at Three Mountains Press with a run of 115 copies in 1925. In-text references are to the 1992 reprint.
 Robert McAlmon, Being Geniuses Together: 1920-1930. Revised and with complementary chapters by Kay Boyle. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1968, p. 107.
 Robert Beachy, “Between World Wars, Gay Culture Flourished in Berlin.” Fresh Air, interviewed by
 See Michael T. Taylor, Annette Timm, and Rainer Herrn, Not Straight from Germany: Sexual Publics and Sexual Citizenship Since Magnus Hirschfeld (University of Michigan Press, 2017) for discussion on the implications of “transvestite passes.”
 McAlmon first made this claim in 1938, on page 91 of the first printing of Being Geniuses Together. It can be found on pages 130-131 of the revised edition. He apparently repeated this story to Richard Ellmann in 1954, who takes the claim as fact (see Ellmann, James Joyce [New York, 1959], p. 528).
 See, for example, James Van Dyck Card, “The Misleading Mr. McAlmon and Joyce’s Typescript.” James Joyce Quarterly, Winter 1970, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 143-7.
In the latest of MSI’s 2021 series of writing about place in Modernism, NUI Galway’s Emily Ridge explores Hong Kong’s architecture and literature, and the traces of modernism within a postmodern “heterotopia”.
To me, Hong Kong has always more immediately evoked a postmodern rather than a modernist aesthetic. When, in 1997 (the year of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China), Dung Kai-cheung published his luminous work of fictional cartography, Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, his key literary reference points in re-imagining the boundaries, landmarks and infrastructure of Hong Kong were Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, Roland Barthes, and Italo Calvino. Most particularly, he invokes – and the book itself has been compared to – Calvino’s Invisible Cities, his Preface emphasising the ‘dialectic between the visible and invisible’ in rendering an archaeology of Hong Kong ‘for the future’; his Hong Kong is a prismatic conception of factual and fabricated elements. On a cinematic level, Hong Kong most prominently inspired what Evans Chan has described as the ‘postmodern pastiche stylistics’ of Wong Kar Wai’s Chunking Express, amongst his other films, as well as the dystopic cyberpunk vision of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.Scott was drawn to Hong Kong’s distinctive and dramatic skyline in creating the visual backdrop to his narrative. On a more specific level, the unique architectural marvel that was Kowloon Walled City – once the most densely populated urban enclave in the world, demolished in 1993 – lives on in the cultural memory as a kind of postmodern ‘heterotopia’ writ large.
However, the existing urban architecture and visual features of Hong Kong owe as much to modernist as to postmodern styles and developments. As Prudence Lau has documented through extensive archival research, colonial property developers of the 1920s and 1930s – most importantly, the Crédit Foncier d’Extrême-Orient (CFEO), originating in Belgium – set out to alter the urban landscape in Hong Kong for residential purposes in ways that drew on avant-garde Western techniques as well as Chinese influences: ‘Among their main strategies was the introduction of modernist exteriors characterised by Art Deco forms and experimenting with new architectural typologies adapted from the Chinese locality’. Lau, along with Ophios Chow, has paid special attention elsewhere to the distinctly modernist qualities of more public-facing and recognisable structures of the post-war period (more precisely, the 1950s), such as the Star Ferry pier, the Queen’s Pier (now dismantled) and North Point’s State Theatre.
As these examples might already suggest, modernist experimentation, on an architectural level, was bound up with Hong Kong’s colonial condition in the early-to-mid twentieth century. While focusing her discussion on other cities such as Singapore, Bombay and Dublin, Caitlin Vandertop nevertheless posits Hong Kong as one example of a ‘metrocolony’ in her 2020 monograph on the subject. Metrocolonial environments, according to Vandertop, presented a certain type of urban aesthetic and produced experiences marked by the city’s peripheral status in relation to the British imperial centre. She argues that the ‘stylistic importations of colonial planners’, not unlike those recorded by Lau, can be found to engender ‘striking and visible contradictions, contradictions which […] became important to the critical and aesthetic innovations associated with modernism.’ Such contradictions further informed – one might say they continue to inform – the literary works of Hong Kong writers during this period. In her study, also published in 2020, C.T. Au delineates the contours of a Hong Kong Modernism, primarily through the writings of Leung Ping-Kwan, and she uses the term ‘altermodernism’ (adopted from Nicolas Bourriaud via Peter Brooker) to stress the necessity of a synthesised postcolonial/modernist theoretical approach in capturing the peculiarities of a colonial Hong Kong modernity and the complicated and multivalent discourse that emerged from it.
British imperialism and its implications aside, representations of Hong Kong as a manifestly modernist place are also shaped by the imposing presence of mainland China. For Au, Hong Kong modernist writing, on a stylistic level, is as much indebted to Chinese literary traditions as to imported Western forms of modernist experimentalism. These modes are not always shown to be in sync. In the work of Shanghainese writer Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), the intersections between and conflicting interests of Chinese tradition and colonial Hong Kong modernity are rendered topographically. In her well-known 1943 story ‘Love in a Fallen City’, for example, Hong Kong is initially figured as a place of cosmopolitan possibility and reinvention for the female protagonist Liusu, a deliberate counterpoint to the staid and old-fashioned culture she leaves behind in Shanghai. Liusu, a divorcée who has come to Hong Kong to try to win the favour of a notorious playboy with a view to achieving long-term marital security, is comparable to the heroines of Jean Rhys’s novels in her precarious negotiation of the line between middle-class respectability and social ostracism. In relocating to the city, she ismaking herself new, away from the social strictures and judgements of the old world. The description of Hong Kong, on her arrival, indeed suggests a place of extreme novelty, in terms both of natural and more commodified forms of sensation:
Not until the ship had finally reached the shore did she have a chance to go up on deck and gaze out at the sea. It was a fiery afternoon, and the most striking part of the view was the parade of giant billboards along the dock, their reds, oranges, and pinks mirrored in the lush green water. Below the surface of the water, bars and blots of clashing color plunged in murderous confusion. Liusu found herself thinking that in a city of such hyperboles, even a sprained ankle would hurt more than it did in other places.
As this passage implies, the excitement of hyperbolic novelty conceals something more painful and unsettling, pre-empting the story’s conclusion in which a clichéd narrative of romantic adventure is unexpectedly derailed by the ‘murderous confusion’ wrought by the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II. Beyond the parameters of the story itself and with a nod to Hong Kong’s fraught history from World War II to the present day, I would argue that this passage articulates something more enduring and characteristically modernist about Hong Kong as a place: the ‘clashing’ sociocultural influences that have given the city its hyperbolic intensity and vitality have also repeatedly resulted in injuries, fractures and contradictions that, to paraphrase Chang, hurt more than they would ‘in other places’.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Emily Ridge is a Lecturer at NUI Galway, having previously taught at City University of Hong Kong and the Education University of Hong Kong. She works on modernist and post-war literature. Her first monograph, entitled Portable Modernisms: The Art of Travelling Light, was published by Edinburgh University Press in 2017 and she is co-editor (with Jeffrey Clapp) of Security and Hospitality in Literature and Culture: Modern and Contemporary Perspectives (Routledge, 2016). Her further work has appeared in journals such as Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Modernism/Modernity and Textual Practice.
 Dung Kai-Cheung, Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, trans. Dung Kai-cheung, Anders Hansson, and Bonnie S. McDougall (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012) xii, xi.
 Leung Kwok Prudence Lau, ‘Building a Modern City: Legacies of Residential Development and Architectural Adaptation in Colonial Hong Kong’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 28.2 (2018) 353.
 Leung Kwok Prudence Lau and Pak Yin Ophios Chow, ‘The Right to Landscape: Social Sustainability and the Conservation of the State Theatre, Hong Kong’, Sustainability 11.15, 4033 (2019) 1-16.
 Caitlin Vandertop, Modernism in the Metrocolony: Urban Cultures of Empire in Twentieth-Century Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020) 2.
 For an overview of some more recent Hong Kong Chinese literary texts that reflect the ‘city’s complex cultural character’ (62), see Tong King Lee, ‘Hong Kong Literature: Colonialism, Cosmopolitanism, Consumption’, Journal of Modern Literature 44.2 (2021) 62-75.
 C.T. Au, The Hong Kong Modernism of Leung Ping-Kwan (Lanham, Boulder, New York, London: Lexington Books, 2020) 3-4.
 Eileen Chang, Love in a Fallen City, trans. Karen S. Kingsbury and Eileen Chang (London: Penguin, 2007) 131.
In the second of MSI’s 2021 series of writing about place in Modernism, NUI Galway’s Adrian Paterson explores modernism’s connections to Galway – a place not immediately obvious as one for modernist pilgrimage.
Time and space in the modernist period always collided and colluded, even before Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity suggested that at the macro level this contained a wider truth, and Wyndham Lewis denounced the ‘predatory time philosophy’ infecting modernist art which ought, he argued, to be pure space. Modernists tried to replace what they saw as Victorian nostalgia (naturally from Greek nostos, home-return, and now tending to mean fond memories of earlier times) with a more rigorous, future-driven look at the past.
This would have intriguing effects on conceptions of place. For Yeats in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, to reflect on ‘What is past, or passing, or to come’ seemed to require in all senses a Byzantine journey, even if its destination, impossibly, was sited long in the past and after the author’s anticipated death. In other words, even if after all the philosophy and science a real place could still be said to exist in real time, in this time-travelling era it was rarely experienced or represented this simply in imagination, memory, and art.
The uncertain destinations and indeterminate spaces of the COVID pandemic demand a new era of time travelling. Following Modernist Studies Ireland’s 2021 virtual Telling the Time: Modernism and TimeSymposium, it seems worthwhile therefore reflecting on a specific place in time. At this point in the pandemic it seems almost nostalgic to imagine people arriving somewhere, but back in a distant past when travel was allowed and conferences gathered real people together at the same time in an actual place (and no-one could have conceived precisely this future), MSI’s inaugural conference on Modernist Futures gathered modernist pilgrims at the Moore Institute at NUI Galway.
And in coming to Galway you come to a modernist place. As recent scholarship attests, it is, as Ezra Pound might say, a vortex, a hub, even a shrine, which, as folk here quietly understand, is in its own way as significant as such places in time as Proust’s Paris, Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury, T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton, or Yeats’s mythical Byzantium.
This not being immediately obvious, it can come as a surprise to some. The poet Louis MacNeice, arriving in 1939, found a city whose medieval foundation and sixteenth-century heyday seemed long past, suffocated by the dregs of economic and social decline:
O the crossbones of Galway
The hollow grey houses
The rubbish and sewage
The grass-grown pier,
And the dredger grumbling
All night in the harbour:
The war came down on us here.
In this stanza from ‘Galway’ the main impression is neglect. Notwithstanding the notoriously fast-flowing river Corrib, the poem as a whole fastens on the slowmoving water of the ‘weir’, canal, and harbour, to suggest a sleepy, stagnant place well outside the mainstream of Europe.
By then Galway was a place people had acquired the habit of leaving. The famine-ships of the nineteenth-century had taken many, part of a continuing mass exodus driven by callous politics and brutal economics, with little return in transatlantic trade. By the time MacNeice arrived, even the railway line to Clifden that took tourists and supposed prosperity to Connemara (its tracks passing through university grounds within a few feet of where the Moore Institute now stands) was shuttered, leaving little but a few station platforms and an abandoned railway bridge across the water.
Galway’s plight was even memorialized in James Joyce’s modernist classic Ulysses (1922). There we overhear Stephen Dedalus digesting the headmaster Mr Deasy’s bristling letter to the papers about the dangers of laissez-faire economics, footrot, and
Our cattle trade. The way of all our old industries. Liverpool ring which jockeyed the Galway harbour scheme.
Despite modest improvements Galway’s harbour and canal system was long out of date, built for an earlier time. Though a staunch Ulster Unionist Deasy is the more aggrieved at this neglect: Galway (for which read Ireland) according to this account was deliberately jilted, perennially passed over, subject to an unmanaged decline.
And yet, as Galway emerged blinking into the twentieth century light, it became a talismanic place to experience that collision of old and new that was the keynote of modernism. Here the friction of modernity and tradition was ignited by contested nationalities, changing rural and urban cultures, locals and new arrivals, and the slippages and fissures of (at least) two languages. There are plenty of contradictions and anachronisms in this story, partly emblematized by the peat fuel and donkey tracks employed to assemble and manage the huge electric apparatus that sparked and received the first ever transatlantic wireless telegraph service in acres of bog just outside Clifden. Yet precisely because modernism was not modernity, such juxtapositions might be fruitful: its contested languages and technologies, from telegraph to telepathy and mythos to modern plumbing, strangely energizing.
Institutionally the university, courthouse, and the great gaol (featuring in Augusta Gregory’s stark play Gaol Gate) dominated the city; just as industrially (and contributing to her family wealth) the Persse Distillery had done. As the distillery declined and closed, in 1908 Galway would host the Irish industrial exhibition while depending on surrounding farming and fishing communities. However, some coastal areas under the control of the Congested Districts Board were still relatively densely populated, and briefly hosted Alcock and Brown’s transatlantic aerocraft as well as telegraphs. If you were a visitor here one hundred and twenty years ago, you were potentially one of many: travel being never before so easy, with trains from Dublin and Clifden and a horse-drawn tram running down to the coastal resort of Salthill. (More details and much more can be found in John Cunningham and Ciaran MacDonogh’s Galway: Hardiman and Beyond ).
In fact what became loosely known as the Irish Revival was in a sense powered by the railway. It allowed the promise of an overnight train from London to rehearse your play next day in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre – to spend the morning collecting folklore in Barna, say, or in the woods at Lady Gregory’s County Galway house at Coole Park, and end the evening at Hugh Lane’s modern and Irish art exhibitions in Dublin. George Bernard Shaw, WB Yeats, and Sean O’Casey would come to Coole for spells of splendid isolation that were highly connected, as evidenced by their frequent comings and goings, and avalanches of correspondence and telegraphs. Yeats was not the only poet to count Galway swans, but instead of tracking these writers’ migrations in their movement, more damningly MacNeice has them at rest, asleep, cut adrift:
Salmon in the Corrib
And the water combed out
Over the weir,
And a hundred swans
Dreaming on the harbour:
The war came down on us here.
And yet, as J.M. Synge recounts in The Aran Islands, letters, newspapers, and postal orders arrived in Galway frequently if circuitously from new and old worlds, sometimes via the occasional steam or packet boat nosing past the swans between Nimmo’s sturdy harbour walls, while from 1907 Marconi’s lightning-quick radio telegraph used Galway and Nova Scotia to connect London and New York. The shock when communication lines were cut at various moments during the Troubles of Easter 1916, the War of Independence, and the Irish Civil War potentially suggests a technologized hub, its interconnections deemed worth severing by various guerrilla forces.
These writers’ names should anyway be a reminder for Dublin folk that what became the Abbey, the Irish National Theatre, can be traced to Galway’s interconnections: a meeting between Gregory and Yeats by the sea in Kinvara, Co. Galway at the house of Comte de Basterot. Yeats had arrived with symbolist poet Arthur Symons and the Mayo novelist George Moore to meet Moore’s artistic cousin Edward Martyn who lived nearby at Tulira Castle. Naturally, they took a boat out to the Aran Islands, and shortly afterwards Yeats met Synge in Paris with his ‘head full of Aran’ and, according to his own account, urged him to come west. It is true Synge had family connections there – just as MacNeice had once in Omey Island – but it was then he chose to come. James Pethica’s new edition of Lady Gregory’s Early Irish Writings shows how much she was already mining local traditions in story and song, beginning her work on Irish in earnest and starting to frame culture in national terms.But undoubtedly some of the energy came from Irish outsiders starting to realize what the west had to offer.
Thus Galway became an early if unheralded modernist vortex. Here Jack B Yeats and JM Synge might be encountered out walking about Connemara gathering material for articles in the Manchester Guardian; WB Yeats might be observed arguing over plot or salmon fishing with George Moore on the Corrib bridge, or with Gregory and Douglas Hyde (author and translator of the Love Songs of Connacht (1893]) on Taylor’s Hill, discussing their collaborative Irish-language plays.
Perhaps the best single image of this can be found in Jack B. Yeats’s doodles on a programme for the 1902 Killineen feis in honour of the Irish language poet Antoine Ó Raifteirí. Held to promote local culture and crafts as well as the language (‘Irish Singing, Dancing, Storytelling, Flute-playing &c.’ are enumerated, and a dancer depicted), it was attended by a host of writers, as his sketches attest. Present are a comfortably seated Augusta Gregory, a heron-thin WB Yeats, the behatted artist himself, and, before a crowd, the magnificently moustachioed Douglas Hyde, probably in one of his own Irish-language plays. ‘J.Q.’ was the New York lawyer, John Quinn, who had just lent WB Yeats his copy of Nietzsche, thus changing his poetry forever – and the fortunes of quite a few modernist artists. Through this connection, Quinn acquired the manuscripts of WB Yeats, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, TS Eliot, artwork from of Jack B Yeats and Wyndham Lewis, an intimate friendship with Gregory, and the questionable pleasure of looking after Yeats’ father John Butler Yeats in New York (connections traced in Pethica and Colm Toibin’s New York exhibition about Lady Gregory).
They came, as would close contemporaries Patrick Pearse, James Joyce, and many others, for a rich native tradition of story, craft, song, and many centuries of poetic tradition. At the fin-de-siecle the apparent attraction was a survival of older ways, cultures, and traditions supposedly untouched by modernity (though as Helene Lecossais’ new book suggests, Synge was increasingly aware of the contradictions, for instance, of sourcing local textiles that looked just right under electric theatre lights).But precisely such collisions of old and new, whether Pound’s troubadour poets and modern French vers libre, or Eliot’s idiosyncratic juxtapositions of Dante, Wagner, and the First World War tended to be fertile ground for modernism.
Galway thus became the destination for that talismanic ‘going west’ both satirized and glorified by Joyce in his short story ‘The Dead’. Joyce himself was supposed to visit, but nearly didn’t: in Dublin to set up a cinema, in a fit of jealousy he wrote to his wife in Italy: ‘Nora I am not going to Galway and nor is Georgie’, going as far as to question his son’s parentage. Blithely, a few days later (26 August 1909) he wrote again, ‘I am writing this to you sitting at the kitchen table in your mother’s house!’ – that is from the small cottage in Bowling Green where Nora Barnacle was brought up. He went on:
I have been here all day talking with her and I see that she is my darling’s mother and I like her very much. She sang for me The Lass of Aughrim […]. I shall stay in Galway overnight. […]
How strange life is, my dear love? To think of my being here! I went around to the house in Augustine Street where you lived with your grandmother and in the morning I am going to visit it pretending I want to buy it in order to see the room you slept in. […] Who knows, darling, but next year you and I may come here. You will take me from place to place and the image of your girlhood will purify again my life.
Joyce and Nora never did return together, though despite the exigencies of the Second World War Joyce took time to make sure her dying mother received a copy of his biography. Her song, as sung in the ‘old Irish tonality’, features centrally in ‘The Dead’. The real life inspiration for the story, Nora’s young sweetheart Michael Bodkin, was born in Eyre Square, and buried in Rahoon cemetery. Hence Joyce’s poem ‘She weeps over Rahoon’, commemorating a posthumous three-cornered love affair of the kind that animates Finnegans Wake, and later illustrated with ‘lettrines’ by his daughter Lucia Joyce in a ludic medieval-modern style.
But forget for a moment railways, cinema, modern warfare: instead there’s an argument such medieval survivals made modernism. Think of the fourteenth-century tower, originally built by the Burke or de Burgo family, that features in Yeats’s fittingly violent poetry of the 1920s. Ruined and restored as Thoor Ballylee, it presides over Thomas Sturge Moore’s cover of Yeats’s monumental book of poems, The Tower (1928), and remains a modernist icon, attracting thousands of visitors – although you’d better not steal apples from the garden, as did Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, shocking the poet Richard Murphy, well-remembered for his retrospective Galway poems like ‘The Cleggan Disaster’ and ‘The Last Galway Hooker’. It is sometimes forgotten that Yeats’s next book A Packet for Ezra Pound (1929), provocatively addressing the author of TheCantos (written in Italy and published in Dublin at his sister Elizabeth Corbett Yeats’s Cuala Press) directly recalls the jetsam and paraphernalia of those old steam packet or mail boats calling into Ireland’s west coast.
By then the wider county was hosting artists and writers of all kinds, some drawn by Robert Flaherty’s 1934 astonishingly manufactured documentary Man of Aran. London-born Micheál Mac Liammóir, founder of the Gate Theatre, set up in Roundstone, as did painter Gerard Dillon, while the Aran diaries of Ernie O’Malley feature the artists Charles Lamb, Elizabeth Rivers, and jazz-era novelist Ethel Mannin, whose book on Connemara attempted to revive (again) the rural getaway genre.
So when the inventor of the ‘theatre of the absurd’, Antonin Artaud, arrived in Ireland in 1937 seeking the ‘sources of a very ancient tradition’ it was natural he should go to Galway. However, addled by drugs and Tarot cards, his pilgrimage was abortive: the playwright was arrested and gently repatriated. But not before he had discovered (so he announced), ‘an Advanced Calculation, of a type the current Era is too stupid to understand […] A prophecy written down 14 centuries ago, and which has been published, and which I’ve VERIFIED point by point, in all of its F A C T S over the last months, [which] announces a horrendous future for the World’. In its millennial fervour it recalls the eccentric esotericism of Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’, later spelled out in A Vision – and what could be more modernist than that?
Notwithstanding such dramatic exits and entrances a different story might be told about locally-grown culture and artists. Galway’s vortex not only sucked people in, it nurtured them and (sometimes) spat them out, harnessing not only the centripetal energy of visitors but the centrifugal energy of those that were born hereabouts, and left, often to very different lives.
One of these was Frank Harris, hailed by Shaw as both genius and a charlatan on the model of Oscar Wilde, born in Galway to a Welsh naval officer before emigrating to America and self-fashioning himself as editor of the London Saturday Review, and becoming the transgressive author of the explosive novel The Bomb and the notoriously frank My Life and Loves.
Responsible for another kind of frankness was Liam O’Flaherty, an author bilingual in both Irish and English who had the honour of writing the first book to be banned by the new censor of the Irish Free State. The House of Gold is set in a fictional town of Barra, a coastal town remarkably like Galway. Grounded in pitiless reality, the novel tells a strange folkloric fantasy that at times anticipates magic realism, with a bitterness about money and morals that recalls Conrad or O’Casey (its antihero Ramón is based on local magnate Máirtín Mór McDonagh, dominating subject of Jackie Uí Chionna’s He Was Galway). It also features recognisable touches of Yeats and Joyce: this is a novel that takes place in a single day and night, featuring a much-desired woman called Nora, ‘terrible in her beauty’ and associated with the mournful cry of curlews.
Yet Yeats is by no means the only modern poet associated with Galway. Máirtín Ó Direáin, born on Inis Mór in Aran to an Irish speaking family, became one of the most prominent Irish-language poets of the century. Like Flann O’Brien, he found employment in the machinery of the new Irish Free State, working at the Post Office in Galway city (those lines of communication again) before publishing numerous books of poetry unpicking the disjunctions between modernity and tradition. Highly influenced by modernist writing, Ó Direáin included in ‘Homage to John Millington Synge’ a sincere but pointed tribute to an earlier visitor: as translated by Deirdre Ní Chongaile, the last lines read ‘the words you once gathered / Will live on in an alien tongue’.The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who lived in Connemara in the 1950s, might have added something about the limits of language.
But these limits could be stretched. Inspired by Hyde’s example, the foundation on the ruins of the Augustinian Friary of the Irish language theatre An Taibhdhearc with Mac Liammóir and Ó Direáin as early central players would give the city a new impetus, creating opportunities for Galway actor, playwright, and novelist Walter Macken, the actress and writer Siobhán MacKenna and many others.
So when Louis MacNeice visited Galway in 1939, whether he knew it or not he found more than a sleepy backwater. In fact, his poem was as much a political comment on how unprepared Ireland (and Britain) was for the coming war, something his Autumn Journal (1938) had bitterly predicted.
The night was gay
With the moon’s music,
But Mars was angry
On the hills of Clare,
And September dawned
On willows and ruins:
The war came down on us here.
His repeated refrain ‘The war came down on us here’ thus also half-hints at Galway as garrison town, its encircled feeling stemming from the city’s original Norman occupation. In a way its ‘ruins’ and history of violence made it an oddly appropriate place for this dramatic intrusion of European history, as looking south to Clare the red planet Mars, God of War, hovers over Galway Bay. And while MacNeice returned to London to work for the BBC, as the rest of the poems in the Closing Album confirm, he had come to Galway from Sligo on the track of Yeats, on whom he was writing a book, one of the first and best critical studies of the poet. All these poems were printed in The Last Ditch by what remained of Elizabeth Corbett Yeats’s Cuala Press, intimating some kind of handcraft co-existence amidst the crashing intrusions of modernity.
As with the railway bridge stumps standing in the Corrib river now proposed as pillars for a bicycle track, and a quixotic small-scale revival of the Connemara steam railway in Maam Cross, such collisions, anachronisms, and replayings of new and old abound in Galway, blurring the borders between modernity and tradition, nostalgia and revival. It is ‘traditional’ around these parts to meet at what is locally known as the Big Yellow Thing, that unmissable clanking metal sculpture a few steps from the door of the Moore Institute. Called ‘Galway Yellow’, it is a stark declaration of late modernity. But, according to the artist Brian King, it is also a ‘derivation of the Celtic Knot’. As the modernists figured, making it new always seems to require the old. That periodic urge Chaucer described when ‘longen folk to goon on pilgrimages’ will come again: as Joyce wrote hopefully, ‘Who knows […] but next year you and I may come here’. When in real life visitors return to the west of Ireland, they might just find themselves, in Galway as much as in Harlem or Bloomsbury or Montparnasse, on the track of an intricately local, global modernism.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Adrian Paterson is Lecturer in English at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He has published widely on eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century literature from pianos to poems, with a particular interest in the artistic interactions of modernism and Irish literature. Co-editor (with Tom Walker and Charles Armstrong) of the forthcoming Edinburgh Companion to W.B. Yeats and the Arts, and with Christine Reynier two special editions of the E-rea journal on Modernist Non-Fiction, he is director of the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society and currently President of Modernist Studies Ireland.
 James Joyce, Ulysses (1922), Jeri Johnson (ed.) (Oxford University Press, 2008), 33.
 John Cunningham and Ciaran McDonough (eds), Galway: Hardiman & Beyond: Arts & Culture in Galway 1820-2020 (Arden, 2021).
 James Pethica (ed.) Lady Gregory’s Early Irish Writings (1883-1893) (Colin Smythe, 2018).