Joyce’s final resting place

Sir, – I read with pleasure Deaglán de Bréadún’s piece concerning his brief visit to the grave of James Joyce in Zurich (An Irishman’s Diary, The Irish Times, September 3rd).

It is worth wondering, however, whether he is right to refer to Fluntern Cemetery as “the great man’s final resting place”.

Following the death of Joyce in 1941, the Irish government declined his widow’s offer to allow his remains to be repatriated (an insult so severe that it cost the State the Finnegans Wake papers, which Nora subsequently ensured were left not to the National Library of Ireland, but to the British Museum).

Efforts to repatriate Joyce were renewed in the early 1970s, when Ulick O’Connor won the enthusiastic approval of Joyce’s son Giorgio, as well as that of the then taoiseach Jack Lynch. The remains of James Joyce were to arrive back into Dublin Bay on a naval corvette, ahead of a State burial. Sadly, as plans were being finalised, Giorgio died in 1976. The grand homecoming never came to pass.

The 75th anniversary of Joyce’s death will be in 2016 – a year that will also mark the centenary of the first full publication of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Fluntern Cemetery is, as Mr de Bréadún writes, a beautiful place, but perhaps our greatest novelist has slept for long enough beside the lions of the Zurich Zoo. – Yours, etc,


Cypress Grove,

North Templeogue, Dublin 6W.

[THE IRISH TIMES, September 6]

The Irish Times – Monday, September 3, 2012

An Irishman’s Diary

Deaglán de Bréadún

BOTH IN HIS own time and since, James Joyce has had to contend with reviews of his books and plays, but even he could not have expected that his place of burial would also be subject to critical scrutiny.

The website Tripadvisor [dot] com traditionally invites people to provide “unbiased holiday reviews, photos and travel advice for hotels and vacations”.

Tripadvisor has made a name for itself with its anonymous hotel reviews from members of the public, who generally don’t pull their punches. Now we are told that “James Joyce’s Grave is ready for reviews . . . Share your experience.” There were no comments last time I checked – how do you review a grave? “A shallow experience”? Certainly not in this instance.

Joyce died, following emergency surgery for a perforated duodenal ulcer, in the Swiss city of Zurich, at 2.15am on Monday January 13th, 1941, a few weeks short of his 59th birthday.

His passing was especially poignant and his meticulous biographer Richard Ellmann tells how Joyce, “who wanted desperately to live”, twice expressed anxiety to family members about the cost of his emergency operation.

Regardless of financial considerations, he seems to have got the closest and most urgent care and attention. Two Swiss soldiers even contributed their blood at short notice to the wartime refugee who had travelled from Paris.

It would be nice to think that his own words from The Dead provided a source of consolation in his final desperate struggle: “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”

The present writer recently found himself subject to a lengthy Saturday stopover between flights at Zurich airport.

With several hours before the next take-off, the clear imperative was to visit the great man’s final resting-place to see how he was doing.

The first challenge in planning a trip to Joyce’s grave was of course to locate it. A quick interrogation of the internet at the airport showed that Fluntern Cemetery is on the outskirts of the city.

Much time was wasted seeking out the right tram and, along with a colleague who was making the same stopover, I eventually settled for a taxi.

Friedhof Fluntern is beside a zoo which Joyce previously compared to the place Dubliners affectionately call the “Ah-Zoo” in the Phoenix Park.

His widow, the redoubtable Nora, took visitors to the grave and said: “He was awfully fond of the lions – I like to think of him lying there and listening to them roar.” The couple had spent many years on and off in Zurich, taking refuge in the city during both the first and second World Wars. They moved there in 1915 after almost 11 years in Trieste and Joyce wrote significant elements of Ulysses in Zurich during that four-year stay.

He worked hard, but he also played hard. Best described as an enthusiastic social drinker, Joyce quickly developed a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. He had a loud and merry laugh and an excellent tenor singing-voice.

His daughter-in-law Helen said, “Liquor went to his feet, not his head”, and Ellmann describes how Joyce might suddenly interrupt an afternoon walk downtown “by flinging his loose limbs about in a kind of spider-dance, the effect accentuated by his tight trouser-legs and wide cloak, diminutive hat and thin cane”.

Breakdance Bloom! As neutral territory, Zurich attracted a colourful array of refugees, especially during the first World War, including artists, political activists and chancers. It is plausibly suggested that he met Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, since they were both regulars at the Café Odéon. Although we are told that, thanks to an Irish tutor he met in London, Lenin spoke English with a “Rathmines accent”, Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus insisted the “best English” was spoken in Lower Drumcondra.

Despite its morbid function, Fluntern Cemetery is a beautiful place.

The Swiss pour out their affection for their departed loved ones in a mass of flowers and tasteful graveside decorations, putting even the devout Irish completely to shame.

It took a considerable time to search out the Joyce grave but finally – thanks to directions from a friendly local gentleman by the name of Claudio Steiger – there it was, close to the last resting-place of another great writer and Zurich resident, Elias Canetti, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981.

A statue of Joyce created in 1966 by the American sculptor Milton Hebald presides at the location. There he is, the bould James himself: thin and thoughtful. It is a fine piece of work – Joyce is in a relaxed, almost whimsical pose, as though sitting at a bar, strangely enough.

The grave is well-tended, with grass and some shrubbery, a small tree and a low stone wall that could have come from the west of Ireland.

Alongside him in the grave below are his wife, Nora, who was two years younger but survived him by a decade and died in 1951. Initially they were buried in separate parts of the graveyard but have since been reunited. Also buried with them is their son Giorgio, who died in 1976 and whose name is given on the slab as George. Giorgio’s second wife, Asta, who died in 1993, is buried there too.

Sadly, there wasn’t time to visit the many other places in Zurich with Joyce associations – the city even boasts its own James Joyce Foundation – but to borrow a phrase, not from Joyce but from Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I’ll be back.”





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