One of the biggest modern Bengali poets writes about his meetings with one of the biggest modern English novelists
(Translated by Khademul Islam)
Paris. A fog-wrapped evening; lights glow in the streets. It was time now to leave Europe. Having decided to leave via Syria, I had spent the better part of the day at various travel agents’ offices. Suddenly I thought of James Joyce; then, wanting to properly round off my last night in France, I decided to call on him. I had met Joyce just the other day at a literary get-together, and he had invited me to his home.
I had never read James Joyce’s writing completely, end to end. Till this day he continues to elude me. Whenever I came up for air after a dive into his wordocean, moss, seaweed, other strange, wonderful marine life silkily clung to my skin. It left me feeling restless, uncertain. The experience dazzled both the eye and the mind, an unforgettable thing. All those colours, such varying speeds, glimpses of shimmering ruins beneath the waves. If only the saltwater didn’t sting one’s eyes, it would have been possible to see so much more—but to stay submerged for any length of time in this particular sea of language one needed the deep-sea diver’s special gear. Though I did know that our language, our very mode of thinking, was now tied inextricably to this fertile, bubbling genius. In other words, in no small measure have we been defined by this Paris-based, Irish writer’s freewheeling prose. I was amazed that I, a Bengali from a thousand miles away, a stranger on the opposite shore, felt such happy kinship with him.
I climbed up the stairs. Joyce himself was standing at the top of his heavily-curtained flat. A lush carpet; a large, stylishly-decorated yet old-fashioned apartment. Every bulb was ablaze. Joyce’s glasses had very thick lenses, the light occasionally glinting off his blurred vision. Again, it reminded me of the sea. The man was ethereal, not of solid earth.
Our talk turned to matters Indian; what were the writers there doing?
Joyce mentioned Rabindranath Tagore’s name with utmost respect. One should never read translations, he declared, translations were not literature, and yet, how astonishing that this Bengali genius could be found in them. He had seen Tagore in Paris. Had Bengali absorbed many other languages? Was Rabindranath’s language as such? I saw that it was language itself, words, that he was most fascinated by.
He was reticent about himself. But certain hints about the Work In Progress were forthcoming. One night Joyce had been reading a certain section of the new work to a friend (I forget whether it was Ogden or Richards). It was after dinner, the two of them still sitting by the table. Then Joyce, wanting to check some word or phrase had opened the door to go to the next room and in the dark had almost tripped over the maid. She, entranced by the reading, had been listening at the door. The maid had been French, and of course uneducated, and it would have been quite impossible for her to have understood even a word (it would have been beyond her even if she had been English and educated). Joyce said, see, those who want to, do understand! Why, nobody could tell. They, he continued, who listen and read exclusively to read and listen have no barriers to comprehension. For their end was to understand. Pundits had pronounced on his books, but the biggest compliment on his writing had been paid by that maidservant.
I listened. A faint American accent, a habit of pausing long in mid-sentence, then completing the thought. Airy paragraphs, ornamentally dotted. Heart-stealing nevertheless. Joyce was silent for a few minutes, then mentioned that the gramophone company had recorded him reciting from his novel. People fell asleep listening to it. There had to be many reasons for this. Could be the prose induced drowsiness. But then so did songs. The whole process seemed to be unrelated to the content of a work.
His wife appeared. It was time for tea. The one who stepped into the room bearing the antique silver china, then served us, was she the very same eavesdropping, enchanted domestic help? My question remained unasked. Joyce’s mien while drinking tea was grave, his talk somber. As if deeply pondering the teacup, the act of sipping, the spoon, our eating. His glance remained fixed on the tea utensils. In the middle of the conversation he enquired about my impending departure, the precise time, the specific train. My own answers were received with the air reserved for the revelation of timeless mysteries.
I recall one more fact. He had said he would give me the portions of the manuscript that had already been published, part of the novel in the making. You must, he added, read them on board the ship. And to let him know from there what I really thought of it. About the work and its language, he said, listen, in any European port sailors from all over the world, on shore for a few hours or days, gathered in bars. They came together in the evenings for fellowship. What did they talk about, and in which language? Some were Norwegians, one perhaps a Levantine Jew, a few Dutch, or maybe Spaniards or Americans or British. There was no common language, yet the talk flowed freely. A bottle in hand, laughter in the eyes, a fountain of words, somebody unfolding a tragic story, others listening with sympathy, whatever they said and understood was enough for the occasion, for the boisterous camaraderie of the moment!
Joyce explained that the words in his books were derived from other languages, or were influenced by them. Sometimes multiple words were combined to form one, at other times one word was split into varying rhythms. Entire passages were the result of several different languages, combined from the tongues of many different nationalities and cultures. Those who went to the heart of language listened to both the mind’s and the body’s speech, to the whole, to the universal among all men. The same was true of writing.
As I listened to him it occurred to me that writers who hotly deny that their books embody a particular idea or theory are the ones who were most attentive to them. The constellation of languages was Joyce’s very own creation. Content was embedded in the style itself. This particular technique of mingling together the waves of enraptured minds everywhere surely meant habitual self-abnegation, a forgetting of the self. Though what this practice had inspired in him mankind had declared to be supreme.
I did read on board the ship the pages Joyce gave me. I have to confess it was no easy matter, since I found virtually the whole thing incomprehensible. All attempts to grasp the meaning of the work meant either splitting headaches, or else bobbing along in a tide of black print. Every once in a great while, whispers of once-familiar thoughts now lost in the desolate wind blew past my ear. I felt a distinct pulsation in my mind. Then an ugly thought reared its head: the fear of uncleanliness, of impure admixtures. Finally, driven to despair by this stupa of speech, this calculus of words, this laboratory of language, I threw it aside. And found renewed pleasure in the small talk of my fellow passengers, Englishmen stuffed into their government uniforms. The Mediterranean’s wordless blue murmur seemed to make more sense, even as I dimly registered the inaccessible splendor of the text. I should have read it. Much later, I again read those sections of Finnegan’s Wake. It was an exact repeat of my previous experience.
I never did respond to Joyce. To say anything to the single-minded author of such a densely-constructed narrative would have been futile.
I remember Joyce’s face. A small, ironic smile hovering at the corner of his mouth, an immensely abstracted expression—partly no doubt because of his extremely poor eyesight—but lit with human warmth. Infinitely courteous.
And therein hangs a tale.
Just before I took my leave Joyce said, I’ll give you an old book, but first tell me clearly the meaning of your name.* Then left the room.
The book he presented me with was inscribed “To Mr. Ambrose Wheelturner.” Along with the comment that in Europe this indeed was a most befitting name for me. That it was not merely a translation, but a true and proper name.
*Amiya’s full name was Amiyachandra Chakraborty.
From Amiya Chakraborty’s Shrestho Probondho, ed. Faizul Latif Chowdhury; published by Mowla Brothers, Dhaka 1998.
Khademul Islam is editor, Bengal Lights.