There is no question that James Joyce played a major role in the 1920s literary scene in Paris. Moving there in 1920, he befriended and harnessed the aid of Sylvia Beach, owner of the now famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore and lending library. Beach took on the grand task of publishing the controversial and experimental Ulysses in 1922 and subsequently dealt with the attention and censorship and court battles that followed. In 1924, Joyce published the early segments of Finnegans Wake in the Paris Transatlantic Review (edited by English novelist Ford Madox Ford) and made his first ever sound recording—reading part of Ulysses—with the encouragement of Sylvia Beach. (Listen to the recording below, or read Open Culture’s article on it here.) Lauded by avant-garde critics as possibly the greatest living English-language writer, Joyce was one of the most in-demand literary figures in artistic circles. Hemingway, for example, writes in A Movable Feast that he first came to Shakespeare and Company himself in part to meet Joyce.
Thinking about Paris’s equally innovative musicians, I began to wonder whether this celebrated writer played a role in (or was influenced by) the music scene of 1920s Paris.
Joyce himself was an amateur musician, playing piano and singing. His father had been a tenor, and for a short while Joyce, too, aspired to the same career. He even became associated and practiced with the famous tenor John McCormack briefly in 1904. Sylvia Beach later wrote of Joyce’s love to play the piano.
James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness and highly sensory style is musical in and of itself. Many people say his work is best read aloud. If you take another listen to the above recording of his voice, you can hear the cadence, phrasing, and rhythm of his words. Additionally, his works are packed full of music references, showing that the tenor and pianist was well versed in music basics. Apparently, though, according to Scott Klein’s article, “James Joyce and Avant-Garde Music,” no matter how radical his writing, Joyce was quite a traditionalist when it came to his musical tastes. He wanted music to have a strong melody and once complained, for example, that “not even a canary could sing” Stravinsky’s work (quote form Klein’s introduction). Considering Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, full of idiosyncratic and dreamlike language, seems to some practically unreadable, it seems a bit ironic that he criticized Stravinsky’s work for being unsingable!