Their Exagmination Round Our Factification for Incamination of Music from the Works of James Joyce
From a friend of James Joyce
On the evening of June 16, 1977, among the rapt audience members assembled at Trinity College to attend a highlight of the 6th International James Joyce Symposium in Dublin — a presentation of Music from the Works of James Joyce — there was one very special guest: Madame Maria Jolas. During the decades between the wars, she and her husband Eugene Jolas had been two of the author's closest friends and most ardent supporters. At the end of the performance, the frail but still vital woman (she was 84 years of age at the time) rose from her seat, turned, and addressed the multitude, saying:
At a reception afterward, Symposium Committee Chairman David Norris (a professor at Trinity College who later became an Irish senator) introduced Madame Jolas to Kevin McDermott, the young tenor who had sung at the concert. He spent a good hour in her company, during which time she reminisced quite a bit about Joyce and his love of music and song. As Mr. McDermott recalls, "It's the one time in my life I really regret not having a tape recorder with me."
About the Jolases
If anyone could be called "godparents" to Finnegans Wake, it would be Maria and Eugene Jolas. During the difficult years when Joyce was composing his nocturnal epic (1922-1939), the Jolases showed Joyce nothing but kindness, generosity, sympathy, and understanding. Were it not for their support, there's a good chance the book might never have seen the light of day.
Maria McDonald Jolas, born in 1893 in Louisville, Kentucky, ran a school at Neuilly, l'Écôle Bilingue, and was famous for her work at the American Center on boulevard Raspail. Her husband Eugene was a writer, translator, and critic; it was he who in 1938 finally guessed the actual title of Finnegans Wake, which Joyce had kept a closely guarded secret up until that time while the book was being published in fragments.
The couple are best remembered for having founded the legendary literary magazine transition, "An International Quarterly for Creative Experiment," and in it they published serially various sections of Joyce's seemingly inscrutable novel under the title Work in Progress. Eugene was one of the key contributors to a series of essays, published in transition, which defended and attempted to explain the Wake; these were later collected and printed in a symposium entitled Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress.
Of the assistance that Maria gave Richard Ellmann in the composition of his life of Joyce, the famed biographer wrote in the Preface to the 1959 edition: "Mrs. Maria Jolas was one of the first to aid me, and without her help many of Joyce's later experiences would have eluded me. I am grateful to her also for reading the chapters on Joyce in Paris and suggesting improvements."
Eugene Jolas died in 1952. Maria continued with her own work as a translator for many years afterward. She died on March 4, 1987, at the age of 94.
Interestingly (insofar as this Web site deals with the topic of Joyce and music), the couple's eldest daughter, Betsy Jolas, has made a distinguished musical career for herself as a teacher and composer, both in the United States and in Europe. Her opera Schliemann, about the modern discovery of Troy by the German archaeologist, premiered in May 1995 at the Opéra de Lyon.
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