Sunday, June 13, 2010

You Were Here

[From December 2009]

I am sitting in the "Finnegan's Wake" reading group at the James Joyce Foundation in Zurich. It is winter and snow lightly dusts the window sills and the interstices between the cobblestones outside. Inside, a quiet battle is going on. Fritz Senn, James Joyce scholar and critic, founder of the foundation and a Gold medal recipient this year from the Canton of Zurich (something akin to being knighted) sits before the open window, white hair framing keen blue eyes, a half-smile upon his face. He is the best of English professors, allowing ideas to pop and bubble, inserting new sparks here and there. He is engaged in a subtle battle with the young man in a wool hat and scarf next to him, who quietly gets up each time Fritz opens the window, quietly closes it and tiptoes back to his seat.

The funny thing about this whole scene is, I don't even like James Joyce. I find his writing difficult and pretentious-- a written form of modern art that you must study and consult experts to make any sense of. But I have been curious, too, why his books are widely considered the best of any written in the English language, but have never failed to grip me. So I am here, listening and learning, caught up in the good-natured banter of the group as they ply their way through the prose.

I last came here in the fall, before the snow and cold began. I was lost, again, in the twisting narrow streets of the old town. The seven o'clock church bells were ringing and I was pedalling my bike madly, bumping up and down over the cobblestones with my hair flying in every direction, dodging tourists, trying to get to the building before the bells finished their announcement of time. I came around the corner, and there was the James Joyce Foundation! I jumped off my bike while it was still moving, crammed it into the vines along the side of the building and ran to the door and pushed. There was no give, and I knew that I had gotten there too late. Suddenly, the door swung open, and there was Fritz Senn, smiling and ushering me in.

Tonight, winter is here, drifting in to the book-filled room from the open window (score: Fritz 3, young man 2), and I realize I am serenely happy. I glance down at my book and the bookmark which says, "You were here." I was here, reading James Joyce with a motley group of intellectuals: a neurologist, a widow, several English professors, a professional musician, a traveller, a teacher, on the top floor of an old building in Zurich, Switzerland, with the chimes of the church bells ringing softly through the open window, and a paperback "Finnegan's Wake" held lightly in my hands. How strange and fine this life is.

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