A Walk Through Joyce’s Zurich
by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi
I’ve never been much of one for walking tours, but my mother is, and last summer she guided my boyfriend through one in Zurich, our family home of some sixteen years. A small city whose name is heard more frequently in the world of art-trading than it is in the world of art-making, one of its greatest cultural caches is the list of literary names and art figures who have come to spend several years of their lives here.
“This bench—no, this bench,” my boyfriend instructed weeks later as we walked along the Limmat River, “is where James Joyce used to sit.” He paused a moment, surveying the heavily-graffitied environs. “Or was it on the other side of the river?”
We were far upstream, where the river pools out into a wide, lazy yawn and swimmers jump off a nearby bridge to float down to the Flussbad (river lido) of Oberer Letten. Across the river the National Museum sits on the grounds of the famously-monikered Needle Park: an expansive, well-groomed lawn where, in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, heroine junkies were collected, notoriously with syringes still hanging from their cold arms. The park (officially: Platzspitz) marks the end of the city center, the tip at which its two rivers converge, and beyond which lies industrial, up-and-coming, or highway terrain. Here, right at the center’s fringe, the vibe is mellower — less Swiss, less clean and tidy. Marijuana dealers lounge on either side of the river (though the park has been needle-free for the past twenty years), while twenty- and thirty-somethings enjoy sweaty beers and discrete spliffs in the newly hip, vaguely, comfortingly counterculture bars of Letten, reggae playing in the background. Not a scene in which I could place the bespectacled, ever-penetratingly-gazing Joyce, but here he sat, years ago.
Bleaker in February than it was in summer, the park was empty save a few constructions workers drilling and hammering when I visited half a year later. Temporary barriers were set up around the Landesmuseum, a historicist building in the style of an immense medieval castle. The uppermost section of the peninsula — the ‘Spitz’ in ‘Platzspitz’ — lies just beyond the park gates. Here, at the very tip, Joyce posed in 1938. Pedestrians are now guarded from the river below by a low-lying stone wall, but when Joyce’s portrait was taken here, the landmass was enclosed by wrought-iron railing. Today, an inscription atop the wall cites two quotations from Finnegans Wake: “Yssel that the Limmat?” and “legging a jig or so on the sihl,” part of a 2004 homage by artists Hannes and Petruschka Vogel. On the wall’s exterior, facing out to the converging waters below, the two rivers are designated in bold, white lettering: Ljmmat and Sjhl, the ‘i’ of each name replaced by the initials of James Joyce.
“That an author of such caliber spent many years here, writing large portions of his works (particularly Ulysses), and is buried here, is of course a huge honor for Zurich,” the city’s Cultural Director, Peter Haerle, wrote in an email.
Switzerland’s has long been a history of refuge and respite for famous thinkers and writers. In 1762, Rousseau took sanctuary in the village of Môtiers after his Émile, or On Education was publicly burned in Paris and Geneva and provoked arrest warrants in France and abroad. Some years later, his house in Môtiers was stoned, and onwards he moved to a little one-house island on Lake Bienne, the Île de St. Pierre. He spent two months there in the company of the house’s ‘dull but good’ inhabitants, immersing himself in the botany of the yet tinier, nearby island, a respite that is detailed in in his Reveries of a Solitary Walker (“I consider those two months to be the happiest time in my life, so happy in fact that it would have been enough for me to have lived like that for the whole of my life, without ever feeling in my soul the desire to live in any other state”). Nabokov spent his last 16 years in Alp- and lake-bound Montreux, where he lived out his love of lepidoptery (the study of butterflies) and where he wrote, among other works, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.
The twilight years in particular have drawn famous émigrés to the tiny, politically neutral country. Perhaps it is the allure of an extraordinary landscape matched with its no-controversy peace and quiet. (“Every Swiss carries his glaciers inside of him,” André Gide once wrote; this summarily expresses what is best and worst about the tidy life in Switzerland: it is glacial.) A list of foreigners buried here includes Hermann Hesse, Charlie Chaplin, Audrey Hepburn, Coco Chanel, Jorge Luis Borges and Hugo Ball. Besides those who came for repose, many arrived from the German-speaking world during the strife of the World War eras. Thomas Mann and James Joyce are both figures who spent the war years as well as their final days in canton Zurich.
Young and trailed already by a history of brawling and drink, Joyce left Dublin for Zurich in 1904 and spent the following four decades between Switzerland, Austria-Hungary and France. He arrived with his lover, Nora Barnacle, with word of a possible job opening at the Berlitz Language School that did never materialized. Hopes quashed, the couple soon left again for Trieste (then Austria-Hungary; now Italy). When war broke out in 1915, the Joyce family (expanded by the addition of son Giorgio and daughter Lucia) fled to Switzerland, where they remained until after the end of World War I. While living in Paris in the 1930s, Joyce travelled frequently to Zurich for treatment of his failing eyesight as well as psychological consultations for his daughter Lucia. When Paris came under Nazi occupation in 1940, the Joyce family once again resettled in Zurich, reaching Switzerland in December of that year. James soon fell ill and on January 13, 1941, he died of a stomach ulcer at Zurich’s Red Cross Nursing School. After his death, the Irish government declined his wife’s request to repatriate his body. Nora Barnacle Joyce remained in Zurich for the final ten years of her life.
Together they lie with their son Giorgio and daughter-in-law Asta in an honorary grave at Zurich’s Fluntern Cemetery. Atop the Zürichberg hill, past the University of Zurich and the old city mansions that line the slow, winding drive, Joyce’s grave is marked by a demure stone inscribed with the names, dates and locations of birth and death of the four family members. Behind is a statue of the author sitting pensively, legs crossed with a book in one hand and a pencil in the other. His cane at his right hip, he wears the famous round spectacles that became such an essential feature of his straight, long face. Along the cemetery’s central avenue, a bronze pelican spreads its wings across one grave. In front of another, an angel with her feet balanced on the tips of her wings prepares to alight. Towards the end of the avenue, nearing Joyce’s grave, two figures—one shorter and rounder, resting its head upon the taller one’s chest — emerge from a mound of rock; the gravestone is inscribed with only one name, mort 2001, with space for more to be added.
On the day I visited it was cold and windy in the unpredictable weather of February. Minutes before pellets of hail had hurled down on my car; by the time I reached the gate, the sun was shining. The Joyce family grave, in the hindmost, semicircular section, was covered with a bouquet of white tulips that day, its inscription almost illegible through the wet. Outside the cemetery, parents with bundled children were making their way to the zoo next door.
There are many Joyce sites that have retained their feel over the years: the beautiful old Kronenhalle restaurant, with its Mirós and Picassos hung over stodgy oak paneling, where Joyce famously dined at the same corner table, writing portions of Ulysses between courses. The glamorous Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich’s main shopping street that inspired Joyce’s eponymous 1918 poem, is still lined by the same grey stone buildings and the Hotel St. Gotthard, where Joyce stayed during his ophthalmological consultations in the 1930s. There is Zurich’s main post station (now also home to the Swiss railway office), the Sihlpost (“the sullyport … the sillypost” in Finnegans Wake) that still stands, dour and blockish, along the Sihl River next to the main train station, and there’s the Liebfrauenkirche where Joyce attended Good Friday Service, and what is now the Careum Health Education Center, which in 1941 was the infirmary in which Joyce spent his final days. There are the many old Joyce residences: the flats in the Seefeld district, and on Universitätsstrasse: at number 38, where he wrote five episodes of Ulysses, today marked by a commemorative plaque, and number 29 just down the street, from which he first observed Marthe Fleischmann pulling a toilet chain next door, which began a short-lived, timid affair. And then, of course, there is the James Joyce Pub, transported from Dublin to become a fixture of Zurich long after the author’s time.
When the Jury’s Hotel on Dame Street was set to be demolished in early 1973, a Swiss man living in Ireland heard word. Mr. Albert Bachmann was on a rather marvelous mission of his own: colonel of the Swiss military intelligence, Bachmann, a man ridden by Cold War fears, was setting up a secret retreat for the Swiss Federal Council. Should the Soviet Union invade Switzerland, as Bachmann was convinced it would, the government would be set up in exile at his 200-acre estate near Cork, complete with a vault for Switzerland’s gold reserves, to be brought on Swissair flights — a plan unbeknownst to the government itself. Many fanciful details on the escapes of “Switzerland’s least effective but most colorful spymaster” — co-authoring the 1969 Civil Defense booklet freely distributed amongst the Swiss populace, with useful details all the way down to resistance and infiltration processes and “Fatherland Songs,” and later setting up an intelligence agency and guerilla fighter group in secret — can be found in his 2011 New York Times obituary. But to return to the matter at hand: Bachmann, a man in the know, heard word of the hotel’s demise and took action before saleable goods went up for auction.
“For whatever reason, Mr. Bachmann purchased the interior, and then offered it to a number of interested circles in Zurich,” said Urs Rinderknecht, a then-employee of the Union Bank of Switzerland (our conversation was conducted in Swiss German). “He finally decided to sell to the Union Bank of Switzerland, which installed it in its current location with great care.” Rinderknecht worked under the guidance of executive Robert Holzach in reopening the Jury’s Antique Bar in Zurich. Today, Rinderknecht is President of the Zurich James Joyce Foundation Board.
The Victorian-era bar, which was a part of Joyce’s Dublin days and is mentioned in Ulysses (“Yes, it was Crofton met him one evening bringing her a pound of rumpsteak. What is this she was? Barmaid in Jury’s. Or the Moira, was it?”), was reopened five years later as the James Joyce Pub in Zurich.
Today, the pub is a hub for ritzy business lunches where financiers in suits talk deals over steak tartar and 25-franc hamburgers in plush leather booths of British racing green. The mahogany paneling, stained glass windows and painted tiling alongside canvases of rolling hills and evergreen pastoral life all evoke turn-of-the-century Dublin, although the former Jury’s Antique Bar no longer exudes an aura of literariness, its connection to Joyce now persisting primarily in name.
When it first opened, the bankers “searched for individuals in Zurich with a relation to Joyce,” Rinderknecht said, and did their utmost to keep it in the Joycean spirit.
The Union Bank employees worked with Fritz Senn, a local Joyce scholar who later became founder and director of the Zurich James Joyce Foundation, as well as others personally acquainted with the author: the Giedion-Welcker family, who had been close friends of the Joyce family, and the optometrist Alfred Vogt, who had treated Joyce for a cataract and other eye defects during the ‘30s, and his wife Helene Wiederkehr-Vogt. The Giedion-Welckers even gifted some of the personal effects that they had from Joyce, which were initially displayed at the pub. Today, these items are displayed at the Foundation, the greatest of Joyce tributes to have emerged from the project.
The Haus zum Strauhof, in which the Foundation is housed, dates back at least to the mid-sixteenth century, although the structure in its current form was built in 1772. It has remained largely unchanged since then. An inviting mass of tangled red vines, bountiful in summer, hangs over the entrance. Inside, the walk up to the second-floor Foundation winds through narrow wooden stairs, past the Literary Museum downstairs. Here, I made my first foray into Finnegans Wake, during a session of the Thursday evening reading group that has been meeting since three decades.
 Although Geneva now belongs to the Swiss Confederation, during Rousseau’s life it was its own city-state; Neuchâtel, claiming the tiny village of Môtiers, also did not. Bienne, where he spent his happiest of times, on the other hand did.
 More correctly stated, foreign-born: Hermann Hesse was naturalized. Meret Oppenheim and Paul Klee, who also died in Switzerland, were both born as German citizens of Swiss mothers. Oppenheim was naturalized in the late 1940’s. Klee, whose art was met with disapproval by the Swiss authorities, had his Swiss citizenship application granted only several days after his death.
About the Author:
Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi is a writer based in Berlin.