The Game of Evenings | Adolf Hoffmeister | Granta Magazine

The Game of Evenings

Adolf Hoffmeister

For Bloomsday, James Joyce and Adolf Hoffmeister argue about a Czech translation of Finnegans Wake in a rare and intimate interview from 1930.

Translated from the Czech by Michelle Woods

James Joyce met the Czech writer Adolf Hoffmeister in Paris several times in 1929 and 1930. Joyce was writing Finnegans Wake under the title Work in Progress and had completed the ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ section of the book. A Czech translation by Hoffmeister, Vladimír Procházka and Marie Weatherall was published in 1932. In the introduction to an excerpt published a year earlier in Literární noviny, Hoffmeister and Procházka wrote: ‘The complete Work in Progress, will never be translated, because no one would be able to translate it, taking into account the average life-span . . . We are fully aware that we are doing work which will not be understood and will go unrewarded . . . Our translation will never be a precise mirror of the original. But . . . we are clear that we have attempted a translation of beautiful poetry, one which extends the vault of the sky over the world of man.’

Hoffmeister’s interview with Joyce which begins on the facing page was published in Rozpravy aventina over two issues in 1930-31. The conversation was conducted in French. This is its first full publication in English.




In August of this year [1930], Joyce was passing through Paris. His apartment had the emptiness of holidays and the doorbell echoed resoundingly in the curtainless and carpetless room. In the scene as I imagined it, our movements were very ceremonial and solemn. I was wearing tails and a high collar, a beard and a top hat. Joyce wore a white ermine cloak and a laurel wreath. We floated, as if in a newsreel, slowly and elegantly through marble colonnades. With a graceful movement I handed him the first Czech translation of Ulysses. Music was playing. There was a fanfare of trumpets. In reality, we sat down in the flat which had just been spring-cleaned. The furniture reminded me of a museum space being prepared for an exhibition. Joyce stroked the four-volume translation of his work. Around our movements, emptiness.

Joyce: That’s a cobalt blue, isn’t it?


The colour of the book. Nowhere in the world is there anything as blue as this. It is strange, Mr Hoffmeister, that all the moments of this summer seem more sacred to me.

He grabbed me by the hand, pulled me towards him and looked me in the eyes.

Today is the first day I have seen you although we have met many times before.

I am very happy that your sight has got so much better. There was a lot about it in the newspapers in Paris.’

I visited a wonderful doctor, who carried out a complex operation on my eyes. I am going to see him again in September in Zurich. I am indebted to him for saving my eyesight and my life. He is Professor Alfred Vogt in Zurich. I can see. I can see.

Joyce can see, he can make things out, but unfortunately not yet well enough to walk around the room completely confidently, without colliding into a table or the corners of the furniture. He writes illegibly and messily, but life is returning to him through his eyes and with it a new resolve. Meetings with Joyce could take place in the most unpredictable parts of the city. At the childrens’ afternoon show at the Palais Royal, in a factory canteen, in a tiny suburban cafe, at a big fashion-house show. He walked around the city, finishing his journeys with wine. He wandered without purpose, without direction, without a sense of time. For such wandering sight is of course necessary. He was afraid that he had lost it for ever.

I wanted to finish my latest piece Work in Progress. It is ready. But I never finish any of my work, I always want to rewrite it. From Dubliners onwards, everything has been a work in progress, work for which names cannot be found. Ulysses is the most unfinished. The fragments from Work in Progress, which have been published in various places, have changed and are still changing. ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ in the 1925 Le Navire d’Argent edition is substantially changed from the most recent version, which was published by Faber & Faber in their Criterion Miscellany [1930]. In between those two, I published another version in transition, number eight [1927]. My work is a whole and it is impossible to divide it into the names of books. Ulysses is, of course, a day in a life, but it could even be the life of a second. Of course, time is measured by beginnings and endings.

I think the critic Marcel Brion, in a wonderful article on the concept of time in your work, came up with the hypothesis that it is possible that the difference between God and man is only a question of time.’

Yes, he compared me with Marcel Proust. For Proust, time is the centre, the Ding an sich. This Mr Brion discovered the principle of relativity in my work. For him, my work reads as badly as Einstein’s writing.

A number is a mystery, which God solves. With Samuel Beckett, a small Irishman and my great friend, we discover the numeracy of life and history. Dante was obsessed by the number three: he divided his verse into three cantiche, each written in thirty-three cantos and in terza rima. Why do we depend on the number four? Four legs on a table, four legs on a horse, four seasons and four provinces of Ireland? Why are there twelve pillars of the law, twelve apostles, twelve months, twelve of Napoleon’s marshals? Why was the armistice of the Great War sounded at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month? Number as a measure of time is indeterminable. The ratio of these numbers is relative to place and content. In a portion of time, it is possible to realize one thing through abstract thought, but even if we eliminate one thing, by replacing it with a copy, a laborious duplication arises, which loses the proportions of reality. To describe in detail the ceaseless motion of man calls for such time and such space that the endlessly slowed down motion would be the same as stillness, as if eternity when measured does not distinguish between the two. The lives of Bloom and Stephen are not the lives of real people, nor a description based completely on living Dubliners. They are perhaps bound to human life, and so are measured by time – by the hours, that is, of June 16, 1904.

It is true it is Bloom’s life, and it is the whole of Bloom’s life which gave rise to the day in Bloom’s life, in Ulysses, a book of seven hundred and thirty pages: perhaps it could be that a minute of a life could be described in a bookcase of books. A look at Work in Progress is the first look into the bowl of creation. At the beginning was chaos. But there is chaos at the end, too. The reader participates in the birth or the end of the world when it happens. Everyone is anyone and every moment is any moment. The fall of the angels mixes with the battle of Waterloo and HCE [Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker] is a person who changes as many times as his name changes in the narrative.

It is said that a person flying at the speed of light would experience in a short time the history of the world: anyone who accelerates to the ultimate speed of their flight, would behold the impact of what was, is and will be. Time is so powerful in Work in Progress, that its difference is not marked in its ideas.

This kind of simultaneity does not exist in Ulysses. Each hour in it has its own meaning and image.’

Of course. The colour of the day changes with the passing of time. The chapters of Ulysses are illuminated in different ways. Stuart Gilbert drew up a table. It is a schedule of the hours of Ulysses. Have a look at it. I think that it is an important book for readers.

I have the book, it is quite perfect. The detailed games and shadows of Ulysses became clear to me when I first read it.’

You know, the writer Valéry Larbaud praised Ulysses with an exaggeratedly beautiful metaphor. He compared it to a starry sky: when you look at it long and carefully, it becomes more beautiful as new, uncounted stars reveal themselves.

Gilbert divided Ulysses into chapters by places, times, authorities, scholarship, colours, symbols and modes of deliveries. It is a mathematics of literary history.

What kind of moral response did the Czech editon of Ulysses receive?

It was published privately. It did not become a newspaper sensation or a sensation in the gutter press. I think the fact that the edition sold many copies can be explained by “pornobibliophilia”, which has attracted people to such a sublime book.’

The Anglo-American attitude to Ulysses bears no relation to the underlying interests of readers and what they are really scandalized by. The realistic form which follows a day, the rhythm which fills the book with general truths or universal symbols is ignored by the focus, on a few places, of unconventional language about things and thoughts which are usually unsaid. I think that the animal nakedness of human nature in Ulysses is depicted faithfully and with balance. The Irish censors considered these paragraphs as ‘anything calculated to excite sexual passion’. Obscenity fills the pages of life, too, and a book cannot wholly avoid the reality of thoughts and deeds, even if it can’t be written about without resorting to cowardice. No book – starting with the Bible – has been able to do this, not one. Some Frenchman [Emile Pons] wrote about Swift, with whom he compared me, and whose influence I do not deny, that he was capable d’une sérénité dans l’indécence.

Can you tell me, what are the connections or the differences between Ulysses and Work in Progress?’

I don’t think there is a difference. Starting with Dubliners, there is a straight line of development in all my work. It is almost indivisible. Only the level of expressiveness and technical complexity has changed, perhaps even a little dramatically. Of course, I was twenty when I wrote Dubliners and between Ulysses and Work in Progress there is a difference of six years of painstaking work. I finished Ulysses in 1921 and the first fragment of Work in Progress was published in transition six years afterwards. The difference then is down to development. The whole of my work is still in progress.

I know that our readers cry out together with Mr H. G. Wells: it is a great work, but we don’t understand it.’

I don’t agree that difficult literature is necessarily so inaccessible. Of course each intelligent reader can read and understand it – if he returns to the text again and again. He is embarking on an adventure with words. In fact, Work in Progress is more satisfying than other books because I give readers the opportunity to supplement what they read with their own imagination. Some people will be interested in the origins of words; the technical games; philological experiments in each individual verse. Each word has all the magic of a living thing. Each living thing can be shaped.

In Dubliners I wrote in the first story that the word ‘paralysis’ filled me with horror and fear, as if it were the name of something evil and sinful. I loved this word and whispered it to myself at night at an open window. It has been pointed out to me that some words are created under the influence of the impression of a world that I have not seen. My weak sight is perhaps to blame for this, so my thought escapes to images from words, and it is of course the result of my Catholic upbringing and Irish origin.

Your nationality is very prominent in your work.’

Each of my books is a book about Dublin. Dublin is a city which has about 300,000 inhabitants and it became the universal city of my works. So I looked at the people around me. Portrait was a picture of my spiritual self. Ulysses reshaped individual impressions and what was generally acceptable. Work in Progress transcends reality, individuals, eternity and thought and enters the sphere of absolute abstraction. Anna and Humphrey are the city and its founder; the river and the mountain; male and female. There is no linear action in time . . . Wherever the book begins, there it will also end.

Do you think that critics can understand your books, or these commentators?’

All of my work has been discovered by just as many well-known commentators as by arch-evil critics. Rebecca West’s article in The Bookman in New York raised a huge storm. I am very curious how Ulysses was received and what is being said about Anna Livia Plurabelle in Czechoslovakia.

I have not yet read any reviews of Ulysses there. I think this is only because our critics have not yet been brave enough to read the book.’

I think that it takes great courage to want to publish even a fragment of Work in Progress. It is an even greater responsibility for the translator. I did not want to have to decide about the publication and translation of the book, especially when it involves no ordinary translation, but the creation of a new poetry in Czech. The difficulties which you will encounter are vast. Ulysses was testing and tough work for a translator but it is nothing compared to Anna Livia.

‘I would like to hear your final decision. I would like to come away with your permission to our translating Anna Livia.’

I know, but let’s leave it for now. We will talk about it more later. I have invited the potential French translator here for the sixth time. Like ancient gladiators: Translaturi me salutant.

Could you open the shutters a little? It is already quiet on the streets and the sun is not beating down. I am here only on a short visit. I may go to Etretat for the weekend and then I will come back to Paris for a few days.

Joyce sits in a deep armchair. Tall, thin, and wearing a white shirt, his hair is turning grey. His expression is contemptuous and his lips are pursed tightly shut. His wife Nora excuses the state of the flat. His way of living is reflected in the mystery of his personality. Paris is now quiet. We do not speak. The room is blue, the colour of blue eyes.


Joyce likes to declaim words, the sound of which illustrate the progress of his thoughts.


Without connection and without direction, these isolated words fall into the silence which echoes throughout the room. Into the silence of the room lifeless from the holidays, into the room where he does not live. The silence is wide and clear. The furniture is covered in dust-sheets and everything which has not been locked into cupboards and remains in its place, sleeps. To speak in this kind of silence, one must have the courage to listen to oneself. Otherwise the words circle the room like startled pigeons, which change into bats when the words have died away, their ideas flying unheard over the white dust-sheets and poisoned bread which has been laid out for the mice. I did not care to speak. I waited for Joyce to break the silence, but I did not expect to hear, without introduction and in a perfect accent and in clear Czech:

České Budějovice.

I was genuinely startled.

Živnostenská Banka.

‘Have you learned Czech since we last met?’

Oh no, it is just that I have discovered some interesting roots in your language and in mine. I know the rhythm of your language, naturally.

‘Have you been in Prague?’

No. But my brother-in-law was Czech. My sister Eileen met a man in Trieste, whom she married. He was called Frantiek Schaurek and he was a cashier in a branch of Živnostenská banka in Trieste. At that time we lived together at my brother Stanny’s, a language teacher. Schaurek was Czech, his family still lives perhaps in Prague, in Žižkov. He spoke perfect Czech, German and Italian. After the war, the Schaureks moved to Prague. František Schaurek later shot himself and my sister now lives in Dublin.

Would you be so kind as to send her a specimen of the Czech translation? I doubt that she has read the English original, but perhaps she will be able to capture the sense of the sentences in Czech . . .

‘I didn’t imagine that there was such a tie between you and Prague.’

It is only a family affair which I don’t like to talk about.

The West of Ireland is Joyce’s country. The Joyce family come from there, from an old noble family. James Joyce’s father was a wonderful, typical Irishman of uncertain employment. They had a lovely home in Dublin and lived a happy life despite the ups and downs of success and penury. The days of feasting came with weeks of hardship. The concept of money and of responsibility towards the future is not in the character description of the Irish. The Joyce family was large. There were thirteen or perhaps even fifteen children. [In fact, there were nine] Most are still alive. Two of his sisters are nuns: one in a Loreto convent in Dublin, the other in a Chinese mission or somewhere else in the East. The father was big, blue-eyed and had a lovely voice. The mother loved Jim (James Joyce). Whenever she was in pain, she asked Jim to play the piano. German critics attacked Joyce because he composed and played on the piano in the room next to the one in which his mother was dying. Joyce’s sister confirms that it was his mother’s wish that he played.

The whole family was very musical. When Joyce returned from concerts, they sat in a circle and Jim would analyse the work and the performance in long debates taking the piece apart movement by movement, bar by bar. These night-time sessions of endless rumination and serious deliberations about the minutest details of a second, or even of work of transient importance were Jim’s hobby. They didn’t always concern music. He would go to antique dealers and bring home statues, artefacts and art and speak about them all night. His voice, like the voice of a poet, inspired respect and terror. His family weren’t happy that he wrote. They were even less happy about what he was writing. Dublin, which he has so often celebrated in his work of unquestionably Irish temperament and morality, shunned him. After the publication of Dubliners, Joyce abandoned Ireland. Some scandalized, philistine Dubliners wished him good riddance from Ireland, seemingly for ever. He now travels rarely even to England and goes almost incognito. In Ireland his name is anathema.

Mr L[éon], Joyce’s secretary, a Russian Jew, came in. We talked more about the possibility of translating Work in Progress into another language. It was a combative meeting, and I felt rather like a pupil who is only starting to make headway. Joyce stood up and disappeared into a neighbouring room. He returned holding the slender volume of Anna Livia Plurabelle in his long fingers like a strict teacher, a tall figure hidden behind the magnified lenses of his glasses. His thin clenched lips pulled back into a smile, perhaps from pleasure at the thought of the strange suffering of school where you are punished with the cane, in an abandoned old manor house filled with anticipation of depraved horror. The scene reminded me of the chapter in Robert Desnos’ banned book, L’amour et la liberté: La scène de correction commença. Léon and I sat in silence on the edge of our chairs.

Joyce: Who is going to translate?

We both answered in unison:

‘Mrs Weatherall,
Dr Vladimír Procházka,
Vitezslav Nežval
and I.

‘Léon Paul Fargue
Eugène Jolase
Phillippe Soupault
Valéry Larbaud
Iwan and Claire Goll.’

And you know that it is impossible to translate.

‘We know.’

It is possible to make it into poetry – poeticize it with the greatest poetic freedom that you can give it. Work in Progress is not written in English or French or Czech or Irish. Anna Livia does not speak any of these languages, she speaks the speech of a river.

It is the river Liffey. That is a woman, it is Anna Liffey. She is not quite a river, nor wholly a woman. She could be a goddess or a washerwoman, she is abstract. ‘Plurabella’ is for her humorous possibilities of tributaries and the diversity of her beauty.

Anna is of course a simple corruption of the Latin for river, amnis. Anna Liffey on the old maps is Amnis Livius. From this I then turned her name by analogy into a series of Saint Annas from different countries. Like Anna Sequana, Annie Hudson, Susquehanna etc: the names of women or rivers.

Opposite her stands Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (Here Comes Everybody) or HCE, the male character of the story. He appears under many names, most often as Persse O’Reilley, which is from perce-oreille (earwig). Initials hint at the main character, when he appears in various guises in the course of the story. As for instance Hic cubat edilis. Apud libertinam parvulam (H.C.E.A.L.P.). And out of the other characters, who appear in Work in Progress, come part of the whole. Finn Mac Cool, Adam and Eve, Humpty-Dumpty, Napoleon, Lucifer, Wyndham Lewis, Archangel Michael, Tristan and Isolde, Noah, Saint Patrick etc. Hircus Civis Eblanensis . . . Well, you know Anna Livia?

Joyce recites one of the first sentences of the fragment.

Anna Livia Plurabelle is a completely hermetic little work, which can be read separately from the whole of Work in Progress.

It is a question of the coupling mountains to rivers, and the founding of a city. I think that a translator needs to be a poet to understand the speech and to understand the river. Valéry Larbaud called his massive and amazingly precise translation of Ulysses a ‘divertisement philologique’. I think that perhaps Anna Livia is not about expression. It will be terrible work to undertake.

‘We will prepare for the translation with great thoroughness.’

You will need half a year for these thirty pages. I do not want to make trouble for the Czech translator, I do not want to supervise you like a grump and a pedant, but I am afraid for my work. I do not want to be translated, I have to remain as I am, only explained in your language. I am giving you every possible freedom in the transformation of words. I depend on you. In your country there are many rivers. Take your rivers: Vltava, Váha, Úslava and Nežárka.

Joyce has a surprisingly detailed knowledge of the names of Czech rivers.

It is possible to break them up into living words, which they were at the beginning, when God was the Word. Create a language for your country according to my image. Viktor Llona in transition posited the thesis: language can be made by a writer. In this case, also by the translator. Europeans make a comparison between my work and that of Rabelais in philological terms. Rabelais is a robust joker with language.

Stendhal in his Memoirs of a Traveller writes: ‘Mr L., you are used to speaking Spanish and English in the colonies, using many words from both these languages, since you understand that to be more practical.’ Stendhal continues, ‘More practical, of course, but only for those who speak English and Spanish.’ This kind of voice follows me around. People prefer to proclaim me an idiot, instead of trying to understand me.

‘People are resentful, because you expect too much knowledge from them.’

I have received several amusing letters about my work from ordinary readers. One of them compared me to Gertrude Stein: ‘Miss Gertrude Stein experiments in the same way, but to this very day, she is satisfied with a sort of hyper-normal foolishness, which we must connect to the use of already existing words. But Mr Joyce trumps her and invents his own words, as far as you can then honour them with this name.’ Another letter-writer attempts to imitate me and considers playing with words as a form of after-dinner entertainment, calling me Germ’s Choice and asserting that my work is Uncle Lear (Unclear) for him.

‘I once translated a piece of Gertrude Stein’s work. It was an unbelievable game with words.’

Perhaps you could read that translation to me.

‘You would not understand it.’

My secretary, Mr L., understands Czech well.

‘It went like this:

‘Their women in their place were, when suddenly they were at the cashier. There is no one there for certain, with the clearly chosen which is there, is not which is there, but what was there.

‘Or elsewhere: Whether it is more to want from them more than to want from the most of them, then this is more an advantage than a mystery, and so on.

‘It’s not for nothing that I translated The Making of Americans. It is the thickest volume of the music of words I know. It is an opera or a symphony of grammar. It’s the reason I know I will not manage to translate the whole of Work in Progress by myself.’

I think that you would need to be alive longer than you will be. Please, gentlemen, translate a piece for me, and then we will see whether it is possible to navigate Anna Livia in another language.

He became quiet, reminding me of the tense silence before an exam. Now that I was being tested, it seemed to me that I couldn’t offer up even the smallest word. My heart and soul were quivering as if a school bell had just rung.

Please look at the top of page thirty, sixth row down.

It reads: It’s that irrawaddyng I’ve stoke in my aars.’ And so on. We tried to translate it.

‘But what is this irrawaddyng?’

‘Irrawaddyng’ is from waddyng (= Watte, vata) with a common use in Ireland. Mainly of course Irrawaddy is a river in India. [In fact, Burma.]

Stoke is a verb of intense movement. It is taken from a dictionary of railroadmen. A stoker is the man who feeds the fire; contained in this word is a suggestion of great intensity and physical rowdiness, with which this girl pushes cotton-wool into her ears, like so, until they are ringing; the long ‘aa’ is repeated in this sudden feeling of wide bubbles, in the quiet of the ear or the skull, which it wouldn’t have been if I’d used ‘ears’.

We tried the translation. ‘Irrawaddyng’ was an insurmountable obstacle.

Or on page five at the bottom. ‘My wrists are wrusty rubbing the mouldaw stains. And the dneepers of wet and gangres of sin in it.’ The language of fluvial washing is full of fluvial expressions. In your translation, do you think that you can find a similar expression for ‘mouldaw stains’ in the river Vltava, just as ‘dneepers of wet’ recalls the Dnepr [the Russian river] or as ‘gangres of sin’ recalls the Ganges?’

‘It will be the game of evenings. We all want to do it.’

We were suddenly obsessed by the longing to lose ourselves in this maze of suffixes created from the roots of words.

Try to translate the correspondence of words, for instance . . . ‘the rest of incurables and the last of immurables’ or ‘Lictor Hackett or Lector Reade’.

As time went on we sat nearer and nearer to each other. Now we had become a yoke of heads bent towards each other. The French translator presented the sentence first; it was easier because of the similarities between French and English. It took us longer. Czech, due to its unstructured nature, guarding itself like a virgin against rape, needed much more work.

Stuart Gilbert listed a whole dictionary in the Prolegomena to Work in Progress; it is an attempt to interpret several words from the work, where each word is a work in and of itself. We forgot time because of the translation. Joyce is of course pleased with our interest in him. He apologized for his strictness and unyieldingness in matters of the translation and finally gave us permission to publish Anna Livia Plurabelle.

Evening had already fallen when we left the high building on Square Robiac No 2. The Place des Invalides shone like the depths of the night. Blackly flows the quiet of Anna Sequanna.


Photograph © Alex Ehrenzweig

Adolf Hoffmeister

Adolf Hoffmeister (1902-1973) was a poet, novelist, translator and editor. He edited one of the main Czech daily newspapers, Lidové noviny (1928-30) and the main literary paper, Literární noviny (1930-32). He was also a talented artist and caricaturist, often illustrating his own work. Hoffmeister set up an anti-fascist magazine, Simplicus, in the 1930s after the German satiric magazine Simplicissimus was banned by the Nazis. He also wrote the libretto for a children's opera, Brundibar, with music by the Czech composer Hans Krása in 1938; the opera was performed fifty-five times by children in Terezín concentration camp where Krása was interned. Hoffmeister emigrated to France in 1939, but moved on to Morocco when France fell. There, he was arrested but escaped from an internment camp and arrived in New York via Lisbon and Havana in 1941. He returned to Czechoslovakia in 1945 and worked for UNESCO. After the Communist coup in February 1948, Hoffmeister was named French ambassador by the new neo-Stalinist regime but was recalled shortly after. He worked then as a lecturer in fine art at the Academy of Applied Arts. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Hoffmeister emigrated to France once again in 1969, but decided to return in 1970. He died three years later in the Orlický mountains, judged by the regime to be a non-person.

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Translated by Michelle Woods

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