A Gargoyle Face on Rue Saint-André-des-Arts

A Gargoyle Face on Rue Saint-André-des-Arts.

Today I am looking for gargoyles. 

Days after President Macron lifted the two-month ‘deconfinement’ of citizens for their protection during the Coronavirus pandemic, I’ve resumed walking more than the previously imposed one-kilometre distance. 

During the two months, citizens required a permission slip with name, age, address, and reason for being outside. It was the government’s official attestation de déplacement dérogotoire, printed, on mobile phone, or hand-written, required for every journey for shopping, visiting the pharmacy or doctor, or exercising within prescribed times. Essential workers needed an additional company signature on their forms, and police issued fines for flouting regulations. 

On 7 May, the government lifted the lockdown that commenced on 14 March. The lifting in gradual phases started on Monday 11 May, due to the declining number of COVID-19 cases, and declining number of deaths. Looking at the figures today, the documented number of confirmed cases is 140,227 with 57,785 people recovered, and 26,991 deaths nationwide. 

Cafés, bars, restaurants cannot open, except for take-away kiosks. Shops can open with health and safety regulations in place, such as sanitizer gel at the entrance, social distancing of one metre, a limited number of customers to avoid contact, clear Perspex barriers at the till, and non-contact payment systems. Facial coverings, such as materials, scarves, or cloth masks are compulsory on public transport, but not elsewhere, although shop staff can request that customers wear them. 

With all these measures to prevent the spread of the virus, any freedom feels like a release. Not all people are ready to rush into the streets though; anxiety is still high; and the uncertainty about the future, and any potential second wave, with increased new cases, make some people nervous.  

With no attestation paper, and permitted to travel up to 100 kilometres without it, I take a face covering, but I don’t wear it on the streets. It’s around my neck so that I can easily pull it over my mouth and nose if I enter a shop. 

So, today I’m looking for gargoyles. Specifically, I’m looking for a “gargoyle face” on rue Saint-André-des-Arts.

“Harsh gargoyle face that warred against me over our mess of hash of lights in rue Saint-André-des-Arts. In words of words for words, palabras. Oisin with Patrick. Faunman he met in Clamart woods, brandishing a winebottle. C’est vendredi saint! Murthering Irish. His image, wandering, he met. I mine. I met a fool i’the forest.” 

The paragraph is from James Joyce’s, Ulysses (1922), Chapter 9, Scylla and Charybdis. The main character, Stephen Dedalus, is walking with Malachi (Buck) Mulligan, discussing Shakespeare’s writing. Buck Mulligan jokes about the writing style of Irish playwright John Millington Synge, which evokes Stephen’s recollection of meeting him in Paris. He thinks to himself that Synge has a “harsh gargoyle face.”

It’s spring in Paris now, and cool at 13C, with 17C predicted. An irritating wind whips the leaves and dust into the air. The usual bustling and noisy Rue Saint-André-des-Arts is virtually empty. The virus still keeps people inside. 

Rue Saint-André-des-Arts in the Monnaie district of the 6th arrondissement, largely free of traffic, despite its prime location, has a mixture of shops, from the small international cuisine kiosks at the entrance at Place Saint-André-des-Arts to quaint and trendy clothes shops, including vintage clothes in the mid-section. Although it is a short street, there are cafés, restaurants, and an Irish Pub—all closed today, except for the take-away sandwich stall.

It runs parallel to the river Seine and is close to the Notre Dame Cathedral. The street was named after a church, that no longer exits. Once a hub for artists and cinema goers, the street is now mostly frequented by tourists, drinkers and diners.

Dating back to the 15th century, buildings still have some traditional features, such as exposed beams, wrought iron railings, corniches, carved doors, and narrow facades. 

As I wander slowly along the street, I look up at the buildings, looking for any gargoyle, not initially one that looks like John Millington Synge. But, the one gargoyle male face that I find is indeed like that of Dublin-born Edmund John Millington Synge (1871-1909). I see the resemblance now: the nose, the moustache. 

Synge was living in Paris from 1896. James Joyce left Dublin for Paris in 1902 after graduating from the University College Dublin. 

So, in reality, Joyce and Synge did meet in Paris in 1903, and they did walk along the narrow rue Saint-André-des-Arts.

Lady Augusta Gregory (1852-1932), an Irish dramatist and theatre manager, arranged for 20-year-old Joyce to meet the 31-year-old Synge in Paris in 1903. In Gordon Bowker’s James Joyce: A Biography (2011), he says that Synge had returned to his Paris apartment after a holiday in the Aran Isles, and intended to return to Ireland. 

Joyce gave Lady Gregory the Paris address of the Hotel Corneille, opposite the Odéon Theatre on the rue de Corneille, which is now the Odéon Hotel, a ten-minute towards the Luxembourg Garden.

Synge arranged to meet Joyce in the Odéon Cloister: ‘It was an appropriate enough meeting place, under the colonnade of a great theatre lined with bookstalls.’

Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company English-language bookstore was not there yet. She established it in 1919 at 8 rue Dupuytren before moving to larger premises at 12 rue de l’Odéon in 1922. Nor was Adrienne Monnier’s bookstore, La Maison des Amis des Livres, which she established at 7 rue de l’Odéon in 1915. 

John Millington Synge was described as ‘a tall, dark, brooding man.’ Joyce and Synge met regularly for lunch, arguing about literature: ‘Synge, aggressively opinionated, garrulous and edgy; Joyce, scholarly and erudite.’

After a week together, Synge wrote to Lady Gregory about James Joyce:

‘He seems to be pretty badly off, and is wandering around Paris rather unbrushed and rather indolent, spending his studious moments in the National Library reading Ben Jonson. French literature I understand is beneath him! Still he interested me a good deal and as he is being gradually won over by the charm of French life, his time in Paris is not wasted. He talks of coming back to Dublin in the summer to live there on journalism while he does his serious work at his leisure. I cannot think that he will ever be a poet of importance, but his intellect is extraordinarily keen and if he keeps fairly sane he ought to do excellent essay-writing.’

Unfortunately, Synge never got to eat his words.

In the paragraph in Ulysses, the French sentence, C’est vendredi saint! means It’s Good Friday! In April, a month after meeting Synge, James Joyce attended Tenebrae at the Notre-Dame Cathedral on all three nights before Good Friday, which was on 10 April in 1903, ‘walking back to the Corneille afterwards through the gaslit streets.’  But on Good Friday, Joyce received a telegram from his father in Dublin telling him to come home because his mother was dying. 

Both James Joyce and John Millington Synge returned to Dublin in 1903. Not yet Joyce’s girlfriend, Nora Barnacle acted the part of Cathleen in Synge’s play Riders to the Sea, performed for the first time in Dublin in February 1904. He wrote it when he lived in Paris. Joyce took a great deal of notice in Nora, and was impressed with her rendition. 

Although this period was only one year, Joyce returned to Paris in 1920 with Nora and their two children, Giorgio and Lucia, and stayed for twenty years. 

It was a different story for Synge. The photograph of Synge, shown here, is circa 1907. He died in 1909, at the age of 37, from Hodgkin’s disease, which apparently was the reason for his grumpiness and intolerance of many artists, but not Joyce whom he admired, despite their heated arguments. Joyce felt ‘haunted’ by Synge’s untimely death, ‘a creative life cut short with so much left unwritten.’ 

By the way, John Millington Synge reminds me of the actor Kiefer Sutherland or even his actor father Donald Sutherland. Neither were born in Ireland: Donald (1935-), born in Canada, is of Scottish, English, and German ancestry and his son Keifer (1966-) was born in England and also has Canadian citizenship. Frequently, they play Irish roles, and would have looked quite like Synge at the cinema in rue Saint-André-des-Arts.

Donald Sutherland, John Millington Synge, Keifer Sutherland

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