cover image Man from Babel

Man from Babel

Eugene Jolas. Yale University Press, $60 (368pp) ISBN 978-0-300-07536-6

Jolas made his mark as a multilingual writer, editor and friend of James Joyce in 1920s and '30s Paris. Jolas worked persistently on this ""novel--autobiography--my fact and fiction book"" starting in the 1930s, but his death in 1952 prevented him from making final revisions. Although posterity does not remember Jolas's writings, he himself took them very seriously, and he writes much of the evolution of his poetic sensibility as a writer. There are a number of valuable insights here into literary friends like Gertrude Stein, who is quoted as telling him, that ""Joyce is a third-rate Irish politician,"" and announcing that ""[t]he greatest living writer of the age is Gertrude Stein."" With Joyce, the approach is less anecdotal, given that great writer's taciturnity, but it's clear that Jolas understood the Irishman like few other friends. This would be a valuable text for its perceptions of prewar Paris alone, but fortunately Jolas continued the narrative to his work in postwar Germany, where his view of the defeated Axis powers just after the war is devastating in its total condemnation of all things Teutonic: ""Along with his rapaciousness and cruelty the German's capacity for self-pity would appear to be inexhaustible."" So acute are Jolas's aesthetic goals and so happy was he to discover new artistic achievement that we may easily forgive his own poems, which he quotes at length and, sadly, to little artistic effect. All told, this is a valuable memoir by someone who was there and knew everyone. (Oct.)