A critical essay on Leberknödel from Liver

Liver Let Die
Will Self’s newest collection, Liver, contains a novella, Leberknödel, that is set in Zurich and has a protagonist called Joyce Beddoes. Call me an obsessive Irishman, but put “Zurich” and “Joyce” together and you automatically come up with James Joyce, who wrote a number of chapters of Ulysses in Zurich, died and is buried there. The link seems obvious to me. When you discover that Self’s Joyce eats a meal at the famous Kronenhalle (James Joyce’s favourite hangout and the place where he ate his last proper meal) and that she has reserved a plot in Fluntern cemetery (the very same cemetery where James Joyce lies buried), then you know that the sequence of coincidences is not a sequence of coincidences. Strangely, in British reviews of Self’s book in the likes of The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent and the Times Literary Supplement, not one critic has picked up on this. If the allusions to James Joyce were simply decorative then perhaps the reviewers could be forgiven for leaving it unmentioned. But to miss the ghostly absence of James Joyce in this occult novella is to read a different story then the one Self has written.

Leberknödel tells of a Birmingham woman called Joyce Beddoes who, suffering from terminal liver cancer, travels with her daughter to Zurich where she has arranged for an assisted suicide. While there, she experiences an estrangement with her daughter but also a sort of miracle whereby, it seems, she gains another chance at life. James Joyce’s first port of call when he left Ireland with Nora Barnacle was Zurich. He returned during World War One when he worked on Ulysses, possibly the greatest English language novel of the 20th century. He returned again to Zurich as a refugee from Fascism, only to die in January 1941, shortly after his arrival. His final masterpiece, Finnegans Wake, had been published in 1939.

Self’s Joyce Beddoes was known to her late husband Derry (why is he called after an Irish town?) as “Jo Jo”, which would give her the initials “JJ”, as in “James Joyce”. But in many ways she is the inverse of James: Joyce is her first name, it is his last; she is an English woman, he an Irish man; she comes to Zurich seeking death but ends up applying for refugee status, he came to Zurich as a refugee seeking safety from Fascism; she dines at the Kronenhalle and it marks a type of resurrection, he dines at the Kronenhalle and collapses into the illness that will kill him; she arrives in Zurich with her despised 33-year-old unstable daughter who she allows to be arrested and locked up in a women’s prison, he arrived in Zurich without his beloved 33-year-old daughter who he was forced to leave behind in a mental asylum.

Joyce Beddoes stays at the Widder Hotel in Zurich’s old town. One evening she ascends a nearby hill, from where she gazes over the old town centre at the foot of the Zurichberg, divided by the River Limmat “that flowed into the long lake”, the Zurichzee. (In fact the river flows out of the lake – if this is a mistake, it is Self’s only one.) Dublin is a city that lies below the Dublin Mountains, divided by the River Liffey that flows into the sea at Dublin Bay. So what does Self’s Joyce feel as she gazes upon the town that she has never seen before? She feels what James Joyce must have felt – Will Self tells us: “The city gave her a curious sensation of déjà vu.”

As she descends the hill to return to her hotel she has an accidental encounter with three Catholics, which will change her life. They are just leaving a little catholic shrine, when they fall into conversation with her. I wondered about this catholic shrine. Could Self have meant the Augustinerkirche (which James Joyce frequented)? But it is a church and Self clearly refers to a “little shrine”. Then the penny dropped. Just a few steps from the Widder Hotel is a small square known, informally, as The James Joyce Corner. On the corner is a literature museum, and tucked away upstairs one finds the small James Joyce Foundation. This indeed has many of the hallmarks of a shrine.

The foundation’s members, like the adherents of a catholic cult, preserve the works and relics of their saint. Here you will find all of Joyce’s published books, including translations, as well as secondary works. Postcards and letters of James Joyce are carefully preserved, as well as relics, such as the Dubliner’s original death mask and his famous walking cane. Once a year, followers of the Joyce cult can partake in an organised visit to the Holy Land. It’s called the Dublin Pilgrimage. The cult surrounding Joyce began during his own lifetime. When the very first copy of Ulysses arrived from the printer in Paris, it was put on display in a glass case in Shakespeare and Company Bookstore and people came especially to gaze at it in reverence, as if it was a sacred object. Joyce surrounded himself with devotees, 12 of whom, including Samuel Beckett, were given the task of writing positive reviews of the book. He called them his “apostles”. Even earlier, when writing Ulysses in Zurich, he had his adepts, such as the artist Frank Budgen. One of his “friends” of this period, a Zurich man called Weiss, like Judas, would later betray him. Joyce Beddoes is befriended by one of the trinity she has just encountered outside the shrine. His name is Weiss.

A few days later, Joyce Beddoes finds herself being treated to lunch by Weiss and his partner, Marianne Kreutzer (possibly a reference to James Joyce’s lover in Zurich, Martha Fleischmann). Weiss informs Beddoes that the restaurant has always been a haunt of famous writers, including “Durrenmatt, Keller, Mann, Frisch”. But where is James Joyce in this list? No disrespect to Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann, but surely James Joyce was the most illustrious of the restaurant’s literary patrons? Even today, when booking dinner, you can still reserve “the Joyce table”. Indeed, the Kronenhalle’s proprietors proudly display on the walls their own original photos of Joyce, much like, well, sacred relics. One could defend the proposition that the Kronenhalle has become something of a temple in the contemporary cult of James Joyce. But the protagonists in this novella seem blessedly ignorant of this fact, and the reader is kept by Self equally ignorant.

Beddoes unwittingly orders Leberknödel soup (liver dumpling soup). The victim of liver cancer tastes the liver broth: “Fleshy dumplings floated in the life-giving broth and Joyce spooned one up and bit into it, releasing tangible pulses of flavour.” James Joyce’s last meal here resulted in his ulcer perforating his intestines and led to his death, but for Self’s Joyce, the meal is “life-giving”.

Joyce Beddoes leaves her miraculous meal, and Weiss and Kreutzer install her in an apartment at Universiteitsstrasse 29. The apartment is the centre of their cult, for it is here that a little saintly girl called Gertrude once lived and, having died of leukemia, she, according to the believers, intercedes to perform miracles, including reversing cancer. But if there is a ghost at work at Universiteitstrasse 29 it is not called Gertrude but probably answers to the name James Joyce. It was in this very house that Joyce lived while working on Ulysses. Again, the protagonists in Self’s novel are oblivious that they are living in the shade of the great Irish writer, and Self’s readers are equally left in the dark.

James Joyce was intrigued by the Zurich spring festival of Sechselauten, in which the spirit of winter is burnt on a gigantic wooden pyre. Although there is nothing sexual about the festival, he, dirty old man that he was, obviously thought otherwise. Sechselauten appears in Finnegans Wake as “Ping-pong! There’s the Belle for Sexaloitez” and “ringrang, the chimes of sex appealing”. Joyce Beddoes attends the festival in one of the most extended episodes in Self’s novella. She then meets Weiss on the steps of the Opera House (one of James Joyce’s favourite venues) and this leads into the novella’s only sex scene. It is graphic, even crude; in a word, Joycean.

Self’s Joyce finds herself aimlessly wandering though Zurich. She is beginning to read the city, much like Leopold Bloom and Stephan Dedalus in Dublin. She passes Fluntern Cemetery often; once she briefly reflects that that path leads to her grave. She seems to be unaware that it also leads to the grave of another Joyce, James, who has lain here since 1941, it’s most famous resident by far. But again, Self informs neither his hapless character nor his readers.

One day, at the height of summer, alone and forgotten by the traitor Weiss, Joyce Beddoes feels the warm wind, known as the Foehn, blowing over the city. James Joyce, like many others, hated this wind. It appears in Finnegans Wake as “in the wake of their good old Foehn”. The line echoes the book’s deathly title, Wake. Self’s Joyce feels that the Foehn is “smothering her”. It is a harbinger of the end.
Throughout Self’s novella, Joyce’s relationship with her 33-year-old highly strung daughter, Isobel, forms an undercurrent of unease. She grieves that the daughter was always closer to her husband, the late Derry. His pet name for his daughter was “Izzy”. Isobel is highly strung and has had a succession of broken relationships with unsuitable men. James Joyce loved his mentally unstable daughter, Lucia, deeply. As she slipped into madness, she attempted to have a number of hugely inappropriate sexual relationships with men. In Finnegans Wake, the main character, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, has a wife, Anna Livia, and a daughter called Isabel. She desperately seeks a male mate. But the husband-father covets her as his daughter-wife. He calls her “Issy”.

Clearly, the life and work of James Joyce forms a rich source for Will Self’s tale. His is a fictional analysis of the ethics of euthanasia, or assisted-suicide. But at a deeper level, he has written an intertextual tale that gains a deeper meaning only when the older text is approached and recognised. But why, may one ask, is James Joyce never directly referred to? Why, when James Joyce is so obviously present, does Self keep him hidden? When Joyce Beddoes’ liver cancer was first diagnosed, her doctor informed her that the cancer had not originated in her liver, but its origin was “occult”. He explains that this term simply means that they don’t know. But “occult” means secrets or hidden. The origin of her disease is hidden, and its “cure” must remain equally hidden. Jame’s Joyce’s presence in the novella is hidden; hidden from his namesake, the sad Joyce Beddoes, and hidden from the reader. This hiddenness, this gaping absence, is decisive to the story.

Will Self has written an intriguing work of cultic (and Celtic) ghostliness. It is a story laden with a plurality of meanings, where nothing is as it seems, where even the current of the River Limmat can be reversed. British reviewers must be an overworked and under-read bunch of people to have missed it. To quote James Joyce, in Finnegans Wake: “Yssel that the Limmat?”

By Paul Doolan

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