Flyblown faces

Flyblown faces

In Brief

Kevin Egan lives in a poor but vital part of Paris: "the Montmartre lair he sleeps short night in, rue de la Goutte-d'Or, damascened with flyblown faces of the gone." Ellmann confirms that Joseph Casey, the model for Egan, did live on that street in Montmartre (125). The rest of Stephen's sentence could possibly be describing people on the street, but it seems far more likely to refer to images of Fenian compatriots on the walls of Egan's dilapidated flat.

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Montmartre is a hill in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, and also the district surrounding that hill, on the Right Bank in the northern part of the city. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries many painters (Monet, Degas, Modigliani, Van Gogh, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Mondrian) lived or had studios there, drawn by inexpensive housing, a Bohemian population, and a village-like atmosphere. The "rue de la Goutte-d'Or" (Street of the Golden Drop), Gifford notes, "was named for the golden wine from long-since displaced vineyards." In fact the vineyards were not all displaced: a small one, the Clos Montmartre, remains even today, now owned by the City of Paris.

Stephen's word for Egan's place of residence, "lair," suggests some very dismal housing. No doubt there was plenty of it at the time, but it is worth asking whether he is thinking of living conditions in a certain section of Paris or the living habits of a certain depressed Irish exile. The resolution of this ambiguity will influence one's reading of "damascened with flyblown faces of the gone."

Attaching this participial phrase to the Goutte d'Or, Gifford infers that Stephen is thinking of characters who live on or near it in the naturalistic novels of Émile Zola, which depicted the lives of poor people in all their sordid bleakness: "Gervaise Macquart, the protagonist of L'assommoir (The Grog Shop or Gin Mill) (1877), lives in what Zola calls the quartier de la Goutte d'Or and, with her husband, declines into derelection, filth, inanition, and finally death as a result of alcoholism." Her daughter "Nana (Nana, 1880) is born and comes of age in the quartier; she is en route to supreme success as a grand cocotte (prostitute) when she meets a premature, and symbolic, death from small pox. The second to the last paragraph of Nana is a particularly vigorous description of the face of Nana's corpse, devastated by smallpox as though the 'virus' with which she had 'poisoned a people had mounted into her face and rotted it.'"

By Gifford's reading, Stephen is imagining the Goutte d'Or area "damascened" (damask is a heavy cloth textured with wavy patterns) by the rotted faces of these dead women from a time several decades earlier. Even for Stephen, this all seems uncommonly hallucinatory and difficult to visualize. And there are other problems. Would he ever think of fictional characters, no matter how deceased, as "gone"? And would he substitute for Zola's image of a face rotted out by virus a different image of flies depositing their eggs on that face?

In a personal communication, Vincent Van Wyk offers a much more plausible reading: what is "damascened with flyblown faces of the gone" is not the street but Egan's lair. His walls have acquired a wavy texture from all the old, curling photographs and drawings of Fenian heroes that he has pinned on them, and either flies have had their way with the disintegrating paper, or, less likely, the images depict corpses whose faces have been attacked by maggots. In either version, this construction yields a more or less visualizable and realistic scene, and it places Stephen's thoughts just where they have remained throughout this section of Proteus, with Egan's continual, gloomy meditations on "lost leaders, the betrayed, wild escapes. Disguises, clutched at, gone, not here."

JH 2020
Bateau-Lavoir artists' studio at no. 13 Rue Ravignan at Place Émile Goudeau in Montmartre, ca. 1910, photographer unknown. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Self-portrait of Émile Zola, taken in 1901. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Fenian prisoners being marched through the streets of Dublin by British troops to Mountjoy Prison, in an 1867 engraving. Source: