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The Grala

Dreamed 1934? by Eugene Jolas


Eugene Jolas was an avant-garde poet, translator, editor and publisher of modernist literature between the World Wars; he knew Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Andre Breton, and (especially) James Joyce--he was the first to publish Finnegans Wake, and his affinity with Joyce is visible in the quirky style of this nightmare. The editors of Jolas' autobiography compare The Grala to Kafka's The Metamorphosis, but all I see is that both have big bugs; to me, Grala is more like Ionesco's play Rhinoceros, in which people turn into rhinos but no one dares acknowledge the gray beasts in the parlor: fascists. I see Grala as a nightmare about helpless denial and trying to maintain gentility as the Nazis grew in power... but you decide.

--Chris Wayan

James Joyce, Eugene Jolas, Nora Joyce, Carola Giedion-Welcker, 1936; photo by Sigfried Giedion.
James Joyce, Eugene Jolas, Nora Joyce, Carola Giedion-Welcker

My friends had invited me for dinner in their Auteuil home. It was brumewinter. The city rumbled as if struck by vague apprehensions. Their apartment was warmquiet.

Bread and wine were on the table. Both were happy to see me after a long absence beyond frontiers. There was lighttrialogue, and then my friend's wife grew nervous and had tears in her eyes. He smiled obstinately and talked in long melodious phrases about Baudelaire.

I looked up from the table and saw, opposite me, on the studiowall a large, white animal, slow-moving, glittering in the lamplight's shaft. It's a spider, I mused. As I looked more carefully, I noticed that it was not of flesh, but of marble or skullbone.

A stubborn silence came over us. I could not understand what had happened. My friend looked at me and tried to smile. I observed that the animal did not attract the attention of my friends. A hurdy-gurdy began to play from somewhere in the street outside. Then silence again, like a menace.

Now the animal seemed to grow bigger. It continued to slowroam on the wall. At one time it tried to fly. But its wings apparently were glued to its body, for in spite of a violent effort, it could not move.

I had the feeling that the animal belonged to the household, for the indifference to its presence on the part of my friends seemed to indicate that they were accustomed to it. I tried to ask a question about it. But my words lipstuck. I could not, try as I might, recall the French word for "spider." I grew iresome. Finally I stammered, more to interrupt this intolerable silence than to get any information: "... Die Weisse Spinne." ['...the white spider']

My friend looked up and laughed. Only now did he become aware of the chimerapresence on the wall. He got up and walked over to a bookshelf where he hastily thumbed a Larousse [dictionary]. But he evidently did not find what he was looking for.

The telephone shrilljingled. My friend came back into the room after he had answered it and informed me that a writer named Galsworthy wanted to talk to me. He pronounced the name with French phonetics and it took me some time to understand it. Then I thought of the word: Justice.

I phonehallooed, but there was no answer. I whinecried. I bellow-squeaked. I wrathshook schimpfnouns into the receiver. The silence wirehummed spectrally.

My friend was sitting alone in the room, his face in his hands. He starewondered at a white page in front of him. Then he wrote, swiftfingering, for a long time. I did not interrupt him. I stood near the window watching children playrunning in the street.

The silence in the room grew terrordark. I was no longer able to bear it. I took the Larousse and, turmoilblustering, looked at the animal pictures. There was nothing there resembling the species on the wall.

I tore the inkburdened paper out of my friend's hand and read in endless repetition:


I flashsaw: I was face to face with the apocalyptic beast. I awe-stared into the past and into the future. The room turned vertigomad around me.

--Eugene Jolas

SOURCE: Man from Babel, by Eugene Jolas, p.114-15 (1998, Yale Univ. Press); first published July 1935 in Jolas' magazine transition (yes, all lower case!)

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