Colombey, a Tower of Babel in Haute-Marne

The village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises in the Champagne region is associated with La Boisserie, the residence of Charles de Gaulle and his family. But few are aware that, between 1927 and 1931, this house was home to one of the most exciting publishing adventures of the early 20th century: the transition literary journal, renowned for printing a serialized version of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. In Colombey est une fête, recently published in France, journalist Aurélie Chenot retraces the steps of the company’s founders, French-American Eugène Jolas and his American wife Maria, by presenting their history against the heady backdrop of the Roaring Twenties.
Maria Jolas (right) with her husband Eugène and his sister in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, ca. 1927. © Yale University Library

In February 1927, Eugène and Maria Jolas left Paris with their baby Betsy (the future composer Betsy Jolas) and set off for the Haute-Marne département to visit a house in the village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. They were accompanied by writer Sherwood Anderson, a close friend they had made in the United States, his wife Elizabeth, and their son. For several months the literary journal transition (all in lower case), whose first issue was yet to be published, was being developed in a makeshift office in a cramped hotel room near the Invalides. Manuscripts in several languages had been sent in from all over, and exiled writers would meet there.

The Jolas couple decided to move to La Boisserie to have more space and raise their daughter in a quieter environment. This former 19th-century hunting lodge, which belonged to the widow of a French infantryman from World War I, had neither electricity nor a bathroom. Despite the austere conditions, the couple signed a three-year lease. After a few setbacks, the first issue of their journal was published in April 1927 at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, directed by American bookseller Sylvia Beach. It featured an excerpt from James Joyce’s latest novel, a text by Gertrude Stein, English translations of poems by Robert Desnos and André Gide, and the reproduction of a painting by Max Ernst. What interested Eugène Jolas the most was formal experimentation and the exploration of the subconscious, this “literature of the night” that connected Joyce with the French Surrealists. “We need new words, new abstractions, new hieroglyphs, new symbols, new myths,” he wrote in “Suggestions pour une nouvelle magie,” a manifesto published in the journal’s third issue.

Eugène Jolas’s life was a series of comings and goings between France and the United States. Born in New Jersey in 1894 to French parents, he arrived in Moselle at the age of two and grew up in Forbach, a town in this border region annexed by Germany several years earlier. His childhood here led him to speak German, English, and French. In 1909, when he was 16, he traveled to America on his own to live with his aunt. He had several jobs and read voraciously. After enrolling in the U.S. Army during World War I, he then became a journalist and began writing Expressionist poems in English. After ten years, he felt homesick and decided to return to France, where he was introduced to the Dadaist crowd by a friend from Strasbourg. Upon moving to Paris in 1924, he managed the literary section of the French edition of The Chicago Tribune, and later became the editor in chief.

According to Aurélie Chenot, his encounter with Maria McDonald, the great-grandniece of Thomas Jefferson, was “decisive.” Born in Louisville, Kentucky, she had also traveled extensively and spoke three languages fluently. She also had a gift for classical singing, and went to New York and Berlin before returning to New York, then followed her singing teacher to Paris where she met her future husband. When they got married in 1925, Eugène was already friends with James Joyce, Sylvia Beach, the Surrealist poet Philippe Soupault, and the sculptor Jean Arp. Between the two of them, Eugène and Maria Jolas covered a wide spectrum through his passion for poetry and journalism and her talent for music and the visual arts. The first years of their relationship were like a whirlwind in Roaring Twenties Paris, a city inhabited by Ernest Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. “Writers in the English-American literary colony in Paris were vying with their French contemporaries to invent new mental landscapes in an atmosphere of total intellectual freedom,” wrote Eugène Jolas in his memoirs. “It seemed as though we were living in the golden age of logos.”

Eugène Jolas, 1921. © Yale University Library
Maria Jolas surrounded by her children and grandchildren, 1971. © Yale University Library
La Boisserie, in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, and on the horizon, the cross of Lorraine of the Charles-de-Gaulle Memorial, inaugurated in 1972. © Philippe Lemoine/Mémorial Charles de Gaulle

A Multilingual, Multidisciplinary Journal

It was in this context, in an effervescent, cosmopolitan Paris, that the transition journal was launched. Yet it was far from the French capital, in this little village in a part of Champagne once described as pouilleuse (“dirt poor”) to distinguish it from the winemaking areas, that the journal enjoyed its most successful years and a monthly publishing cycle. Open to all languages and adopting a multidisciplinary approach, it focused on music, painting, and particularly Surrealist works, which were met with suspicion by American publishers when Maria Jolas tried to convince them to translate transition in 1928. “Thanks to Eugène and Maria Jolas,” writes Aurélie Chenot, “the names Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Desnos, Prévert, Arp, Klee, Léger, and many others crossed the borders of Europe for the first time.”

If there were only one name associated with transition, which went out of print in 1938, it would of course be James Joyce. Renowned since the success of Ulysses, published in 1922, he provided the journal with excerpts of what he called Work in Progress, keeping the definitive title a secret until the book was released in full. Every month, right up until the print date, he would send in last-minute corrections: “After returning to the printer,” wrote Eugène Jolas in an article about the Irish author, “we learned that Joyce wanted to add some final changes, one of which was the longest ever invented: a 50-letter onomatopoeia describing a collective coughing fit in a church during a sermon. We added it.”

The adventure of the pioneering transition journal only lasted 11 years. Just before World War II, Eugène and Maria Jolas no longer felt connected to the new politically-engaged avant-garde figures. This did not stop them from playing an active part in the conflict, working for the Office of War Information in New York and, for Maria, joining the Gaullist France Forever organization and launching the La Marseillaise commissary on Second Avenue in Manhattan to raise money for soldiers, sailors, and aviators in the Free French Forces. After the war, Eugène played a major role in the denazification of the German press, while Maria became a renowned Joyce expert, translated Gaston Bachelard’s works into English, and campaigned against the Vietnam War. As for La Boisserie, it was acquired in 1934 by the de Gaulle family, and became a historical site whose slightly stuffy prestige subsequently saw the frenzy of the Colombey years forgotten.

Colombey est une fête
by Aurélie Chenot, Editions Inculte, 2022.

Article published in the May 2022 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.