James Joyce: Genius, Jerk
Tim Parks on the Man Behind the Books
In 1902, departing on a first trip to Paris, James told his brother and confidant Stanislaus that should he die during the trip, his poetry and prose “epiphanies” must be sent to all the great libraries of the world, including the Vatican.
Nor, as his parents fought and the family sank into poverty, did Joyce hesitate to contact major figures in the literary world: Ibsen, George Russell, W.B. Yeats, and Lady Augusta Gregory, among others. But even as he made these important contacts, the young man courted rejection; a long letter to Ibsen on his 73rd birthday closes with the idea that the great playwright had “only opened the way” and that “higher and holier enlightenment lies—onward.” It was implicit that Joyce himself would be the bearer of that enlightenment. Having arranged an interview with Yeats, he spent most of the conversation criticizing the older writer, remarking on leaving that “I have met you too late. You are too old.” It was always Joyce’s way to have others understand that he was the more important.
The habit of forcing himself into the limelight while simultaneously inviting exclusion is another facet that would emerge in his writing. None of Joyce’s major publications—Dubliners, A Portrait, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake—was completed before being offered for publication. Each had first chapters, or sections, published at early stages of writing, and all these early publications ran into trouble with editors or censors, either for their avant-garde style or for supposedly obscene content. However, the effect on Joyce was never to back off as the book developed, but rather to raise the stakes and push the offense to the limit. For this integrity he has been much praised, yet the biographies suggest that this habit of exasperated provocation was standard in all Joyce’s relationships, even those with his life partner, Nora, and his favorite brother, Stanislaus.
Did Joyce leave Ireland, as A Portrait and consequent legend would have it, because he needed to go abroad to develop his writing and escape the competing demands of Catholicism and republicanism? “Living in Ireland had lost all meaning for Joyce,” Bowker tells us rather grandly, this at a moment when the young author had already completed a slim volume of poems, had published two of the stories that were to make up Dubliners, and was getting on with his novel Stephen Hero with the enthusiastic but attentive criticism of Stanislaus. He had also published reviews and was showing a rare talent for provoking ire and admiration with vicious satires of the Dublin literati. All this at age 22. It’s hard to imagine, then, that living in Ireland meant nothing to Joyce. Reading through the sequence of events before his departure, it is evident that Nora was crucial.
Joyce’s mother had died in 1903, depriving the family of its main element of stability. The following June, James met Nora Barnacle. Up to this point his sexual experience had been mostly with prostitutes, who have the merit that they do not betray you, criticize your ideas, or make you wait long for satisfaction. However, in March 1904 a venereal infection had obliged him to become more wary. Now Joyce meets an attractive uneducated, sexually willing girl who has fled a severe father in Galway and is alone and unprotected, working as a chambermaid in Dublin. The story is love at first sight; nevertheless, Joyce is too ashamed of his scarcely literate beloved to introduce her to intellectual, middle-class friends or to a father who has quite other aspirations for him. To be with Nora in Ireland would mean a battle with his father and a drastic loss of image; but how long would a girl be faithful if her man continued to treat her as a mistress rather than a partner? Eloping just five months after they met, Joyce could enjoy an intensely erotic cohabitation with Nora while presenting himself back in Dublin, sincerely no doubt, as an intellectual who simply had to escape the “rabblement” that was the Irish literary world. On the day of departure, Nora, who had no experience of travel, was sent ahead to board the ferry alone, while Joyce enjoyed a proper sending off at the dockside from all his family and friends, who were to remain unaware of her presence. When his father found out, he was furious. Three years later he wrote:
I need not tell you how your miserable mistake affected my already well crushed feelings, but then maturer thoughts took more the form of pity than anger, when I saw a life of promise crossed and a future that might have been brilliant blasted in one breath.
And Joyce was pitiable. Writing was not easier in Europe. From Paris to Zurich to Trieste and the remote Pola on the northern Adriatic, he struggled to find work as a language teacher, struggled to survive the boredom of language teaching, struggled to find rooms to rent, struggled to pay the rent, struggled to find people who would lend him money, struggled to keep Nora, who understood nothing, knew no one, and was soon pregnant, in good spirits. Communication with Ireland and publishers was slow and discouraging. Editors were willing to publish if he would compromise a little with the “obscenity” and disrespectful political opinions. He would not. The more depressed he became, the more he spent what cash remained on drink.
Conscientiously, Bowker records every disappointed request for work, every move from one drab flat to another. A first child was named George after James’s younger brother who had died three years before. Such was the loyalty to home. Nora fell into depression. Bent on “the spiritual liberation of [his] country,” Joyce wrote to his Aunt Josephine for advice and went to prostitutes again. Desperate for company, he invited Stanislaus to join them, then exploited him quite shamelessly, taking his help and language-school earnings for granted. On a whim he went to Rome, got a job in a bank, hated everything, then returned to Trieste and Stanislaus’s charity. A second child, Lucia, was born. Only 25, and already a patriarch, Joyce suffered declining health, his eyesight in particular. At this point it was clear that expatriation has slowed down his career.
In 1909 Joyce returned, twice, to Ireland, once alone, once with George, now usually called Giorgio, but not with Nora. On the first of these occasions he was told that Nora had betrayed him with a friend before their departure from Dublin and wrote her hysterical letters of accusation. Included in full by Ellmann, given only in snippets by Bowker, they show Joyce’s readiness to feel betrayed and his intense fear of the loss of personal prestige he believed it involved. Later, persuaded that the story of Nora’s unfaithfulness was a lie (hence an act of treachery by his enemies), he first wrote to her asking forgiveness for the earlier letters, then fantasizing a ferocious eroticism: “I wish to be lord of your body and soul,” he announced. A situation had developed where life with Nora was essential, but only possible far away from Ireland, where she was unhappy and work difficult. To keep her company in the trap they had fallen into, Joyce brought back to Trieste two younger Joyce sisters from Dublin, first Eva, then Eileen. Later they would all be joined, at some expense for shipping, by the Joyce family portraits, as the author pursued his reconstruction of Dublin away from Dublin with himself as head of the community. It was at this point, in 1913, that Ezra Pound entered his life and everything changed.
Pound was seeking “markedly modern stuff ” to publish in a small literary review, and Yeats had suggested that Joyce might provide it. This was a time when literature was becoming more and more an object of academic study; psychology was problematized, likewise narrative and representation; an aesthetic of difficulty and deep-coded meaning was coming into vogue. Joyce, with his extraordinary sensitivity to language, his belief that an appropriate use of words could somehow bridge the gap between belonging and not belonging, which was also the distance between Trieste and Dublin (“Joyce seemed to think that words were omnipotent,” Huxley later remarked), was the right man at the right moment. His claim to be socialist and the fact that he wrote about the common people rather than the literary classes was welcome, while his habit of doing so in ways that were strenuously experimental was even more so: right-thinking intellectual readers found themselves simultaneously with the people and above them. On Joyce’s birthday in 1914 The Egoist began serialization of A Portrait, later described by the Sunday Express as “the most infamously obscene book in ancient or modern literature.” Three years later, the editor and patron of The Egoist, the wealthy, quiet, left-wing activist Harriet Weaver, made a first gift of money to Joyce. Over the next twenty years, she would spend, quite literally, a fortune on him, making it her mission to allow his genius to flower.
If you have an enduring image of yourself as “a stag at bay,” which is also your image of the betrayed, humiliated Parnell, and perhaps too of your exhausted and drunken father, then success may be more disorientating than struggle. Perhaps the only thing to do with it will be to use it as a stepping-stone to greater calamity. Taking the family to neutral Zurich during the First World War, the 31-year-old Joyce received financial support from the Royal Literary Fund and the British Treasury Fund. He did what he could to drink it away and spoiled his relationship with the British authorities by engaging in a futile argument over a small sum of money with a consulate employee, Henry Carr. Moving to Paris after the war, he spent the larger and larger incomes now settled on him by Harriet Weaver in extravagant accommodation, restaurant bills, magnanimous tips, and of course drink.
To meet the adult Joyce on the street in these years was to be asked to run an errand for him. To know him a little was to be asked for a loan. To be his friend was to be asked to read to him, type for him, and discuss his work at length. To be his publisher was to be pressed to bring out his work in an impossibly short time so as to coincide with his birthday or the anniversary of the day he met Nora. To be his partner was to be asked to satisfy his wildest erotic fantasies. If you ran a first errand, you would be asked to run a second, longer one. If you lent money you would be asked to lend more. If you survived the discussions of Ulysses, which were of course fascinating, then came the discussions of Finnegans Wake. If you agreed to publish his work on the given day, you were faced with hundreds of last-minute revisions. If you satisfied his erotic fantasies, he might then ask you to flirt with someone else; that too was exciting. To be Joyce’s child, meantime, was to live absolutely in his shadow, to change home, school, country, language as was convenient for him. All this was acceptable because James Joyce was, as his father and Stanislaus and Pound and so many others had told him, a genius.
And he was.
In The Dead (written in 1907) he had depicted a young intellectual powerfully attached to a community that he feels he has no place in, a man who takes center stage at a Christmas party but gives a speech that he knows will irritate everyone. Returning home he seeks erotic consolation with his wife only to discover she is pining for a boyfriend who died long ago, a boy who had committed to her totally in a way he cannot. Abandoned, isolated, with no way forward, his static melancholy is transformed into a haunting vision of his whole country as a graveyard frozen to stillness under snow. The moment of greatest loneliness and loss of direction is the moment when the wholeness of the community is most beautifully and forlornly invoked.
In A Portrait (1907-14), a young man in a treacherous society that makes impossible demands on him saves himself by assuming the position that we have come to think of as the artist’s: he who observes, but from outside. This move is presented as an affirmation of quasi-religious commitment to renewing the nation’s conscience, an idea that will enchant young intellectuals throughout the 20th century and that gains credence from the intensity of the book’s lyrical evocations and the brilliance of its innovative narrative style.
Exiles (1915) never won Joyce acclaim yet marks a turning point in his development, a watershed between work that is entirely accessible and widely loved and writing that was much more adventurous and obscure. Austerely Ibsenite in construction, this unhappy play confronts head-on, without any of the lexical richness, stylistic experimentation, or sentimental evocation of Ireland so appreciated in his other writing, a love triangle, or rather rectangle. A couple, Richard and Bertha, blatantly based on James and Nora, return to Ireland with their eight-year-old son after nine years in Italy and promptly involve themselves again with Richard’s best friend Robert, and Robert’s refined cousin and ex-girlfriend, Beatrice. Robert has been trying to lure the uneducated Bertha into betraying Richard (whose avant-garde writing she can’t understand) but though interested and playing along, she has been referring their meetings and even kisses to her husband, who, sexually excited by the situation, will not make it clear to her whether he really cares about an eventual betrayal or not. At the same time, Richard is pursuing a more literary and intellectual romance with the Dantesque Beatrice.
In scenes of tortuously self-regarding rhetoric, Richard insists on having everything out in the open; Robert is appalled by the fact that communications he thought had been secret were not; Bertha is upset that her duplicity with Robert has been revealed to him at her expense. Eventually all four characters reach a position of total impasse, in which they try saying everything and its opposite without avail. Robert and Beatrice are still eager to start their romances with Bertha and Richard but unable to force matters. Bertha seems ready to save her marriage but won’t renounce the relationship with Robert if her husband won’t assert his determination to keep her. Claiming he is just giving everyone else their freedom, Richard himself remains in a state of complete indecision, which curiously allows him to manipulate the other three. This is A Portrait of the Artist at a Rather Later State of Development. Bowker, like Ellmann, gives us details of the historical relationships it was based on, revealing once again Joyce’s tendency to push those close to him toward the betrayal he seems to both fear and feed off.
Stalemate is a hard thing to dramatize, and Exiles is not a successful play; we have the narrative impasse typical of Joyce’s fiction without the compensating lyricism or playfulness. Joyce, however, cared immensely about the play and constantly sought to have it produced. For Nora, who must have found it the most easily readable thing her husband had written, it was no doubt a shock; inviting the audience to construe this as the author’s marriage, the play became a betrayal of trust in her regard of the very kind it sought to dramatize, and similarly impossible to condemn because justified by the ideal of honesty.
If impasse is accepted, how can one go on? This is the moment when Joyce’s work shifts from solemn to comic, when Stephen Dedalus’s ability, in A Portrait, to pick up on some odd word association in order to detach himself from domestic conflict blossoms into a vast encyclopedic evasion of the dramatic point, sometimes hilarious, sometimes whimsical and sentimental, sometimes verging on the obscene, sometimes incomprehensible. Jung would say at once of Ulysses (1922) that it displayed a schizophrenic use of language—discontinuities, coded messages, superimposition of different levels of discourse, every kind of imitation, pastiche, and distraction—such that the predicaments of the two Joycean alter egos at the core of the novel, Stephen’s troubled relationship with his father, Bloom’s difficulty responding to his wife’s betrayal, are all but submerged under quantities of wordplay, extraneous information, and mythical parallel. Years later the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, one of the first to suggest that mental illness might arise from special problems of communication in the family, concluded that schizophrenics withdraw into coded, broken, often poetic language because they find themselves in a blocked and conflicted environment where any firm statement will lead to trouble. Writing the even more arcane and densely coded prose of Finnegans Wake, Joyce would refer to his style as the “J J Safety Pun Factory.”
But Joyce’s, as Jung pointed out, was a willed language, developed with the author’s considerable creative powers and marshaling all his prodigious reading, not the helpless refuge of the patient. Indeed, it was the controlled use of such language, Jung thought, that had perhaps saved the author’s sanity. Be that as it may, Joyce now began to accompany his texts with explanations and glossaries. He loved to set his many helpers puzzles and quizzes. Bowker reports Joyce reworking paragraphs because he feared they were too accessible. The secretive coding of the writing was becoming as important as what was encoded. And of course, the more intellectual and visibly literary the work, the more its erotic fantasies (another product of frustration) could be justified to the censor. Paralleled with the exploits of the mythical Nausicaa and described to the suggestive accompaniment of a firework display in the pastiched prose of popular magazines for young ladies, an adolescent girl’s exposure of her knickers to the masturbating Bloom was not the same thing as a straightforward account of the same.
Written in Zurich and Paris, during and immediately after the First World War, while Nora and the children were asked to change language from Italian to German, then German to French, Ulysses was serialized in the New York-based Little Review but published in 1922 by the small Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Company, this to avoid censorship problems. Remarkably, Joyce was granted a 45 percent royalty. Enthusiastically promoted, the book sold well by mail order. In addition to writing frequent begging letters to Harriet Weaver, Joyce could now send his children to Shakespeare & Company to ask for advances against royalties. Again Bowker reports the drunken evenings, expensive meals, expensive hotel rooms and apartments (usually kept in states of some disorder).
From Life and Work: Writers, Readers, and the Conversations between Them by Tim Parks, Reproduced by permission. Published by Yale University Press in June 2016.