James Joyce

So Daedulus designed his winding maze,
And as one entered it only a wary mind
Could find an exit to the world again
Such was the cleverness of that strange arbour
-Ovid, Metamorphoses (viii)

O rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.

There can’t have been more than three or four people who have ever read “Finnegan’s Wake” in its entirety from cover to cover, and it’s likely only one of them even truly understood it. That would have to be its author, James Joyce.

A hard-drinking, irresponsible genius and Irish expatriate, Joyce spent the last 17 years of his life in self-absorption writing the book. This experimental novel attempts to connect multiple cycles of Irish and human history into the framework of a single night in the life of a Dublin publican’s family. The complexity of Joyce’s “nightlanguage” where languages merge into strange polyglot idioms (Anna Livia has “vlossyhair” — wlosy being Polish for “hair”) and his use of hundred-letter “thunderwords” of inexhaustible syllables like:


which means “whore”, greatly mystified his worldwide legion of fans. Joyce considered this book his supreme literary achievement. His friends, family and loyal readers thought it the ultimate cruel joke and reacted by staying away from the book in droves.

Joyce’s own brother Stanislaus called it either “the work of a psychopath or a huge literary fraud.” Critic Oliver Gogarty called it “the most colossal leg pull in literature.” Ezra Pound, upon attempting to read it, wrote “Nothing so far as I can make out, nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clap can possibly be worth all that circumambient peripherization.” Anthony Burgess, however, called it “one of the most entertaining books ever written.”

Regardless of what people said or thought about Finnegan’s Wake, what is certain is that James Joyce was a literary explorer whose body of work deeply transformed 20th Century fiction. A gifted writer and an artist possessing encyclopedic wisdom, Joyce’s works broke through squeamish legal barriers regarding literature. His earlier masterpiece “Ulysses” — considered by many to be the greatest novel ever written in modern times — marked a turning point for literature and was a body blow for censors. It was exonerated on the charge of obscenity and became a major event in the struggle for free expression.

Joyce’s experimental use of language and his exploration of new literary methods in such works of fiction as “Ulysses” and “Finnegan’s Wake” came at great personal cost, however. He endured a series of 25 eye operations for iritis, glaucoma, and cataracts, sometimes being totally blind for short intervals. His daughter Lucy went mad and had to be institutionalized. His first book “Dubliners”, a collection of fifteen stories which he intended to be a “chapter of the moral history of my country”, was originally rejected by no less than 22 publishers. When at last printed, the book was so well received by his own countrymen that they bought out the entire edition in Dublin and burned all 1,000 copies.

The story of James Joyce is fraught with such suffering and misunderstanding. He was born in Dublin, Ireland, on Feb. 2, 1882, the eldest of ten children in a family that endured a worsening series of financial crises during his childhood. He nevertheless managed to attend several Jesuit schools and graduated from the Royal University College in Dublin where he studied languages and philosophy. He read widely and took an active part in the college’s Literary and Historical Society. An ardent admirer of Henrik Ibsen, he learned Dano-Norwegian just so he could read Ibsen’s play “When We Dead Awaken” in its original tongue. His subsequent review of the play was published in the London Fortnightly Review just after his 18th birthday. This early success confirmed Joyce’s own resolution to become a writer. As soon as he graduated, he immediately left for Paris.

Joyce returned to Ireland the following year because his mother was dying. In 1904, he met a young woman named Nora Barnacle and persuaded her to leave Ireland with him, although he refused, on principle, to marry. Long-suffering Nora Barnacle, penniless and at 20 still a minor, ran off with Joyce and stayed with him for the rest of his life. She raised their two children, managed the many households as the family shuffled from city to city across Europe, and served as his literary inspiration even as he verbally abused her in public and pursued several comical love affairs. Joyce called Nora Barnacle alternately his “Fuckbird” and his “proud blue-eyed queen.”

Transformed by Joyce’s imagination, she becomes Molly Bloom, the most famous female character in 20th Century fiction. Nora was also the model for Gretta in “The Dead” and Anna Livia Plurabelle in “Finnegan’s Wake”. Almost all of James Joyce’s extraordinary insights came from Nora. According to British journalist Barbara Maddox, Nora was “his portable Ireland, the one from whom he could always hear the true Irish voice and sense the true Irish thought.”

Joyce himself said this about Nora: “Everything that is noble and deep and true and moving about what I write comes, I believe, from you.”

The authorities, however, did not share Joyce’s conviction that his writing was necessarily noble and deep and true, especially his story about a Jewish cuckold named Leopold Bloom, one the main characters of his book, “Ulysses”. This novel is a modern version of Homer’s Odyssey. The action takes place in Dublin on a single day, June 16, 1904 — Bloomsday, and the day Joyce himself first encountered Nora Barnacle. The three central characters — Stephen Daedelus (Joyce’s alter ego and hero from his earlier “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”), Leopold Bloom, a Jewish advertising canvasser, and his wife Molly Bloom — serve as counterparts to the original Telemachus, Ulysses and Penelope. The unfolding events of the day parallel the major events in the Odyssey as Ulysses journeys home.

Ulysses is not an easy book to read or to understand. In writing it, Joyce sought to not only describe what the characters do on that certain day early in June as they went about the city bent on their usual occupations, but also to tell what many of them were thinking. His innovative introduction of interior monologue known as the stream-of-consciousness technique revolutionized modern fiction. It revealed the innermost thoughts of a book’s characters. In Joyce’s case, they were thinking mostly about sex. Consider the ending, exceptional in itself for being one long, run-on sentence that goes on for more than 40 pages:

And O that awful deepdown torrent I and the sea the crimson sea sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Girbralter as a girl where I as a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the corse in my hair like the Andulusion girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and he asked me would I yes and I drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

One can only imagine what Joyce himself must have been thinking at the time he was writing “Ulysses”. His “Dubliners” had just been roasted in an auto da-fe in Ireland, and he now arrived in Paris from Trieste in the summer of 1920 with the voluminous manuscript of “Ulysses” in hand. If “Dubliners” had been an exercise in futility, “Ulysses” with its frank talk of sex, offal, and scatological matters
was an entirely different matter. Just as it holds true today, it was always rare for printers and publishers to agree on anything; but in Joyce they nearly all shared one single point of view — he was too dangerous to publish.

Nevertheless, two elderly ladies courageously excerpted the eleventh chapter in “The Little Review” and were duly and immediately brought to jail, fingerprinted and all of their copies confiscated. Further publication was banned. Yet Sylvia Beach, who had been running a small English bookshop and a lending library in Paris, called Shakespeare and Company, dared to publish “Ulysses” in book form in 1922. This continental publication of Ulysses led to further complications in the United Kingdom and the United States. Copies were seized and burned by customs authorities in New York and Folkstone. Eventually, the book became the center of a major censorship trial in the United States. The judge, after a thorough reading, called the book “brilliant, dull, intelligible, and obscure by turns” and he thought parts of it were simply disgusting. Still, in writing his opinion, the judge said the overall result of the book is that of a somewhat tragic and powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women and a true picture of the lower middle class in a European city that should be available for the American public to see for itself. The court found the book to be of artistic merit and “Ulysses” was no longer banned. The result freed writers from having to seek refuge in euphemisms. It set a precedent by making it more difficult for censors to legally attack any book of artistic integrity, no matter how frank and forthright it might be.

As Joyce suffered the indignities of censorship, his personal life resonated with great drama and mischief-making as well. For one thing, he was a stupendous drinker and included among his companions Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett (who served as his secretary for a brief time), Ezra Pound and many other expatriate writers residing in Paris during the 1920s. Joyce drank mostly white wine and compared his favorite Swiss white wine to urine, an archduchess’s to be sure. He hardly drank spirits. He loathed red wine because to him it tasted of blood.

Recounting his many drinking bouts with Joyce, Hemingway once remarked: “He was a nice man, but nasty, especially if anyone started talking about his writing. He was proud and very rude — especially to jerks.”

In May 1921, he met Marcel Proust at a supper party for Stravinsky and Diaghilev. William Carlos Williams had a version of the encounter in which Joyce complained to Proust of a headache and Proust to Joyce of a bad stomach and both immediately went home. Another version has Joyce recounting: “I met him at a literary dinner and when we were introduced, all he said to me was ‘Do you like truffles?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘I am very fond of truffles’.” So went the only conversation which took place between the two most important writers of their time.

Joyce had two phobias: dogs and thunderstorms. As for dogs, he always walked with an ashplant cane to fend off any chance canine encounters on the streets of Paris. He blamed the increased frequency of thunderstorms on the number of radio transmissions disturbing the atmosphere. In photos, he is always dressed in full suit and cravat. And what is striking is the black eye patch he wore because of his declining eyesight. In 1931, he and Nora finally married. “Finnegan’s Wake”, his most radical and complex work, was published eight years later. After the fall of France in World War Two, Joyce relocated his family to Zurich, where he died in January 1941, still disappointed with the reception given his last book.

I leave you now with the circular close and open of Joyce’s famous last work. These words have meant much to me as a writer and a human being. If you want to know more about Joyce’s poetical mastery of language and his literary surprises, you will have to open “Finnegan’s Wake” and read it for yourself. And that would make you the fifth person to have ever actually read the book.

“So soft this morning, ours. Yes. Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair! If I seen him bearing down on me now under whitespread wings like he’d come from Arkangels, I sink I’d die down over his feet, humbly, dumbly only to washup. Yes, tid. There’s where. First. We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then, Finn again! Take. Bussofttlhee, mememormee! Till thousandthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a loved a long the riverrun past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

One Response

  1. This is a very good article. It was the perfect combination of narrative and inserts of Joyce’s writing. And I liked the humour of the article writer (“only five people have read Finnegan’s Wake). Joyce’s writing is hard to read. I am presently reading a biography of his tragic daughter, Lucia Joyce, “To Dance in the Wake”, by Carol Loeb Shloss. It is so great to read about his daughter and a family dynamic that can be revealed. To give Lucia a voice is a noble endeavor, although almost all of the correspondence between Joyce and his daughter were thrown away by family members. Families should not lose to literature something that could have given us so much insight.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!