Oas he talkative? Was he wearing an overcoat? Was he dreaming of fame? Such questions we ask ourselves about the great deceased, trying in our desperate way to identify with them, with a point of contact, with a disease, with a whim that brings us closer to them. Such questions find no satisfactory answer in works of fiction, writers being by necessity conjurers, ex-lovers unreliable, friends too far away, enemies bilious, hence the closest to a legendary figure is from the letters. The letters are like the lines on a face, a testimony. In this case, they are the access to the man who locked up the mind, who housed the genius of James Joyce.
In his youth, he was suspicious, contemptuous, unaccommodating. He considered his compatriots to be made up of yahoos, adulterous priests and devious and deceitful women. He classified it as “the venereal condition of the Irish”. Like wild geese, he wanted to go somewhere else. He wanted to be continentalized. He loved the vines. He had a dream of Paris, and a passion for languages. In literature, his heroes were Cardinal Newman and Henrik Ibsen. To Ibsen he wrote: “Your work on Earth is coming to an end and you are close to silence. It’s dark for you. He was 19 at that time. Young men generally do not know such things unless there is already the shadow of their future upon them. There was on him. He fell into blindness. He was plagued with glaucoma, cataracts, iris disease, retinal dissolution. He reportedly underwent 25 eye operations. His nerves were like the chirping of troglodytes. His pandemonic brain as he resorted to aspirin, iodine, scopolamine.
Religious motives may have dogged him along with Latin words and hades and Potsdam and melancolores and Atrahora and Portuguese for devil, but he remained an outspoken man. In a harsh and almost vulnerable retort, he was led to point out to his aunt that receiving a copy of Ulysses was not like receiving a pound of chops and he urged her to take it back from any thug who did. get out, under the name of the loan. His mind kept calculating. In the next letter, or the next letter, he asked her questions. If such and such a house was covered with ivy on its sea front wall, how many steps were there to the sea, could a man scale a certain railing in Eccles Street without injury. To him words were not just literature, but numbers, numbers, things which, when he chained them together in his wild and prodigious way, took on another light, another luster, and were the litany of his decrepit Catholic soul. He loved hymnals and chatter and all languages to weld together. The English he was looking for was Pidgin, Cockney, Irish, Bowery, Mythological and Biblical. To avoid being sickening or risking being literary, he always preceded his incandescent sentences with a joke. When he asked Italo Svevo to retrieve a briefcase, he first described it with surgical precision, its waxed fabric, the approximate weight, the approximate measurement and the protrusion which seemed to him to have a resemblance to the belly of a nun. Then he added: “In this briefcase I placed the written symbols of the languid lights which sometimes flashed upon my soul.” It was only by giving the complexion a pedestrian complexion that he could communicate his real feeling, his depth.
To like! Love makes us all morons. It is a comfort to know that he fell sublimely into these traps. No detachment, no grand phrases, but bubbling lust, distrust and doubt. Her love object, and an enduring one, Nora Barnacle, was from Galway, the town of her tribal name. They left ‘Stepmother Eireann’ in October 1904 to embark on a life of misery, obstacles and adventure. Their first stop was the naval town of Pola, where Joyce taught at a Berlitz school, reveled in the medium of several languages, and regularly held court in the taverns. Meanwhile, in a rented room, home sick, Nora moped, was ridiculed by her co-teachers, often threatening to leave him, but never did.
During a brief visit to Dublin, with the ridiculous intention of opening a cinema, Joyce’s passion for Nora was rekindled and deposited in a torrent of intemperate letters. Could he be hit by her, or better still whipped? Could he be her child? Could she be his mother? Desire and shame, shame and desire. His own words for his own feelings were that they were crazy and dirty.
He tended to his own talent, not for the sake of bombast or self-glorification, but rather as a faithful guardian. He had the fixity of the great and therefore had no need of vanity. He felt that three shillings would be a fair price for Odysseus. A boring book, he admitted. At the same time, he was haunted by the fear that the printing press would be burned down or that an unfortunate catastrophe would occur. He helped Miss Beach pack the copies, he autographed the deluxe editions, he wrote to influential people, he peddled parcels through the post office. He knew that the illustrati would often change their minds before settling on a definitive opinion and that many others would know as much as the parliamentary side of his ass.
It was for the safety and well-being of his family that his deep heart was laid bare. He had two children, Giorgio and Lucia, and believed that a mysterious illness struck them when they were little. Lucia wanted to be a dancer and then an illustrator, but didn’t succeed either. Fathers and daughters. This clandestine embrace. In her twenties, she felt like a failure. First apathy, then slipping into a speech that echoes the “baulkspeech” of Finnegans Wake, so much so that he calls her his “Inspirator”. She became violent, especially towards her mother. Eventually, the specialists and doctors persuaded him that she had crossed the line and that she should be placed in an institution. She hated her incarcerations, said Jung was a fat man, trying to steal her soul, set several of these premises on fire, after which Joyce and Nora had to find another sanatorium in Austria, Germany or Switzerland. Joyce, who constructed constellations through language, was powerless to cure her.
Towards the end of his life, there was a thaw, a melting. He was hailed at the opera. But it wasn’t the fame that made him soften, it was surely the growth. He called people, sent greetings, telegrams, entertained guests with his clear tenor tones. He sent Yeats an autographed copy of Work in Progress and said that if Mrs. Yeats would mind unstitching the first pages of Ulysses, he would happily sign it for them. He sent Pomes Penyeach to the University of Galway Library. They had had a special reading desk made and he was delighted that his book, with Lucia’s letters, was on display for all the ex-hooligans to see. He had reached a height.
When war breaks out, Joyce and Nora have to leave Paris for neutral Switzerland. The enterprise had in it all the clumsiness and crushing perversity of a Kafka fable. Worse, he was unable, despite trying tirelessly, to obtain a permit for the release of Lucia from a Maison de Santé in Brittany.
A solitary figure with an eyepatch in a long overcoat, he was seen wandering the side streets of Zurich with a stick, stones in his pocket to drive away marauding dogs. Finished. No more. A fadographer of yesteryear.
In January, he was struck down by pains that could only be relieved by morphine, and the next day, writhing like a fish, he was taken to the Red Cross hospital. There he was diagnosed with a perforated duodenal ulcer which had been his undiagnosed companion for years and was operated on immediately. Later, blood transfusions were provided by two soldiers from Neuchâtel, an area known for the wine he had so often savored. Nora was advised to return to their accommodation, believing the worst was over. He is approaching sixty. After a few hours, he falls into a coma and dies. It was January 13, 1941 – 13 being a number he had always considered unsuitable for travel.
It’s hard not to believe in immortality, considering the untimely death of dear Mr. Joyce.
This essay was first published in the 1970 collection A Bash in the Tunnel: James Joyce by the Irish