Her Father’s Dotter

Terry Eagleton

  • Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake by Carol Loeb Shloss
    Bloomsbury, 560 pp, £20.00, June 2004, ISBN 0 7475 7033 7

James Joyce valued the everyday, but only if it could be grist to the mill of his highly formal art. Yeats endured ‘the baptism of the gutter’, descending into the profane world only to gather it into the artifice of poetic eternity, and Joyce’s aesthetic was similarly redemptive. He would grub among the odds and ends of secular history so as to salvage them for an art which was concerned with nothing but itself. In this, ironically, he could be faithful to the way the world was: the universe itself, he believed, was a set of endless, self-enclosed cycles, which his own art mirrored in its very narcissism.

And this, perhaps, is where the trouble with his daughter, Lucia, began. For if Joyce’s art was concerned with nothing but itself, neither in some respects was he. Joyce was an author in the Flaubertian mode, for whom writing was a sweated labour in which you might spend a week sculpting a single sentence into shape. When he declared with characteristic bumptiousness that he expected a reader of Finnegans Wake to spend as much time reading it as he had taken to write it, he meant that his works were designed to insulate the reader from everyday life just as surely as writing them had done for him.

So writing took up most of his time. The only problem was that he also had a wife and two children, one of whom, Lucia, he seemed more intent on gathering into his art than recognising as a person in her own right. Or rather, if Carol Loeb Shloss’s account is to be credited, Finnegans Wake (the novel he was engaged on while Lucia was growing up) both plunders her for perceptions and offers sorrowful reparation for the wreckage to which this reduced her.

Lucia had enough to feel resentful about. Born in the pauper’s ward of a Trieste hospital, she grew up in an impecunious family which was continually shifting from one cramped rented room to another. They endured serial evictions, and Joyce often enough found himself without pen or ink. He was Mr Micawber without the optimism. When he was not writing, he was drinking himself under the table in the backstreet bars of Trieste. Whether boozing or writing, Joyce never knew when to stop. His son, Giorgio, ended up an alcoholic.

As with the Micawbers, there were some bohemian delights to be reaped from this wretchedness. In her best Oirish style, as though cribbing from a particularly uninspired Sean O’Casey play, Shloss depicts a ‘loquacious, opinionated life that was filled with music, books, potatoes, cabbages, Irish bacon, polenta, colourful conversation, and a lackadaisical attention to custom’. Joyce, she continues, was a ‘musical, punning, limerick-writing, banister-sliding, extravagant and indulgent father’. Lucia relished this sharp-tongued, spiritually anarchic environment, but like any child she also needed a spot of security. It was this that was in short supply, as the whole family were dragged from one ramshackle apartment to another, in thrall to the needs of a randy, boozy, banister-sliding egoist.

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