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.

The children’s schooling was constantly interrupted. Hunger was a real problem, and Giorgio sang in a café at the age of two in return for free meals for the family. Nora, Joyce’s wife, who detested his drinking, figures in this book as something of a villain, jealous of Lucia and determined to cut short her career. Lucia appears to have nursed a murderous hatred of her mother in return. Giorgio, another of Shloss’s blackguards, seems to have been intent on getting his sister banged up. (No doubt some forthcoming biography will claim that he has been maligned.) Joyce himself probably had incestuous feelings for his daughter, who in turn was thought to be too intimate with her brother. Lucia once wrote a letter to her father, assuring him that ‘if ever I take a fancy to anybody I swear to you on the head of Jesus that it will not be because I am not fond of you.’ Samuel Beckett remarked that anyone wanting to be her lover would find himself an ‘in liu’ – in lieu – ‘man’. Joyce himself commented that Lucia ‘loved her brother in an extraordinary way’, and she fell into shock and depression when he married. Francini Bruni, one of Joyce’s drinking mates, would sometimes clamber into Giorgio’s baby carriage, sucking a bottle of milk and squealing like a baby while Joyce trundled him about the room. It was a standard dysfunctional family.

Lucia was a talented, independent girl with something of her father’s rebellious spirit. As Shloss gushes in her movie-guide idiom, ‘here was energy and originality that could tear your heart out.’ When the family moved to Paris she became a respected artist in her own right, after training with Raymond Duncan, the fearfully eccentric brother of Isadora. Duncan wandered around in a Roman toga and sandals, speaking of Dionysus and vital bodily flows. The latter might possibly have been connected to his disapproval of underwear, an opinion Lucia inherited from him.

Lucia appeared in a Jean Renoir film, and toured Europe with a reputable dancing troupe. Her work won the admiring attention of the Parisian critics. She became something of an ‘it’ girl, moving in fast-living Surrealist circles, plunging into an affair with Samuel Beckett and not averse to meeting the odd sailor under the Eiffel Tower. As cosmopolitan and avant-garde as her father, she was said to slip from English to French to Italian in the act of crossing a room. According to Joyce’s friend and commentator Stuart Gilbert, who always had it in for her, this meant that she was illiterate in three languages. Then, suddenly, she turned her back on dancing and began to manifest what may have been symptoms of mental illness.

Why Lucia gave up dancing is not clear, and Shloss refrains from rushing to judgment. She may have had an abortion which injured her health, or the jealous Nora may have put her foot down. In one account it was Joyce, not Nora, who called a halt to her career. Lucia had also been abandoned by a series of largely caddish lovers, the last of whom she thought deserved a prison sentence for the way he had treated her. It may have been this which led her to throw a chair at her mother, an action which Shloss describes thus: ‘Lucia, dangling irresolutely around the edges of her previous life, suddenly leapt from her liminal position to the forefront of everyone’s awareness by throwing a chair at Nora.’

In the Romantic-libertarian theory of R.D. Laing, the 1960s anti-psychiatry guru, the schizophrenic (which is how Lucia soon came to be labelled) is simply the family scapegoat, the victim who becomes the hapless focus of domestic psychological violence. This, certainly, is how Lucia’s champions saw the situation. She was too noisy and theatrical for a household in which the supreme goal was to allow Joyce to get on with his writing. On this theory, Lucia was sacrificed for a book. It is a thoroughly Jamesian scenario, the story of an innocent woman being sucked dry by a vampiric artist who finds in her an ersatz life.

Shloss’s account qualifies this judgment rather than repudiates it. The most impressive feature of her book is the delicacy with which it handles the complex ambiguities of the Joyce-Lucia relationship. Joyce did indeed neglect his daughter, but he also seems to have loved her dearly; Lucia adored her father, but bitterly resented playing second fiddle to Finnegans Wake. That ambiguity in turn encloses another: if she saw Joyce’s mighty work as a rival sibling, she also regarded it as a child of her own, given that she seems to have inspired so much of it. A daughter figure in the book is said to be ‘the dotter of her father’s eyes’, which suggests that she completed Joyce’s writing as well as being loved by him. Jung, who analysed Lucia briefly and unsuccessfully, had no doubt that she was her father’s anima or creative force.

Lucia’s ambivalence towards her father is revealed when she confesses to a friend that she feels oppressed by his fame. On being told consolingly that he isn’t really all that famous, she hotly protests that he is. Conversely, Joyce’s ambivalent sense of love and guilt towards his daughter is caught in his ominously Ibsenite comment that ‘whatever spark or gift I possess has been transmitted to Lucia and has kindled a fire in her brain.’ Whether the fire is genius or madness is left unspoken. ‘Tell him I am a crossword puzzle,’ Lucia said to a visitor to the asylum, ‘and if he does not mind seeing a crossword puzzle, he is to come out (to see me).’ Lucia was full of cross words, and was certainly difficult to decipher. Words in crosswords intersect, as they do in Finnegans Wake. Perhaps Lucia was identifying herself with what she knew was her father’s most precious love-object, in order to seduce him into seeing her.

Joyce does not seem to have thought that his daughter was crazy, though he did exclaim ‘Now I know she is mad’ when told that she had attended Mass. A psychiatrist at the Burghölzli, the notorious Swiss bin in which Lucia languished for a while, considered her neurotic but not psychotic. She did not suffer from hallucinations, hear voices or – like her father – engage in mystifying word-play. As far as schizophrenia goes, Joyce himself, or at least some of his writing, seems a far more suitable case for treatment. There is, however, a contrast between his polymorphously perverse prose, in which the unconscious (as with schizophrenia) is all on the surface, and his relatively sane persona in everyday life. Meaning in Finnegans Wake fragments and dissolves, but in a remarkably well-crafted way, just as Samuel Beckett shapes the void with meticulous exactitude.

Joyce was by no means as mad as his writing. In some ways, he was surprisingly conventional. For all their dishevelled style of living, the Joyces, like any petty-bourgeois Irish Catholic family, did not go in for airing intimate subjects. In this respect, they produced a daughter who out-lefted them, as progressive parents often do. Joyce celebrated the eternally fecund female, but a woman friend tartly remarked that he thought it was enough if a woman could write a letter and carry an umbrella gracefully.

Jung hinted that Ulysses betrayed symptoms of psychosis. Only ‘a creature with severe restriction of cerebral activity’, he thought, could have been responsible for its wanton abandonment of communicable meaning. He had no hesitation in laying the blame for Lucia’s condition at her parents’ doorstep. Joyce, he observed, was reluctant to have his daughter certified only because it would be an implicit admission that he himself was psychotic. Like many of Lucia’s medical advisors, Jung focused on her father rather than on her, a displacement which may well have been what had led her to seek medical advice in the first place.

In a three-year period in the 1930s, Lucia went through 24 doctors, 12 nurses, eight companions, three psychiatric institutions and £4000 worth of treatment, for which her now well-heeled celebrity of a father picked up the tab. What drove her to fury was being controlled, which was just what psychiatric clinics were in business to do. Resistance was interpreted as a sign of illness. She was subjected to constant surveillance, spied on by her family and supposed friends, placed in solitary confinement and sometimes physically restrained. Now and then she tried to escape. She was entirely aware of what was afoot: the doctors, she said, were trying to get hold of her soul, and indeed they were. Foucault could have written a gripping book about her. Was she really mad, or just Modernist? Was she barmy or bohemian? Was she insane, pretending to be insane, or both? Perhaps she was just abominably rude, as some observers considered. Or perhaps, as Shloss speculates, she was a drug addict whose symptoms could look much like mental derangement.

Perpetual scrutiny was what Lucia felt her voyeuristic father had subjected her to as a child. She saw herself as fodder for his fiction, and, on being told that he had died, said: ‘What is he doing under the earth? . . . He’s watching you all the time.’ It was her impression, she confided to a friend, that whatever she said or did went into a book. At the same time she seems to have regarded herself as the ideal reader of her father’s work, just as she seemed to think that he was the ideal reader of her. ‘Lucia has no trust in anyone except me,’ Joyce wrote, ‘and she thinks nobody else understands a word of what she says.’ Both father and daughter were esoteric texts impossible to fathom. It was on the ground of this opaqueness that they were able to come together.

This biography is at its best and its worst when it turns to unpack this strange complicity. At its worst, because it is here that Shloss’s ever precarious prose is at its most luridly tabloid. Lucia served Joyce ‘as a dark muse . . . fused in a dark creative bond with her father’. ‘Something creative, compelling, and possibly dangerous,’ she tells us, ‘had been going on between two extraordinary people.’ Lucia was ‘the light-giver, the patron saint of eyesight, the guide through dark places’. In fact, Joyce’s daughter was an echo of her half-blind father even to the point of having a cast in her left eye.

The word ‘dark’ is always a sign that Shloss is working up to a rhapsodic flight of fancy, as is the word ‘dance’. It evokes in her a language of flows, fluxes, intensities and desires which recalls the work of that great celebrator of the schizoid, Gilles Deleuze. Lucia and Joyce, the one dancing and the other writing, ‘communicate with a secret, unarticulated voice. The writing of the pen, the writing of the body become a dialogue of artists, performing and counterperforming, the pen, the limbs writing away.’

The most irritating aspect of this portentous parallel is that there is something in it. Joyce, who organised Ulysses around bodily organs, is indeed a great artist of the body, who in Finnegans Wake makes the signifier dance. And there does indeed seem to have been some mimetic bond between these two self-centred artists. Shloss argues persuasively that the conclusion of Finnegans Wake pays homage to Lucia, as Joyce poignantly seeks to make amends to his beloved daughter and convince her that all may still be well. Like most literary biographers, she makes too direct a connection between the art and the life; but she is probably right to hear in the words ‘How glad you’ll be I waked you! How well you’ll feel! For ever after’ a loving reassurance to the child Joyce had now lost for ever.

As this book demonstrates, Joyce never gave up trying to reclaim her. When the Second World War broke out, the French psychiatric hospital in which she was locked up came under German jurisdiction, and Lucia, classified as unworthy of life under Nazi laws governing the mentally defective, could have been murdered. Joyce moved heaven and earth to get her to safety, but died before he could do so. He had fled from one form of nationalism in Ireland, and was now up against an infinitely more noxious version of the creed. Finnegans Wake has been called a great anti-fascist novel – not because it has much to say about fascism, but because its promiscuous mixing of myths and languages is its author’s riposte to delusions of racial purity.

Lucia spent the last thirty years of her life in the psychiatric hospital in Northampton in which John Clare had been detained a century before. She died in 1982. If her father was unusual among the great Modernist writers for the resolute ordinariness of his art, he was also exceptional for his anti-tragic vision. There is no real tragedy in Joyce’s work, since there can be no absolute loss in a world of eternal recurrence. Everything is ultimately recycled as something else. We are all just plagiarisms of the past. But this was not true of Joyce’s life, which was haunted by the image of a Cordelia dead in his arms. Placing his hand on the manuscript of Finnegans Wake, he once told a friend: ‘Sometimes I tell myself that when I leave this dark night, she too will be cured.’