Joyce and Company
- James Joyce: A Biography by Gordon Bowker
Phoenix, 608 pp, £14.99, March 2012, ISBN 978 0 7538 2860 1
What options are available to you if you yearn to belong to your place of origin, indeed to be one of its leading figures, yet simultaneously feel threatened and diminished by it? One answer might be to move far away while constantly reminding those back home of your existence, your ambitions, your still being one of them. How might you do that?
Perhaps you could write about the place critically, portraying it as a zone of suffocating limitation, spiritual death even, somewhere any sensitive intellectual would have to abandon, but write with an insistence, a passionate attention to detail, a capacity to transform the squalid into the lyrical such as to create an atmosphere of intense attachment and nostalgia. You might also portray all the people you knew there in an absolutely recognisable and for the most part negative fashion so that old friends and enemies remain constantly and anxiously attentive to what you write.
You might also take into what you will call exile, since the word suggests grievance and unfinished business, a loyal companion to represent all that is most accommodating and attractive in the place you abandoned; this will perpetuate a sense of belonging in absence without being threatening; it may even allow you to become the centre of a small community of your own; suitable candidates for this role would be an admiring younger brother, or a young and loving wife whose humble social background and limited education guarantee that she will always be beholden to you, however you behave.
Conscious or unconscious, such was James Joyce’s strategy with regard to Dublin, to Ireland. From the age of 22 until his death at 58 he lived in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy, Switzerland and France, but his creative attention remained focused on the Dublin he grew up in. Though he spoke the languages of his adopted homes, he did not become part of those countries, or write about them, or tie his destiny to them. In times of political upheaval he fled, though never back home. What mattered was belonging and not belonging to Ireland.
Two questions arise: why did the young Joyce develop these conflicting needs and what part did the consequent tension play in his achievement as a writer? Gordon Bowker never frames these questions or discusses his intentions as a literary biographer. His account proceeds in linear fashion, most chapters covering a period of one or two years. Detail overwhelms reflection throughout, while the connection between life and work is reduced to a catalogue of correspondences: we are told which real person gave which fictional character this or that physical attribute, or name, or occupation, or address. Readers familiar with Richard Ellmann’s biography of 1959 will be disappointed.
Born in 1882, James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was the first surviving child of John and May Joyce, whose recent marriage had been fiercely opposed by both sets of parents. Their first baby, named after his father, had died at barely two months. The first healthy son was crucial affirmation for the marriage and, although 13 further births would produce nine more surviving children, James was always his father’s favourite and always encouraged to believe he was destined for greatness. When, at the age of nine, he wrote a poem about the betrayal and downfall of Parnell, John Joyce, an avid supporter of republicanism and Parnell in particular, had dozens of copies made to circulate among friends.
To be singled out for glory will mean different things depending on the character of the person doing the singling out. By far the most important formative influence on James’s life, John Joyce can best be described as a spectacular failure, a man whose descent into alcoholism and poverty during James’s adolescence could not but command the appalled attention of everyone around him. A talented singer and raconteur, hard-drinking and gregarious, John spent countless hours in Dublin pubs drinking away a considerable inheritance (the family had owned a number of properties in Cork) and neglecting his duties in the various government departments that hired and invariably fired him. He was well known, well loved and beyond help. The impression one gets of him from biographies and from Joyce’s descriptions of Simon Dedalus, the character based on his father in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is of a patriarch who is such a dominating, magnetic and boastful presence that it is hard to imagine any son finding space beside him. It was never clear what being a success in the vicinity of John Joyce and for John Joyce might entail.
James’s childhood was spent in two sharply contrasting environments: rigidly organised, hierarchical Catholic boarding schools and a turbulent family that was more and more frequently obliged to move house as John took pride in cheating landlords by decamping without paying the rent. With ten children this must have been complicated. While the second son, Stanislaus, would eventually condemn his father and have nothing more to do with him, James never did, if only because he came to share many of John Joyce’s habits: the overspending, drinking and partying, the frequent moves at the expense of landlords and, more generally, the wilful denial of what most of us see as the ordinary terms of reality. When John died in 1931, James would say that, though always loyal to him, he was also ‘the silliest man I ever knew’.
Written and rewritten throughout his twenties and early thirties, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man shows the author’s alter ego forming around predicaments of positioning: where does he stand in relation to everything else? He is centre stage in the story his father tells him in the opening lines of the book but then hides under the table as his mother and aunt demand apologies and conformity. Frightened at school, he lingers on ‘the fringe of his line’ on the rugby field, keeps his head down in lessons, feigning participation to avoid punishment. A constant sense of vulnerability as a result of physical frailty and weak eyesight leads him to cultivate a mental space where he focuses on the language his companions use, at once feeding on them and keeping himself detached. But weakness and withdrawal invite enemies: a boy pushes him into a ditch, he catches a cold. Finally we find the one place at school where Stephen is happy: the sick bay. Here he dreams about his own death, the remorse of the enemies who hurt him, the regret of his parents. Now language embellishes and consoles: ‘How beautiful and sad that was! How beautiful the words were …’ Later he compares his own imagined death with Parnell’s: he has been treacherously used and isolated, as was Parnell; like Parnell, he will die and this will place him at the centre of everybody’s attention. Whether A Portrait is fact or fiction, a pattern of behaviour is established that finds ample confirmation in the biography: vulnerability prompts detachment through a focus on the mechanics rather than the content of language, then a poetic manipulation of language brings consolation and a sense of belonging at a distance.
At school in his teens, Joyce found an easy way of belonging: religious devotion. It was also a way of distinguishing himself: he pushed devotion to the limit, writing religious verse and toying with thoughts of the priesthood, something his mother would have liked. Much is made of the adolescent Joyce’s swings between extremes of religious and profane behaviour, moving from brothels and drunkenness to marathon sessions with the rosary; but there is nothing to suggest a deeply felt religious dilemma or profound sense of guilt. ‘Agenbite of inwit’ for Joyce seems to have involved no more than an anxiety that his sins might prevent him being thought well of, or thinking well of himself. It is rather that he became part of different social groups and mastered their language, pushing his behaviour to the limit to gain distinction before moving on. After rejecting religion in his late teens and refusing in 1903 to obey his dying mother and take communion, he nevertheless continued to go to church, making himself conspicuous now precisely by not taking communion.
The trick of being simultaneously inside and outside the group is most evident with Joyce’s singing. Sharing his father’s talent, Joyce loved to perform, preferably alone, and always thought of singing, and indeed writing, as competitive. Immersed in the music he was as Irish as can be, but in a way that required neither interaction nor submission. Here, in the words of the diarist Joseph Holloway, is the 22-year-old Joyce taking centre stage to sing, before withdrawing to his own special space:
Mr J. Joyce, a (mysterious kind of) strangely aloof, silent youth, with weird, penetrating, large eyes, which he frequently shaded with his hand and with a half-bashful, faraway expression on his face, sang some dainty old world ballads most artistically and pleasingly, some to his own accompaniment. As he sings he sways his head from side to side to add to the soulfulness of his rendering. Later he sat in a corner and gazed at us all in turn in an uncomfortable way from under his brows and said little or nothing all evening.
That the teenage Joyce had absorbed his father’s expectations and the praise of his Jesuit teachers is evident from the confident precociousness of his early work. Written in 1900, at 18, a play entitled A Brilliant Career bore the dedication:
My own Soul I
Dedicate the first
true work of my
In 1902, about to leave on his first trip to Paris, James told Stanislaus that should he die during the journey, 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 Gregory among others. But even as he made these 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 criticising him, remarking on leaving: ‘I have met you too late. You are too old.’ It was always Joyce’s way to have others understand that he was more important.
The habit of forcing himself into the limelight while simultaneously inviting exclusion would also emerge in his writing. None of Joyce’s major publications – Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake – was completed before being offered for publication. All had chapters, or sections, published at early stages of writing, and all ran into trouble with editors or censors, for either their avant-garde style or supposedly obscene content. Joyce’s response was never to back off, but rather to raise the stakes and push the offence to the limit. For this integrity he has been much praised, yet the biographies suggest that the habit of exasperated provocation was standard in all his relationships, including those with his wife, Nora, and Stanislaus, his favourite brother.
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 writes rather grandly. At 22, he had already completed a volume of poems, published two of the stories that would appear in Dubliners and was making progress with his novel Stephen Hero, with the enthusiastic but attentive criticism of Stanislaus. He had also published reviews and was provoking anger and admiration with vicious satires of the Dublin literati. It’s hard to imagine, then, that living in Ireland meant nothing to Joyce. Reading through the sequence of events before his departure, it’s clear that Nora was crucial.
Joyce’s mother died in 1903, depriving the family of its main element of stability. The next summer he met Nora Barnacle. Until then his sexual experience had been mostly with prostitutes, who have the merit that they don’t betray you, criticise your ideas, or make you wait long for satisfaction. But in March 1904 a venereal infection obliged him to become more careful. Now Joyce met an attractive, uneducated, sexually willing girl who had fled a severe father in Galway and was alone and unprotected in Dublin, where she worked as a chambermaid. It was love at first sight but Joyce was too ashamed of his scarcely literate beloved to introduce her to his intellectual middle-class friends or to a father who had quite other aspirations for him. To be with Nora in Ireland would mean a battle with his father and would badly damage his image; but how long would a girl be faithful if her man kept treating her as a mistress? If they eloped, Joyce could enjoy erotic cohabitation with Nora while presenting himself back in Dublin as an intellectual who simply had to escape the ‘rabblement’ that was the Irish literary world. On the day of departure, Nora was sent ahead to board the ferry alone, while Joyce enjoyed a proper send-off at the dockside from all his family and friends, who were 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 city of 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 he had on drink.
Bowker conscientiously records every disappointed request for work, every move from one drab flat to another. The couple’s first child was named George after James’s brother who died three years before. Such was the loyalty to home. Nora fell into depression. Joyce wrote to his Aunt Josephine for advice and started visiting prostitutes again. Desperate for company, he invited Stanislaus to join them, then exploited him shamelessly, taking his help and language-school earnings for granted. On a whim he went to Rome, got a job at a bank, hated the place and so returned to Trieste and Stanislaus’s charity. A second child, Lucia, was born. Only 25, and already a patriarch, Joyce’s health was deteriorating, his eyesight in particular. At this point it was clear that expatriation had slowed down his career.
In 1909 Joyce returned, twice, to Ireland, once alone, and once with George, now usually called Giorgio, but not with Nora. On the first of these occasions he was told that Nora had been unfaithful to him before they left Dublin and wrote her hysterical letters of accusation. Included in full by Ellmann, quoted only in snippets by Bowker, they show Joyce’s fear of the loss of personal prestige. Later, persuaded that the story was a lie (hence an act of treachery by his enemies), he wrote to her asking forgiveness for the earlier letters, then, among all sorts of adventurous erotic proposals, told her: ‘I wish to be lord of your body and soul.’ Life with Nora was essential, but only possible far away from Ireland, where she was unhappy and work was difficult. To keep her company, Joyce brought back to Trieste two of his sisters from Dublin, first Eva then Eileen. Later they would be joined, at some expense for shipping, by the Joyce family portraits, as James 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. An aesthetic of difficulty and deep-coded meaning was coming into vogue. Joyce was the right man at the right moment. That he wrote about the common people and claimed to be a socialist was welcome, while his habit of writing 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 to serialise A Portrait. Three years later, Harriet Weaver, the editor and patron of the Egoist, made a first gift of money to Joyce. Over the next twenty years, she would spend almost her whole 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 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 drank 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. Moving to Paris after the war, he spent the larger and larger sums now settled on him by Harriet Weaver on extravagant accommodation, restaurant bills, magnanimous tips – and of course drink.
To meet 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 in order to coincide with his birthday or the day he met Nora. If you agreed to publish his work on the given day, you were faced with hundreds of last-minute revisions. 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, then came the discussions of Finnegans Wake. To be his wife was to be asked to satisfy his wildest erotic fantasies. If you satisfied his erotic fantasies he might ask you to flirt with someone else: that too was exciting. To be Joyce’s child 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 depicted a young intellectual powerfully attached to a community he feels he has no place in, a man who takes the floor at a Christmas party but gives a speech he knows will irritate everyone. Returning home he seeks erotic consolation from his wife only to discover she is pining for a boyfriend who died long ago, and who had been totally committed to her in a way he cannot be. Abandoned, isolated, with no way forward, he turns his static melancholy into a haunting vision of his whole country as a graveyard, still and frozen under the snow. The personal defeat of the Joycean alter ego is lyrically superimposed on the defeat of the whole nation. In A Portrait, written between 1907 and 1914, a young man in a treacherous society that makes impossible demands on him saves himself by assuming the position we have come to think of as the artist’s: he who observes, from outside. This move is presented as an affirmation of a quasi-religious commitment to renewing the nation’s conscience, an idea that has enchanted young intellectuals ever since.
Exiles (1918) never won Joyce acclaim yet marks a turning point in his development. Austerely Ibsenite in construction, this unhappy play confronts head on, without any of the lexical richness, stylistic experimentation or sentimental evocation of Ireland in his other writing, a love triangle, or rather rectangle. Richard and Bertha, a couple clearly 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 telling her husband about their meetings and even their kisses. He is sexually excited by the situation, but will not make clear to her whether or not he really cares if she betrays him. 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 has been revealed to Robert at her expense. Eventually all four characters reach an impasse: they try saying everything and its opposite without avail. Robert and Beatrice are still eager to start 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. Bowker gives us details of the historical relationships the story was based on, revealing once again Joyce’s tendency to push those close to him towards the betrayal he seemed both to fear and feed on.
Stalemate is a hard thing to dramatise 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 dramatise. But it was impossible to condemn because it was 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 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 wordplay, extraneous information and mythical parallel. Years later the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, one of the first to suggest that mental illness might arise from 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. Joyce would refer to the even more arcane and densely coded prose of Finnegans Wake 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 marshalling all his prodigious reading, not a refuge of the helpless. It was the controlled use of such language, Jung thought, that had saved the author’s sanity. Be that as it may, Joyce 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 his writing was becoming as important as what was encoded. And of course, the more intellectual and blatantly 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 a popular magazine 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 such an event.
Written in Zurich and Paris, during and immediately after the war (Nora and the children had to change languages from Italian to German to French), Ulysses was serialised in the New York-based Little Review, but published in 1922 by the small Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Company to avoid censorship problems. Remarkably, Joyce was granted a 66 per cent royalty. Enthusiastically promoted, the book sold well by mail order. In addition to writing frequent begging letters to Weaver, Joyce could now send his children to Shakespeare & Company to ask for advances against royalties. Again Bowker reports the drunken evenings, expensive meals, hotel rooms and apartments (usually kept in a state of some disorder).
Joyce read his reviews avidly. He rarely minded criticism: what mattered was to be at the centre of debate. Seeing that Ulysses had divided critics between those who praised it generously, using it to bolster their own agendas for experimental fiction, and those, including Stanislaus, who thought its obscurity and obscenity had gone too far, in 1923 he started writing a book that would put the loyalty of his supporters to the supreme test, a work whose title he wouldn’t reveal until its publication 16 years later and whose plot defies all summary but involves a father accused of sexual crimes, possibly incestuous, and a wife who asks her writer son (who has weak eyesight) to write a letter defending the father. Neither accusations nor letter are ever clearly revealed, though the novel revolves constantly around them. While Ulysses had created its stylistic effects to a large degree through curious word order (‘perfume of embraces all him assailed’), here a high proportion of the words are portmanteaux, often made up of elements from various languages (‘And thanacestross mound have swollup them all’). Almost at once the formula succeeded in eroding the support of both Pound, Joyce’s main promoter, and Weaver, his main source of income, both of whom found it incomprehensible and unappealing. Depressed and inflamed by such treachery, Joyce made the book more complex.
It’s said that Joyce lived in Paris in these years. In fact he rarely remained more than a few months in the same place, staying for weeks at a time in luxury hotels in different parts of France, Belgium and Switzerland and making frequent trips to England – he even attempted to set up home in London. Endless problems with his sight increased his already remarkable capacity to get people to do things for him. Despite frequent stomach pains – stress-related, he believed – he continued to drink heavily. Nora was threatening to leave him if he didn’t change his ways, but stayed despite his refusal to do so; by then it was hard to imagine what life she could build for herself away from Joyce. Then, in 1932, Lucia showed everyone the only way to stop her father from always doing exactly what he wanted: as she and her parents prepared to board the boat train to London at the Gare du Nord she threw a fit so violent that Joyce had to abort the trip.
Those who subscribe to Bateson’s view that mental illness may, at least in part, come out of certain kinds of impasse within the family will read Bowker’s account of Lucia’s descent into schizophrenia with interest. Both children had been encouraged to think of themselves as artists, Giorgio a singer, Lucia a dancer. Bowker quotes guests of the household describing the children and their father performing for them after dinner parties. But Joyce’s favourite was always Lucia. He had encouraged her to believe she was a genius and was disappointed in 1929 when, at 22, she abruptly gave up dancing. When she then began to study as an artist he urged her to help him with an illustrated edition of his poems. Bowker speculates that the adolescent Lucia may have been the object of her father’s sexual attentions and certainly she seemed to take a vindictive pleasure in letting her parents know all about a sudden period of promiscuity. However, when we hear Lucia herself speak, the bitterness is all to do with her father’s monomania, his always occupying the centre of attention and wasting the money that might have been his children’s inheritance. On one visit to friends she threatened to leave if anyone so much as mentioned her father. On another she insisted to one of Joyce’s admirers and helpers that ‘her father was a failure and a physical wreck who could neither write nor sleep on account of a ruined constitution. What was more … he was seriously broken down and his life was now devoted to squandering her inheritance.’
Such was the rivalry in the family for Joyce’s attention that no sooner had Lucia moved centre stage than Nora and above all Giorgio (recently married to a wealthy American divorcée ten years his senior) were calling for her to be committed to a mental hospital. In a family accustomed to exasperation, the stakes were quickly raised: Lucia assaulted her mother and twice set fire to her room. Torn between his writing, where he was all-powerful, and the appalled recognition that something real, terrible and possibly irreversible was taking place, Joyce wavered, allowed Lucia to be committed then fetched her back, then allowed her to be committed again – and so on. When he and Nora took their expensive holidays he arranged for postcards to be sent to Lucia from Paris as if he were still at home. He understood the changes Lucia was demanding he make, but with her in an asylum there was no need to make them.
In 1936 Ole Vinding, a Danish writer, met Joyce in Copenhagen and quoted him as admitting that ‘since 1922 my book has become more real to me than reality … all other things have been insurmountable difficulties.’ ‘He sucked energy from his surroundings,’ Vinding said, and of the relationship with Nora he remarked that Joyce ‘was like a spoiled boy with his quiet, eternally permissive mother’.
One of the embarrassments of literary biography is that nobody seems sure how we should talk about the relationship between a writer’s life and work, despite the fact that we are interested in the life, at least initially, only because of the work. A prevailing orthodoxy tells us that novels, poetry and plays exist quite separately from their creators and can properly be discussed only in critical essays that ignore the artist’s life and give short shrift to the idea that, however indirect, a piece of writing is always a form of communication between writer and reader. On the other hand, when we see behaviour patterns as constant as those in Joyce’s life, it’s reasonable to imagine that the work stands in relation to them in some way. We might think of a writer’s novels over the years as a form of extended conversation between author and readership, in which the author naturally seeks to assume the position he is most comfortable with. To read Lawrence, for example, as Lawrence himself said, is to be ‘in the thick of the scrimmage’. He was an argumentative man who liked to have combative opponents around him. The reader is urged to react, to fight back. Joyce, on the other hand, was in the habit of collecting admiring helpers who ministered to him. He ‘will not serve’, but wishes others to serve him. ‘He got people … to follow him wherever he wanted,’ remarked Stuart Gilbert, who himself helped Joyce in all kinds of ways, making them drop everything to help him with even the most ‘trivial, easily postponed task’.
Joyce’s reader, particularly in the later works, is invited to become another such helper, endlessly interpreting Joycean condundrums, running little semiotic errands between different sections of the text. ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles,’ Joyce said of Ulysses, ‘it’ll keep the professors busy for centuries.’ Finnegans Wake – ‘a history of the world’, Joyce claimed – with its cyclical structure, its broken first sentence that is the continuation of the last, invites you to suppose that you are trapped in the book for ever, drawn into a black hole of literary obsession that leaves no space for anything but awed admiration of its author. Wonderful in parts, but making such extraordinary demands on our time and patience that only someone who could turn this labour into a career would settle down to understand the whole thing, Finnegans Wake contrives to be that phenomenon Joyce’s life had always tended towards, a glorious failure, a monumental undertaking forever cited but rarely read.
In his perceptive introduction to the second volume of Beckett’s letters, Dan Gunn suggests that the Second World War changed Beckett’s hitherto Joycean style. He had seen so much turmoil and destruction that his own obsessions became less urgent. Where he had been contorted, exhibitionist and self-regarding, he now became more straightforward and generous. In this sense, the war came too late for Joyce. Shortly after the invasion of Czechoslovakia he objected to a friend who was talking politics: ‘Let us leave the Czechs in peace, and occupy ourselves with Finnegans Wake.’ Months later, with the flow of money finally drying up, as he struggled to bring Nora and his grandson Stephen to the safety of Switzerland, he was forced back towards reality by Hitler’s advances, back, for example, to finding pleasure in walking a little boy to the shops to look for a toy. Some four weeks after crossing the border into Switzerland, Joyce was taken ill and died in a matter of days from a perforated ulcer.