“Poetry, even when apparently most fantastic, is always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality.” — James Joyce, “James Clarence Mangan,” A lecture on the poet given at the Literary and Historical Society of the University of Dublin.
A man of complexities and contradictions, James Joyce was an Irish modernist writer born February 2, 1882, in Dublin, Ireland. He showed a rare brilliance at an early age, teaching himself Norwegian in order to read Henrik Ibsen’s plays in their original language, and pouring over the works of Dante, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas. He would eventually go on to learn seventeen languages throughout his life. Because of his proclivity for reading, philosophy, and language acquisition, his parents urged him to get an education, which he pursued at several Jesuit schools. This is not to say that he had an idyllic childhood. As the oldest of ten children, and supported by a father who usually spent the family’s money on alcohol, literature was more a haven for Joyce’s busy mind.
His first book, Dubliners, had been finished while he was in France, but remained unpublished for fourteen years because of its harsh criticism of Dublin and its bleak outlook on life. He had gathered most of his material by writing to his brother Stanislaus and asking him to give incredibly precise details about Dublin citizens and landmarks. Between this time, he met Nora Barnacle, who became his lifelong partner (they weren’t married until over thirty years later). Together, they traveled throughout Europe, with Joyce taking jobs as a teacher to support them and their growing family. After publishing his first book, he worked quickly and produced a second. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, while not a commercial success, succeeded in attracting the attention of Ezra Pound, who praised Joyce for his unique voice and originality. It was at once memoir and fiction, an idealized, exaggerated, and somehow all the more real version of Joyce’s youth. The stories he included had colored passages of Dubliners, but had appeared before in the eyes of an unfeeling narrator. It was this book that saw Joyce begin his journey into the characters’ minds in a way few authors had attempted before.
It was not, however, until he wrote Ulysses, that he became a household name. It detailed a day in the life of Irishman Leopold Bloom, and also served as a modern retelling of the Odyssey, with the main character representing Ulysses, and others representing Telemachus and Penelope. This multi-layering of modern prose and ancient legend singled Joyce out as one of the greatest, and soon most respected, writers of his day, but more than anything it was the style in which he told them, delving into his characters’ minds throughout a single day, letting nothing escape his literary eye. Trying to accurately simulate the human mind, Joyce employed minimal punctuation and even invented his own words to describe things through the minds of the Blooms. Because of its strange syntax, (some said flirting with incomprehensibility) it was lauded by critics and literati, but denounced by censors in the U.S. and the U.K. after its publication in France. Both countries claimed that the book’s portrayal of sex was nothing short of pornographic, but the intense drama around the court proceedings only served to increase the hype around both it and its author. Speaking at the end of the novel, Mary Bloom says:
“I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian 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 then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and 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.”
Exemplifying both his style and some of the alleged pornography, it is clear that there is a clear stream of conscious being used. When asked about this, he responded with his usual charming contradictions, saying:
“When I hear the word “stream” uttered with such a revolting primness, what I think of is urine and not the contemporary novel. And besides, it isn’t new, it is far from the dernier cri.”
He then asserted that Shakespeare used this style himself, and while some readers may disagree, it is helpful to remember the monolith of lexicon Shakespeare gave to the English language by making up words that seemed to make sense (eyeball is a surprising one).
Although his financial troubles were over after Ulyssses, Joyce continued to write, despite his failing battle with ocular diseases and infections. He underwent several operations, and during the writing of his final novel, Finnegan’s Wake, there were long periods of near blindness. Indeed, Joyce was forced to write in red crayon on large sheets of paper in order to see anything at all.
Perhaps this only added to his withdrawal into his own mind and the minds of his characters, as Finnegan’s Wake, the follow-up to Ulysses, was a resounding success, earning Book of the Week prizes in the U.S. and U.K. soon after publishing. With its intense use of inner monologue, invented words, and puns, Finnegan’s Wake was seen as an even more difficult read than its predecessor.
A year after this book’s publication in 1939, Joyce and his family moved from Paris to southern France, avoiding the Nazi occupation of the French Capitol. His family continued moving to flee the war. In 1941, after complications in an intestinal operation, James Joyce died in Zurich. For a writer known for his elusiveness, and a man known for his vacillations with faith, his last words were particularly moving. With his family surrounded, he simply asked:
“Does nobody understand?”
Prokosch, Frederic. Voices: A Memoir (1983), “At Sylvia’s.”
Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Modern Library, 1992.
Carleton Whaley is a senior English major at the University of Connecticut. He has the privilege of working with the Long River Review as Creative Nonfiction Editor.