Joyce: A Postal Inquiry

James Joyce
James Joyce; drawing by David Levine

Joyce did not regard the letter or its brazen sister, the postcard, as a literary form of any consequence, but almost every day he burdened mailmen in different parts of his hemisphere with his sedulous correspondence. At letter’s length he felt comfortable, and wrote sparely and to the point. His letters adopt a stance which at first may appear the reverse of that in his books. His creative works are humorous, lyrical, daring. These qualities appear from time to time in his correspondence, but its prevailing tenor is wry, terse, pressed down. “I am in double trouble, mental and material,” he writes, and says in another letter, “my spiritual barque is on the rocks.” In both of these the statement has a sweep and finality which paradoxically imply that all may not be lost. His summaries of his condition are sometimes more epigrammatic: “My mouth is full of decayed teeth and my soul of decayed ambitions.” And sometimes he relents a little to joke: “Well! (as Mr. Pater beautifully says) I have reached the low-water mark in Xmases this ‘ere time.” He is fond of deflating his life into a vista of ludicrous confusion. As Joyce writes later of Shem. “O! the lowness of him was beneath all up to that sunk to!” In an early letter he wrote that he could not enter society except as a vagabond, and there is perhaps always a submerged pleasure in his not being an upstanding British subject.

The sense of contradiction between his works and his letters is illusory. The attitude of resignation is not so far removed from that of confidence as it first appears. It contains, in fact, a peremptory note. Underneath themes which are favorites of Joyce from beginning to end—the meticulous exposition of his penury, his physical weakness, or his discouragement—there is the conviction that he expresses rarely because he holds it so unshakably, that his needs are trivial when weighed with his deserts. The letters simultaneously plead and berate. He tells his brother, “Do not delay so long executing my requests as I waste a lot of ink.” He demands patronage rather than charity. Joyce’s conviction of merit was justified in the event, yet he was imbued with it long before there were publications or even manuscripts to confirm it; confidence in his powers may be said to have antedated their manifestation.

BECAUSE OF THIS CONFIDENCE he has little patience with those who fail to pay tribute to his talent, and is likely to shift suddenly from supplicant to renunciant. He is regularly on the verge of scorning the help he requires. This readiness to “doff the world aside” is characteristic of him. He is like Stephen in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who counters his girl’s practical questions about his future by making “a sudden gesture of a revolutionary nature,” evidently a dismissal…

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