Joyce: Heroic, Comic

Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images
James Joyce, Paris, 1934

Shortly after noon on May 29, 2002, the Irish government jet touched down at Dublin airport. As the prime minister and a large media contingent waited by the runway, the minister for culture, Síle de Valera, descended the steps, holding in front of her a case—or should one say a reliquary?—containing five-hundred-odd sheets of paper. Journalists were given a brief glimpse of the precious cargo: early drafts of eight episodes of James Joyce’s Ulysses and amended proofs of Finnegans Wake, purchased for €12.6 million (about $15.5 million). De Valera, whose grandfather Éamon dominated Irish politics between the 1930s and the 1960s, when the work of most serious Irish novelists was banned, declared the arrival in Dublin of these sacred relics a “monumental event in Ireland’s literary and cultural history.”

For those of us who had known the thrill of reading Joyce when he was still the scandalous author of dirty books, this was a bittersweet moment. It was good, of course, that one of the greatest of Irishmen was at last being honored in his own country, and especially in the city that was, even after he left it for the last time in 1912, his imaginative universe. But Joyce really is dirty and scandalous. Those precious pages, for each of which the Irish government paid around $30,000, stink of flesh, ordure, and bodily fluids. They are steeped in forbidden thoughts and dishonorable desires, in secrets, blasphemy, and sex. They were not made to become holy relics. Censorship and opprobrium may have been a cruel fate for the living Joyce, but elevation to sainthood after his death is not necessarily a better one.

Yet the great sinner, once a literary Bolshevik (Shane Leslie) whose “illiterate, underbred” Ulysses was the “nauseating” effluent of a “self taught working man” (Virginia Woolf), seems doomed to sanctity. He is now not merely a great official Irishman but a great official European: in 2009, the president of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, placed him in a new Holy Trinity that defines Europeanness, a term that means, he said, “that I live in a modern literary atmosphere that is influenced directly and indirectly by the Czech Kafka, the Irishman Joyce and the Frenchman Proust.” When the young Joyce was bored out of his mind, working in Rome as a correspondence clerk for the Nast-Kolb & Schumacher Bank, it might have been of some comfort to know that he would one day be providing the cultural underpinning for the euro.

This veneration might not be so bad if it were based on his work rather than his life, but it is hard not to suspect that Joyce is now more revered than read. The dirty, slippery, uproarious, demented, and hysterically funny Joyce of the books is one thing. The artistic martyr of the life, the hero who gives up everything for art, is quite…

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