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The Curious Case of Amalia Popper

Issues from the hand of God the simple soul….”; and issue from the pens of pundits definitive works. Or so they’re meant to be and so we, the readers, must take them on faith, not able to engage in our own arduous literary researches to confirm or contest that wealth of detail which scholars dredge up to confound and amaze us when mining the life and works of the particular authors they’ve claimed as theirs. The great men are not to be questioned; their words set slippery things like literary tastes in place. Eliot could change the taste for Milton and Dickens could be almost eradicated from the scene by critical edict.

Now, on the subject of definitive works and how much trust should be reposited in them, a curious chain of events has been set in motion here in Italy following publication of the last bit of James Joyce’s unpublished writing—the short, handwritten prose-poem entitled Giacomo Joyce. This poetic fragment—epiphanies of mood, a fusion of images, observations, and abstract implications—celebrates a moment of romantic grace in the life of the writer while he was living and teaching in Trieste during the years preceding the First World War. It is, in the new expressive linguistic form he was to perfect in Ulysses, his ironic evocation of the attraction he felt toward a young lady student of his—an attraction just as definitely rejected by the lady in question, who is the subject of Giacomo Joyce.

Who is the lady in question? This, for those who have a taste for such matters, is the heart of the literary puzzle concerning the new Joyce work, for her identity remains mysterious despite the fact that Richard Ellmann, the most eminent and prolific of the Joycean scholars, definitely identified the enigmatic lady in his 1959 biography of Joyce with Amalia Popper of Trieste. Professor Ellmann’s James Joyce is enormous, painstaking, erudite, and a pleasure to read—and has, therefore, inexorably become what is known as a definitive work. There is everything in this biography; every fact in Joyce’s life has been tracked down, every person connected with the writer has been approached and tapped. The list of acknowledgements alone makes up some 330 names divided geographically by thirteen countries. Decades-old remarks of cab-drivers, hotel porters, and landladies were somehow preserved fresh in people’s memories, waiting for Ellmann to call them forth and fit them into the mosaic of Joyce’s life. Ellmann did not stint time or labor on his work; as he states in his Preface, he began thinking of a Joyce biography in 1947, started working on it steadily in 1952, and went to Europe three different times between 1953 and 1956 “to see Joyce’s relatives and friends, and to gather records.”

In the light of the very magnificence of the results of his work it is hard, if not impossible, to explain his unsupported assertion that Amalia Popper is the heroine of Giacomo Joyce, for most of the evidence he offers in Chapter 21 of the biography, which deals with Joyce’s private pupils in the Trieste period of 1913-1914 and the composition of Giacomo Joyce (fixed by Ellmann in July or August of 1914), is disputable.

As has now been established by Professor Michele Risolo of Florence, who was married to Amalia Popper from 1914 until her death in 1967, Ellmann was in possession of new elements of information concerning Amalia Popper’s relationship with Joyce that could not but alter his concept of her as the young lady depicted in Giacomo Joyce.

In the 1959 biography Ellmann’s establishment of Amalia Popper as the Giacomo Joyce heroine is unequivocal; in January, 1968, however, when the first edition of Giacomo Joyce was brought out in New York by Viking, Ellmann is strangely silent on the identity he so confidently stated previously. He refrains, in his Introduction, from assigning any identity to the female figure in Giacomo Joyce, and so it can be concluded that from the appearance of James Joyce in 1959 to the publication of Giacomo in 1968, Ellmann has come into possession of new information that has insurmountably altered his original thesis.

The new source of information is very likely Signor Risolo himself, the husband of Amalia Popper. It is not at all unlikely, if we consider the immediate historical and family interest he would have in it, that he is also that shadowy “collector who prefers to remain anonymous,” who, Ellmann tells us in his Introduction, is the present owner of the manuscript notebook of Giacomo Joyce and the one who released it for publication. Signor Risolo might easily have acquired the notebook from James Joyce’s brother Stanislaus who was in possession of it, who lived in Trieste until his death there in 1955 (with the interval of 1941-1946 in Florence), and who was well acquainted with the Risolos.

Certainly Ellmann’s former silence and now the growing reverberations from Signor Risolo have caused not a few literary men not a little embarrassment. John Updike, reviewing Giacomo Joyce in The New Yorker, was puzzled by Ellmann’s new reticence and refers to his biography to inform us that Amalia Popper was designated there as the Triestine student evoked in the new bit of Joyce’s writing. Before that, Matthew Hodgart, in The New York Review, also noted the discrepancy, noting, too, that it is not quite correct for the Viking edition to be hailed as the first publication of a recently discovered work since almost all the text had already been quoted in the biography.

But having been brought to reappraisal of former conclusions, Ellmann, rather than retreat into ambiguous silence, would have done better to have aired the new facts, and the proper place, of course, was precisely in his Introduction to Giacomo Joyce. For that much hailed publishing event was followed by a splurge of other articles—including a pictorial spread in Life entitled “The Mystery Lady of Giacomo Joyce“—which all faithfully followed Ellmann’s original Amalia Popper line. Ellmann is taken as revelation not only by American and English reviewers, but also by others in Europe, and the Amalia Popper story was undeviatingly reproduced by French and Italian critics, until finally Signor Risolo, with some delay, as he explained because of his absence from Florence, responded publicly in the Italian weekly L’Espresso to a review which had appeared there and had, once again, reiterated the Ellmann identification of Joyce’s heroine in Giacomo Joyce with his one-time pupil Amalia Popper.

So finally, in November 1968, Signor Risolo openly protests and marshals his facts: his wife, as Signorina Popper, was Joyce’s private pupil in three different periods between October 1908 and November 1909; after 1910 she was no longer residing in Trieste but was in Florence attending the University there. It was in Florence that she met Michele Risolo and she married him there in August 1914. This throws out completely the whole sequence in his biography where Ellmann has Signorina Popper as Joyce’s pupil in 1913-1914, the period corresponding to the events alluded to in Giacomo Joyce. In fact, Signor Risolo adds, his wife had often spoken to him of how Joyce came to the Popper home with his little son Giorgio in tow—a child of between three and four years old, not a schoolboy of eight or nine as he would have been if Amalia Popper had been Joyce’s pupil in 1913-1914. All the further corroboration of dates, places, names, and information that Signor Risolo gives to establish Amalia Popper’s residence in Florence and not in Trieste during the period when Giacomo Joyce was formulated is the main rebuttal to Ellmann’s erroneous sequence of events, but he adds other interesting items as well:

  1. Signorina Popper had perfect vision and never wore eyeglasses which figure so prominently as part of the character of the heroine of Giacomo Joyce.

  2. Signorina Popper never was operated on for appendicitis as is the young lady in Giacomo. But Ellmann, in the biography, wrote “One day he [Joyce] called to give her a lesson only to be informed by the maid that his beloved had been removed to the hospital for an operation. He walked away, as he said, feeling he was about to cry. ‘Operated. The surgeon’s knife has probed in her entrails and withdrawn, leaving the raw jagged gash of its passage in her belly. I see her full dark suffering eyes, beautiful as the eyes of an antelope. O Cruel wound! Libidinous God!’ …But Signorina Popper survived the removal of her appendix and soon was taking English lessons again.” Here Ellmann is not only quoting directly from Giacomo Joyce but has transposed part of it into a semblance of reality—a reality he, however, invented.

  3. Leopoldo Popper, father of Amalia, was not the white-whiskered old man that Ellmann reports him (basing himself literally on the text of Giacomo Joyce), but a handsome, dark-haired, moustached man of forty-eight when Joyce knew him.

Thus far Signor Risolo’s rebuttal in L’Espresso. But there are other points to be resolved, too. There is the most intriguing question of all: in those three material-gathering trips to Europe why was it that Ellmann didn’t go to Florence to interview personally this most important connection with Joyce while the lady was alive and in a position to clarify his chronology and attributions? Signora Amalia Risolo died only two years ago; her whereabouts could be no mystery to Joycean scholars for in 1933, as Signora Risolo, she had written to Joyce reminding him of her former connection with him as pupil and requesting permission to translate Dubliners into Italian. But the mystery is increased by the fact that, despite her evident interest in Joyce, and the predisposition one would assume that she would have to follow his writings and any publications about him (and, in particular, Ellmann’s biography), the lady herself never protested the role in which Ellmann cast her and which her husband sustains, and proves, she never had.

The strange truth of the matter, according to Signor Risolo, is that his wife never saw the Ellmann biography, not even when it came out in the Italian edition in 1964, for by that time she was stricken with her fatal illness. In fact, this former “best pupil” of Joyce had read only Dubliners—and in a copy which she borrowed from her sister. In 1932, preparing herself to take a competitive exam for the position of English teacher in the public schools, Signora Risolo bought a copy of Portrait but, says her husband, got only as far as page 10 and no farther. (This fact, too, stands in clear opposition to the young lady in Giacomo Joyce to whom the manuscript of Portrait was given to read: “She says that, had A Portrait of the Artist been frank only for frankness’ sake, she would have asked why I had given it to her to read.”) And Ulysses she never laid eyes on at all. It was only through her son who was living in Trieste and was in contact with people interested in Joyce, that this former Joyce pupil came to know what Ellmann had written of her in his biography. But, says Signor Risolo, neither his wife nor he had the time or disposition to dispute the so-called facts that pertained to her.

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