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Joyce at 100

James Joyce thought about his centenary long before it occurred to his readers to do so. He scrawled in a notebook on Bloomsday, the day of Ulysses, in 1924, “Today 16 of June twenty years after. Will anybody remember this date.” His Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses asks the same question as he jots down lines for a new poem, “Who ever anywhere will read these written words?” Stephen also recalls, with a twinge, how before leaving for Paris he gave instructions that in the event of his death his epiphanies should be deposited in all the major libraries of the world, including Alexandria: “Someone was to read them there after a few thousand years….” The library at Alexandria having been burned centuries before, chances were slim that anyone would be reading his epiphanies there at any time.

Still, if Joyce mocked such immortal longings, it was because he had immortal longings to mock. His brother Stanislaus, who drew a sharp line between fiction and fact, remembered that James had given him similar instructions for the disposal of his poems and epiphanies before leaving for Paris in 1902. No one will object to brave youths displaying youthful bravado. Flushed with talent, or its semblance, they have all claimed with Shakespeare,

Not marble, nor the gilded monu- ments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rime.

Sometimes they’ve been right.

Joyce was convinced that a great future lay in store for him, and on the promise of it he allowed people to help him secure it. In 1904 he thought briefly that the moment had arrived; an Irish-American millionaire named Kelly seemed about to lend him money to start up a weekly magazine which was to be called The Goblin. Joyce said to his friend Francis Sheehy Skeffington, who was to be the co-editor, “I think I’m coming into my kingdom.” Unfortunately, millionaire Kelly withdrew. Eight years later the same phrase occurs in a letter from Joyce to his wife: “I hope that the day may come when I shall be able to give you the fame of being beside me when I have entered into my Kingdom.”

That he was still borrowing “left right and centre” did not dishearten him. In 1907 his second child was born in a pauper ward, but in that atmosphere Joyce confided to his brother, “My mind is of a type superior to and more civilized than any I have met up to the present.” An empty wallet did not impede his conviction of spiritual affluence. His confidence persisted as he grew older, and his putative kingdom continued to include the posterity for whom he thought his books would be required texts. When a friend asked him why he was writing Finnegans Wake in the way he was, Joyce replied, with a brag intended to provoke a smile, “To keep the critics busy for three hundred years.”

The first hundred of these three hundred years Joyce appears to have weathered quite well. His books are indeed studied all over the world, and have their effect even on those who do not read them. Anthony Burgess says over and over again that Joyce has had no influence whatever on English fiction; he then contradicts the statement with novel after novel. If nothing else, writers in England as elsewhere have to choose when they start a novel whether to be traditional, when in the pre-Joycean past they could be traditional without scruple. Joyce does not lack for admirers. He does not lack for detractors either.

His detractors are repelled by the Joyce fans who obsessively follow Leopold Bloom’s trail around Dublin, or climb the stairs of the Martello tower at Sandycove, or drink at the much refurbished bar in Davy Byrne’s. Still, such activities are not more pernicious, or cultic, than climbing Wordsworth’s Helvellyn, or visiting Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables in Salem or Proust’s aunt’s house in Illiers. If Joyce particularly inspires such pilgrimages, it is perhaps because we long to be on closer terms with this scriptor absconditus, this indrawn writer, in the hope of achieving an intimacy with him which he does not readily extend.

Another reason for seeing the places described in his books is that Joyce, although he transformed them into words, did not invent them. He said, “He is a very bold man who dares to alter in the presentment, still more to deform, whatever he has seen and heard.” This was in connection with the book Dubliners. He was always trying to verify details in the city which was almost a thousand miles from the table at which he was writing about it. How many feet down was the area in front of the house at 7 Eccles Street? What kind of trees were there on Leahy’s Terrace?

Some of Joyce’s flavor comes as a reward for this zeal. For example, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus, after protesting to the rector that he has been unjustly pandied, leaves the rector’s room and walks down the long corridor. At the end of it he bumps his elbow against the door. I am told that generations of Clongowes pupils have bumped their elbows against this same door.

Joyce attended so carefully to such minute particulars that he claimed that if Dublin were destroyed, the city could be reconstructed from his books. Its immortality would be assured through his. Other novelists are, however, much more likely to present a city in reconstructable form. Joyce offers no architectural information, only places to bump elbows or to lean them, to see out of the corner of an eye, to recognize by a familiar smell. The city rises in bits, not in masses. Anything else would be travelogue.

He was at once dependent upon the real, and superior to it. His attitude may be elicited from a story he once told his French Academician friend, Louis Gillet. It was about an old Blasket Islander who had lived on his island from birth, and knew nothing about the mainland or its ways. But on one occasion he did venture over, and in a bazaar found a small mirror, something he had never seen in his life. He bought it, fondled it, gazed at it, and as he rowed back to the Blaskets he took it out of his pocket, stared at it some more, and murmured, “Oh Papa! Papa!” He jealously guarded the precious object from his wife’s eye, but she observed that he was hiding something and became suspicious. One hot day, when both were at work in the fields, he hung his jacket on a hedge. She saw her chance, rushed to it, and extracted from a pocket the object her husband had kept so secret. But when she looked at the mirror, she cried, “Ach, it’s nothing but an old woman!” and angrily threw it down so that it broke against a stone.

For Joyce the story had many implications, such as that man was filial and woman was vain. But the main one was that a mirror held up to nature will reflect the holder’s consciousness as much as what is reflected. He could quote with approval Pater’s remark, “Art is life seen through a temperament.”

When Joyce was young so many subjects pressed urgently upon him that he had only to choose among them. As he grew older he needed more hints. He sometimes thought he must alter his quiet life so as to secure them. Of course he could say defensively, to Djuna Barnes, “[Johann Sebastian] Bach led a very uneventful life.” But when he was with Ernest Hemingway he discussed the possibility of going to Africa. Mrs. Joyce encouraged him: “Jim can do with a spot of that lion hunting,” she said. “The thing we must face,” said Joyce, whose sight was bad, “is that I couldn’t see the lion.” His wife was not to be silenced: “Hemingway’d describe him to you and afterwards you could go up and touch him and smell of him. That’s all you’d need.”

But the material he needed lay closer to home. For the main theme of Ulysses and of his play Exiles Joyce could rely on an incident that did not happen but that he briefly thought had happened. A onetime friend claimed in 1909 that Nora Barnacle, in the days when Joyce was courting her, had shared her favors with himself. But when Joyce was actually writing his novel and play nine years later, he had trouble reactivating the jealousy he had once felt so intensely. His wife complained to their friend Frank Budgen, “Jim wants me to go with other men so that he will have something to write about.” She seems to have failed him in this wifely duty. She did however oblige him to the extent of beginning a letter to him with the words “Dear Cuckold,” with the helpful aim of sharpening his pen for Ulysses.

Joyce for his part made comparable sacrifices for his art. In 1917 and 1918 he was beginning to write the “Nausicaa” episode of Ulysses, in which Bloom ogles a girl named Gerty MacDowell on the beach. Joyce seems to have felt that he must do something similar. He made overtures to two women, perhaps with his book ulteriorly in mind. The first occurred in Locarno, where he went for a time to enjoy a milder climate than Zurich. I learned about it through a coincidence. James Atherton, the Joyce scholar, gave a lecture in Manchester, and a woman in the audience came up to him afterward and said she had a friend in Germany who had known Joyce in Locarno in 1918. He sent me the address and I eventually got in communication with the German friend, who proved to be a woman doctor—one of the first woman doctors in Germany—named Gertrude Kaempffer.

In 1917 Dr. Kaempffer was staying above Locarno, in Orselina, recovering from tuberculosis after having nearly died of the disease. Joyce, afflicted with serious eye trouble, was living at the Pension Daheim. One evening Gertrude Kaempffer came down by funicular railway to visit some friends of hers in the same pension. They introduced her to Joyce, who because of his three published books and his obvious intellectual distinction had a certain local celebrity. He took an immediate interest in the young doctor, and after some talk offered to see her to the funicular. But her friends whispered to her that Mrs. Joyce would be jealous, so Dr. Kaempffer declined.

They happened to meet next day, however, in front of the spa hotel near the casino. After some conversation he walked part of the way home with her. When she offered her hand in parting, he held it in his hands for a moment, stroked it, and told her how fond he was of such delicate skin, of such fine, slender hands. (She considered her hands only to be thin and sickly.) Gerty MacDowell—the object of Bloom’s prurient scrutiny—has a similar “waxen pallor” and, as we are told, “her hands were of finely veined alabaster with tapering fingers and as white as lemon juice and queen of ointments could make them though it was not true that she used to wear kid gloves in bed or take a milk footbath either.” Joyce lent Gertrude Kaempffer A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. She was interested, and asked his help with certain words which she did not understand.

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