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 …

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