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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 another. Joyce the writer spent his life subverting inherited narratives of every sort. Joyce the man, on the other hand, fits perfectly into a preexisting narrative, contained within a few words of Isaiah 53:3: “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” Those lines, of course, were taken in retrospect to apply to Jesus. In our secular age, they may be read as foreshadowing the apotheosis of Joyce, who was crucified by the philistines before ascending into the heaven of eternal worship.

Joyce himself helped to create this narrative. His great booster, Ezra Pound, called him “James Jayzuz,” and linked him with the dead Irish nationalists Patrick Pearse and Terence MacSwiney as having “the same mania for martyrdom”: “it is the Christian attitude; they want to drive an idea into people by getting crucified…. I think Joyce has got this quirk for being the noble victim.” Bernard Shaw sent Pound a postcard of José de Ribera’s painting The Dead Christ, asking, of Joyce: “Isn’t it like him?” Joyce referred to himself—mostly in jest—as “Melancholy Jesus” and “Crooked Jesus”—names his great supporters and publishers, Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, used in their private conversations about him. In Finnegans Wake, Joyce refers to a semiauthorized biography by Herbert Gorman, which Joyce himself did much to shape, as “the Martyrology of Gorman”—typically a pun: the same title also refers to a twelfth-century calendar of saints. Richard Ellmann, in his own monumental biography, notes that “without saying so to Gorman directly, [Joyce] made clear that he was to be treated as a saint with an unusually protracted martyrdom.”

If he was not being crucified, Joyce was being burned at the stake. Giordano Bruno of Nola, burned for heresy, was one of his touchstones. His very early essay “The Day of the Rabblement” begins with a reference to Bruno. Near the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Daedalus discusses him with one of his university teachers, Reverend Charles Ghezzi: “He said Bruno was a terrible heretic. I said he was terribly burned.” While Joyce did not actually meet the same fate, he liked to think that he shared it through the persecution of his books. In 1919, when copies of the Little Review containing an extract from Ulysses were seized and burned by the US Post Office, Joyce told his patron Harriet Weaver that “this is the second time that I have had the pleasure of being burned while on earth.”

What’s interesting is that the first time, in his mind, was when the proofs of his first prose book, Dubliners, were burned by the publisher, George Roberts, who lost his nerve over fears of libel. In fact, this burning was part of Joyce’s self-made myth of martyrdom. As Gordon Bowker astutely notes in his new biography, “the book was not burnt but guillotined and the sheets used for packing; however, for Joyce, a burning was far more dramatic.”

Such moments of skepticism about the narrative of martyrdom do not, however, prevent Bowker from framing Joyce as an essentially religious figure. He begins by telling us that “Joyce’s religious dedication to authorship also picks him out as a writer in the romantic tradition of total commitment, suffering near poverty and financial dependency for much of his life in his determination simply to write.” Later, he talks of Joyce’s willingness to endure hunger as a poor student in Paris as evidence of “the depth of his commitment to his new religion of art.” The evidence of his own book suggests that this kind of piety about Joyce is utterly misplaced, but the myth of the martyr is simply too potent to be dispensed with. The lives of the saints set down a pattern—early spiritual enlightenment, estrangement from family, exile, suffering, scorn, ascension into heaven, and perpetual adoration—that fits Joyce all too snugly.

Much of it, however, is nonsense. Joyce had his share of human suffering—the physical pain of his malfunctioning eyes and the emotional pain of watching his beloved daughter Lucia descend into mental disturbance. But this is the kind of suffering that is inflicted by life, not by art. Had Joyce stayed in that bank in Rome, glaucoma and cataracts would not have spared him the agony and semiblindness that made his later decades so difficult. And however nicely it serves as a moral tale of the curse of great creativity, there is no evidence that Lucia’s illness was related to her father’s obsessive dedication to his writing. The children of farmers and dentists can suffer from schizophrenia too. The attempt to make these vicissitudes into a price that Joyce paid for his art, like Prometheus tormented for stealing the fire, is often irresistible but nonetheless deplorable.

As for hunger, Joyce was hardly the first student to have to miss a few meals in Paris (where he briefly studied medicine when he was twenty-one). Bowker reports his reduction to such basic fare as “hard-boiled eggs, cold ham, bread and butter, macaroni, figs and cocoa”—not exactly starvation rations. Thereafter, there is precious little evidence that Joyce ever had a sustained period when he could not afford to eat or did not have a roof over his head. He had to work at some boring jobs before he became famous—the bank in Rome, teaching English in Trieste—but neither is likely to have been more dispiriting than, say, Leopold Bloom’s attempts, in Ulysses, to sell advertising for newspapers.

Far from being doomed to poverty by his art, Joyce was extraordinarily blessed with patronage. The idea of him “suffering…financial dependency for much of his life” is very funny. Which of us would not embrace such suffering? Bowker, following Ellmann, records that by 1923 alone, Harriet Weaver had given Joyce, out of pure admiration for his talent, £21,000—the equivalent of not far off a million dollars in today’s money. Economically, if not spiritually, Joyce was a minor member of the imperial rentier class, living off Weaver’s family investments in the Pacific, Canada, and Johannesburg. He also got money from the British government, from Edith Rockefeller McCormick, and, of course, from friends and family, especially his unfortunate younger brother, Stanislaus, from whom he relentlessly leeched money during the Trieste years. He even earned significant royalties from Sylvia Beach’s famous edition of Ulysses, before the book was unbanned in the US and Britain: 120,000 francs, enough, in provident hands, to rent a good apartment in Paris for about six years. Yet “please wire 2,000 francs tomorrow without fail” is as characteristic an expression of Joyce the man as “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay” is of Joyce the artist.

Joyce’s bouts of poverty were the consequence not of artistic self-denial, but of flagrant improvidence—a trait he inherited, along with a fine singing voice, a fund of tall stories and lurid phrases, and a taste for drink—from his feckless father John. To the life of the poète maudit, he preferred the life of Reilly. In his later years, it is true, he spent a lot of his money on medical bills for himself and Lucia, but a lot more of it went on extravagant meals, good wines, flamboyant tips, taxis, grand hotels, Chanel dresses, and fur coats. His was a peculiarly luxurious form of poverty.

There is, perhaps, more to be said for the other side of the martyrdom narrative—persecution. Joyce did indeed suffer infamously from censorship, both formal and informal. Ulysses, published in 1922, was not lawfully available in the US until 1934 and in the United Kingdom until 1936. Both ignoramuses and people who should have known better (like Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence) called him all sorts of names. But he did not suffer for very long the much more painful fate for writers—indifference. Even before he had written anything of note, he was being heralded in Ireland as the coming man. His twenties were a time of frustration and neglect, but from the time the first installment of A Portrait was published by Dora Marsden in The Egoist on his thirty-second birthday in 1914, until his death in 1941, Joyce was talked of, written about, argued over.

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