James Joyce
James Joyce; drawing by David Levine

Joyce did not regard the letter or its brazen sister, the postcard, as a literary form of any consequence, but almost every day he burdened mailmen in different parts of his hemisphere with his sedulous correspondence. At letter’s length he felt comfortable, and wrote sparely and to the point. His letters adopt a stance which at first may appear the reverse of that in his books. His creative works are humorous, lyrical, daring. These qualities appear from time to time in his correspondence, but its prevailing tenor is wry, terse, pressed down. “I am in double trouble, mental and material,” he writes, and says in another letter, “my spiritual barque is on the rocks.” In both of these the statement has a sweep and finality which paradoxically imply that all may not be lost. His summaries of his condition are sometimes more epigrammatic: “My mouth is full of decayed teeth and my soul of decayed ambitions.” And sometimes he relents a little to joke: “Well! (as Mr. Pater beautifully says) I have reached the low-water mark in Xmases this ‘ere time.” He is fond of deflating his life into a vista of ludicrous confusion. As Joyce writes later of Shem. “O! the lowness of him was beneath all up to that sunk to!” In an early letter he wrote that he could not enter society except as a vagabond, and there is perhaps always a submerged pleasure in his not being an upstanding British subject.

The sense of contradiction between his works and his letters is illusory. The attitude of resignation is not so far removed from that of confidence as it first appears. It contains, in fact, a peremptory note. Underneath themes which are favorites of Joyce from beginning to end—the meticulous exposition of his penury, his physical weakness, or his discouragement—there is the conviction that he expresses rarely because he holds it so unshakably, that his needs are trivial when weighed with his deserts. The letters simultaneously plead and berate. He tells his brother, “Do not delay so long executing my requests as I waste a lot of ink.” He demands patronage rather than charity. Joyce’s conviction of merit was justified in the event, yet he was imbued with it long before there were publications or even manuscripts to confirm it; confidence in his powers may be said to have antedated their manifestation.

BECAUSE OF THIS CONFIDENCE he has little patience with those who fail to pay tribute to his talent, and is likely to shift suddenly from supplicant to renunciant. He is regularly on the verge of scorning the help he requires. This readiness to “doff the world aside” is characteristic of him. He is like Stephen in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who counters his girl’s practical questions about his future by making “a sudden gesture of a revolutionary nature,” evidently a dismissal of everything in his present life. Joyce was given to such gestures, as when he went to Paris in 1902 and again in 1903, when he eloped with Nora Barnacle in 1904, when he left Trieste for Rome in 1906 and Rome for Trieste in 1907. A mood of this sort impelled him to write his brother from Trieste, at the age of twenty-three, “If I once convince myself that this kind of life is suicidal to my soul, I will make everything and everybody stand out of my way as I did before now.” In a letter to his aunt Josephine Murray he threatened to leave his new family as he had left his old one: “I suppose you will shake your head now over my coldness of heart which is probably only an unjust name for a certain perspicacity of temper or mind.” In later life, angered and pained by his friends’ dislike for Finnegans Wake, he said he would abandon the writing of the book to James Stephens. Many of these intentions were not carried out; Joyce did not leave his wife, and while Stephens was more or less willing to complete the book, in the end he was mysteriously not called upon. In retrospect, it is clear that Joyce’s secret motive in making most of his threats, though not all, was to compel the contrapuntal encouragement which would warrant his not fulfilling them. But the urge to renounce was always present in his mind as a strong possibility, and no doubt reinforced him in repudiating easy solutions to artistic as well as personal problems, thus making possible his elaborate and great solutions. As he said himself of his literary work, he wanted to feel that he had overcome difficulties.

Though his gestures of renunciation, and threats of gestures, might argue that Joyce was as he called Ibsen, an “egoarch,” they must somehow be reconciled with his other qualities. Joyce was gregarious, filial, fraternal, uxorious, paternal, in varying degrees, and surrounded himself with relatives and friends. His letters to his son George and his daughter Lucia demonstrate his talent, when they were in the dumps, for finding miseries of his own equivalent to theirs, with which he proposed to cheer them up. He needed to return from hours of isolation, it would seem, and to feel that a few people were in rapport with him. This handshaking (and Joyce ends most of his letters in Italian with “una stretta di mano“) affects his work as well, mitigating its more savage extremes. Accordingly, Stephen mocks his own gesture of renunciation by comparing it to “a fellow throwing a handful of peas up into the air,” just as Lynch mocks Stephen’s Flaubertian view of the artist, as a god paring his fingernails, by suggesting that these too may be “refined out of existence.” This comic questioning does not disprove the rhetoric, but lightens it, and effects a rapprochement which ostensibly was disdained. The rebel’s jokes, many of them on himself, allow him back into the human family.


Joyce’s lifelong reluctance to comment publicly on his work gives unusual value to his letters as evocations of his mental scenery. They do not, however, offer more than fragments of self-analysis, and we must relate them ourselves. Certain expressions appear often enough to claim special notice. Among them the word “artist” thrusts itself forward as a starting-point. Joyce’s conception of himself as artist had origins in his early life; if A Portrait of the Artist may be said to plead for anything, it is for the continuity of the artistic temperament almost from infancy. He apparently first articulated this vocation soon after he passed from childhood to adolescence. The words “artist” and “puberty” had, in fact, a relation that is several times hinted at in these letters. As early as the age of fourteen, Joyce said, he began to go to brothels, initially with a strong sense of guilt. The Church urged him to master these impulses, but he found himself unable, and at heart unwilling, to do so. At confession he could find comfort and pardon, but not sanction. He was unwilling to give up either the spiritual idealism which had sustained him as a child, or the erotic drive which was agitating his adolescence. If debauchery was a part of his character, and he sometimes said it was, then it must be justified. The word “artist,” which in the late nineteenth century had been invested with a secular awe, offered a profession which would protect all his soul instead of only its idealistic side, and might yet give it a profane sanctity. He thought of it as denoting something solid, unitary, and radiant, compounding into a new purity the errant flesh and the moral nature.

IN EARLY YOUTH JOYCE began to formulate the relation of art and the spiritual self into an aesthetic, as his letters testify; this aesthetic would vindicate him by establishing the primacy of the poet over the priest through a system rival to theology’s. The artist was to be shown as devoted to integrating human experience on a level higher than the priest’s, and without external or supernatural authority to make his work easier. This conscious definition of the principles of his art finds an accompaniment in his letters in Joyce’s reiterated insistence that his own behavior has been defensible and even praiseworthy. He tells his brother that his struggle with conventions “was not entered into by me so much as a protest against these conventions as with the intention of living in conformity with my moral nature.” He granted contemptuously, “There are some people in Ireland who would call my moral nature oblique, people who think that the whole duty of man consists in paying one’s debts.” He is not less but more moral than other people. A year before he had written Nora Barnacle, “Six years ago I left the Catholic Church, hating it most fervently. I found it impossible for me to remain in it on account of the impulses of my nature…. I made myself a beggar but I retained my pride.” The words “nature,” “moral nature,” and “pride” stand for him as aspects of the one’s substance, the artist’s soul.

Although Joyce does not bother to mention his moral nature often, his awareness of it lies behind most of his letters. It enables him to assert to Grant Richards, Dubliners is “a chapter of the moral history of my country.” It underlies his criticism of other writers, such as Thomas Hardy. He writes his brother in December, 1906 to complain of a book of Hardy’s stories called Life’s Little Ironies, and says:


One story is about a lawyer on the circuit who seduces a servant, then receives letters from her so beautifully written that he decides to marry her. The letters are written by the servant’s mistress who is in love with the lawyer. After the marriage (servant is accompanied to London by mistress) husband says fondly, “Now dear J.K.-S-&c, will you write a little note to my dear sister, A.B X. etc and send her a piece of the wedding-cake. One of those nice little letters you know so well how to write, love.” Exit of servant wife. She goes out and sits at a table somewhere and, I suppose, writes something like this “Dear Mrs. X—I enclose a piece of the wedding-cake.” Enter husband, lawyer, genial. Genially he says, “Well, love, how have you written” and then the whole discovery is found out. Servant-wife blows her nose in the letter and lawyer confronts the mistress. She confesses. Then they talk a page or so of copybook talk (as distinguished from servants’ ditto). She weeps but he is stern. Is this as near as T.H. can get to life, I wonder? O my poor fledglings, poor Corley, poor Ignatius Gallaher!… What is wrong with these English writers is that they always keep beating about the bush.

In discountenancing Hardy, Joyce was attacking not only a kind of fiction but a way of seeing or failing to see. Hardy appeared to him to lack the directness which he had taught himself by accepting nothing because it had been accepted before. As a result, the characterization in Hardy’s stories was a false one based upon conventional ideas of class. Joyce, living with a servant girl himself, was particularly entitled to detect the improbability here. He rejected as well the whole idiom as “copybook talk.” For Joyce Hardy had lacked the courage to break through, and so was already dated, the moral fault breeding a literary one.

IN HIS FIRST YEARS AWAY Joyce associated artistic intrepidity with political self-consciousness, and he declared himself emphatically to be a “socialistic artist.” The character of his socialism was never made clear; he mentions Wilde and Lassalle rather than Marx, and planned to translate Wilde’s essay on the subject into Italian. He was closest to Wilde in conceiving of socialism as a means of protecting the self and enabling it to be free. The particular abuses in society which made socialism necessary were the property system, which offered no provision for writers; religion, with its burdensome load of belief; and marriage, perpetuating property arrangements and disregarding individual freedom. Joyce does not condescend to argue the case for socialism on an abstract level, but he names rich and church-married Oliver Gogarty as his epitome of the “stupid, dishonest, tyrannical and cowardly burgher class.” Gogarty appears in these letters as a kind of mythical adversary, a Hayley to Joyce’s Blake, and the later use of him as “Buck Mulligan” was not accidental in the moral scheme of Ulysses.

Joyce did not hesitate to disclose that his socialism had a personal motivation, the hope of securing for himself a subsidy from the state. He wrote his brother:

Some people would answer that while professing to be a socialist I am trying to make money: but this is not quite true at least as they mean it. If I made a fortune it is by no means certain that I would keep it. What I wish to do is to secure a competence on which I can rely, and why I expect to have this is because I cannot believe that any state requires my energy for the work I am at present engaged in.

Stanislaus objected that this socialism was thin, and his brother unexpectedly agreed, “Of course you find my socialism thin. It is so and unsteady and illinformed.” But any other system was tyranny, he maintained. Then on 25 February 1907, he reported, “The interest I took in socialism and the rest has left me…. I have no wish to codify myself as anarchist or socialist or reactionary.” He never calls himself a socialist again.

Sometimes the moral note of Joyce’s letters is more equivocal. There is, for example, the extraordinary letter he sent his mother from Paris soon after his twenty-first birthday:

Dear Mother Your order for 3s/4d of Tuesday last was very welcome as I had been without food for 42 hours (forty-two). Today I am twenty hours without food. But these spells of fasting are common with me now and when I get money I am so damnably hungry that I eat a fortune (1s/-) before you could say knife. I hope this new system of living won’t injure my digestion. I have no news from “Speaker” or “Express.” If I had money I could buy a little oil stove (I have a lamp) and cook macaroni for myself with bread when I am hard beat. I hope you are doing what I said about Stannie—but I daresay you are not. I hope the carpet that was sold is not one of the new purchases that you are selling to feed me. If this is so sell no more or I’ll send the money back to you by return of post. I think I am doing the best I can for myself but it’s pulling the devil by the tail the greater part of the time. I expect to be served with my bill (£1-6-0 with oil) any day and then my happiness is complete. My condition is so exciting that I cannot go asleep at night often till four in the morning and when I wake I look at once under the door to see if there is a letter from my editors and I assure you when I see the wooden floor only morning and morning I sigh and turn back to sleep off part of my hunger. I have not gone to Miss Gonne nor do I intend to go. With the utmost stretching your last order will keep me Monday midday (postage half a franc probably)—then, I suppose, I must do another fast. I regret this as Monday and Tuesday are carnival days and I shall probably be the only one starving in Paris.


On the back of the letter Joyce transcribed a few bars of a song called “Upa-Upa,” which he said was played “before the queen of some Indian island on occasions of state.”‘

THIS LETTER DOES NOT INSPIRE an instant sympathy or a desire to join in singing “Upa-Upa.” Its young writer is not self-sacrificing, not virtuous, not sensible, although he waves his hand distantly at these attributes. At first we see only self-pity and heartlessness in this assertion of his own needs as paramount. He takes unfair advantage of the fact that his mother’s love is large enough to accept even the abuse of it. Yet there are twinges of conscience, sudden moments of concern for her, and there is evidence that he depends upon her for more than money, as if he could not live outside the environment of family affection, badly as he acts within it. The postscript about “Upa-Upa” is a kind of humorous palinode; it seems to say, “Never mind. We can still sing.”

Throughout the letter the emphasis is on his lenten fasts for his art. In other correspondence with her too, Joyce asks his mother to approve his artistic plans while he is fully aware that they are beyond her grasp, just as later he makes the same demands of his less educated wife. He writes that he will publish a book of songs in 1907, a comedy in 1912, and an aesthetic system five years after that. “This must interest you!” he insists, fearful that she may regard him as a starveling rather than as a starved hero. Her reply to many such pleas is a naked statement of maternal love:

My dear Jim if you are disappointed in my letter and if as usual I fail to understand what you would wish to explain, believe me it is not from any want of a longing desire to do so and speak the words you want but as you so often said I am stupid and cannot grasp the great thoughts which are yours much as I desire to do so. Do not wear your soul out with tears but be as usually brave and look hopefully to the future.

To his harshness, and the defense of harshness by reference to his art, and the muted note of apology in her son’s letters to her, May Joyce responded with a faultless simplicity.

The subdued ferocity of Joyce’s letter was consistent enough with his consciousness of the difficulties of the life he had chosen. In his private phantasmagoria, which he never laid aside but had less use for later, he saw the world as giant and himself as Jack. He must evade, hide away in Pola and Trieste, and scheme (in “silence, exile and cunning”), and one day the world would topple at his feet. To get out of Ireland was a step of this strategy. It was justified in two ways: the loftier was Rousseau’s, “If one wishes to devote one’s books to the true benefit of one’s country, one must write them abroad.” Joyce rephrased this as, “The shortest way to Tara is via Holyhead.” A Parnell of art, he would “create a conscience at last in the soul of this wretched race.” He predicted in a 1912 letter 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.” His images of departure evoked balancing images of return, which displayed themselves not only in his trips back to Dublin but in the ironical homecoming of Exiles, the “eternal return” of Finnegans Wake, and the saturation of almost all his work in Irish times and places.

THE SECOND MEANS OF JUSTIFYING departure was more reactive than independent. Joyce felt he had been “betrayed” by his countrymen, not of course by all but by those on whom he might have expected to rely, his friends. In certain moments he conceded that his decision did not depend upon his friends’ behavior; he wrote his brother that it was “a youthfully exaggerated feeling of this maldisposition of affairs which urged me to pounce upon the falsehood in their attitude towards me as an excuse for escape.” We may even add that, without meaning to, he courted betrayal. As if to prepare the ground, he made great demands upon his friends, and in asserting his own freedom of action, he hampered theirs, to draw them into what he himself described as “the Daedalean spell.” He tested their loyalty by making them his creditors, by leaning upon them, by asking their responses to his works and acts. The demands grew greater. His friends were like his readers, who had only to accept one difficult work when he devised another much harder for them to accept, in an ascending series. They, for their part, had never met anyone so enveloping, at once so contemptuous of their abilities and so avid for their allegiances. Their own individuality seemed jeopardized by Joyce’s quiet importunacy. As signs of their resistence multiplied, Joyce saw these as inevitable; he did not recognize that the friendship he required of them was inordinate, yet his own doubts that they would persist in it contributed to that failure of which he then complained.

Sometimes he granted that he might himself be a little at fault, and this admission, rare as it was, lends support to his claim that he could free himself from his preconceptions when necessary. He allowed to Nora Barnacle that he had “a contemptuous suspicious nature.” His habit of representing himself as worse than he was also offered encouragement to those who wanted to leave him. Before he went away from Dublin with her in 1904, he admitted that he had a propensity “a little devilish…that makes me delight in breaking down people’s ideas of me and proving to them that I am really selfish, proud, cunning and regardless of others.” But even as he denigrated his own character, he mustered support for it. So he wrote his brother in a burst of anger, “My irregularities can easily be made the excuse of your conduct.” Others, with more faults than he, dared not risk his candor. He has only to ask, in selfdepreciation, could I deserve more from the world than exile? when the question changes to: could I deserve less? as if to ask, who would want to be anything but an outcast?

His ironies may therefore be said to compete with each other. At one end of the scale he filters self-abasement through mockery; at the other, he approaches grandeur, feels it verging on grandiosity, and turns abruptly away. He wrote to inform his friend in Trieste, Alessandro Francini Bruni, of the magnificent praise which Valéry Larbaud had lavished upon Ulysses, then wryly concluded: “Son diventato un monumento—anzi vespasiano!” (“I have become a monument—no, a Vespasian!”) When he announced to his brother that his situation in Trieste was a “voluntary exile,” he meant it, though the word “voluntary” before “exile” begged the question a little.

Joyce did regard himself as a hero, but thought it advisable not to say so explicitly; he thought of himself also as in some ways a martyr, but as usual his way of saying so is by seeming to repudiate the idea. Referring to this Christlike resemblance, he wrote his brother, “I must get rid of some of these Jewish bowels I have in me yet.” And in another letter he said, “I am not likely to die of bashfulness but neither am I prepared to be crucified to attest the perfection of my art.” The figure pleased him, and a year later he remarked once more, “I have written quite enough and before I do any more in that line I must see some reason why—I am not a literary Jesus Christ.” But three disavowals of the crown are less convincing than one. Whatever he might say in the cold mutton of letters, Joyce was fascinated by the Christlike analogies of the artist, and developed them fully in A Portrait of the Artist. A powerful sacrificial feeling sustained him as he fought for a literary foothold around southern Europe, staving off mosquitoes in Pola, instilling an alien tongue into Triestines, cashing checks for other people in Rome. But he undercut it with modesty by jokingly or grimly calling attention to his defects and failures.

HIS BEHAVIOR WITH HIS BOOKS was a similar combination of aloofness and self-advertisement. The enormous pride of the artist was compatible with enormous exertions. He had his own press notices printed up and sent them, with chilling formality, to possible reviewers. He did not condescend to explain his own work, but through letters and conversations he laid down, as he told Harriet Shaw Weaver, the terms in which Ulysses was subsequently discussed. He was equally skillful with Finnegans Wake.

A mixture of effrontery and involvement, of supplication and reserve, permeates his letters and is somewhat explained by them. Joyce often appeared to be cold and aloof, but in his own view these qualities were less fundamental than others. He thought of himself most fondly as fragile and vulnerable. Once this part of his self-portrait becomes visible, other elements take shape around it. The “enigma of a manner,” which he speaks in the first draft of A Portrait of consciously fabricating, is seen as an attempt at self-protection. “Can you not see the simplicity which is at the back of all my disguises? We all wear masks,” he writes to Nora Barnacle, and he is pleased, at least temporarily, when she pierces his “magnificent poses” and recognizes him to be an “imposter.” His asperities show as attempts to overcome an indulgence to which he feels so apt to become prey, and the method of his prose books is a kind of absorption of the universe rather than a facing up to it; he seems to draw it bit by bit inside him, and conceives of the imagination as a womb.

JOYCE LIKED TO THINK OF HIMSELF as weak and of others as stronger than he. Like Shem, he “disliked anything anyway approaching a plain straight-forward standup or knockdown row.” Men were stronger physically and women stronger spiritually. “I am so helpless tonight, helpless, helpless!” he writes his wife, and in his poem, “A Prayer,” he begs, “Take me, save me, soothe me, O Spare me.” This attitude is the one he regularly assumes in his letters to his wife, and is the more surprising in that she might have been expected to take it towards him. The letters to Nora Barnacle Joyce, which make this position plain, are psychologically the most important he wrote; they move gradually towards self-surrender as if it were a kind of Ultima Thule.

At first their tone is jaunty, with some of that “assumed dongiovannism” which he attributed to the young Shakespeare. But within a month of the beginning of their courtship, the tone is solemnized. She must become his mistress, to be sure, but he seems more occupied with something else, that she become his fellow-conspirator against the established order. “My mind rejects the whole present social order and Christianity—home, the recognized virtues, classes of life, and religious doctrines,” he writes her in August, 1904. His intransigence to the world is related to his submission to her. Their elopement must not be sportive but agonized, a sign and portent of his future work. He was aware that to his father, and to many of his friends, the relationship with Nora Barnacle was a misalliance. Though he pretended to be impervious to their criticism, “their least word,” he told her, “tumbles my heart about like a bird in a storm.” Yet like Heine, as he says, and like others he does not trouble to name, he had the courage to see that the world was wrong about this as about other things. By virtue of being poor and in love with him, Nora became the banned sweetheart of a banned artist. “It seemed to me that I was fighting a battle with every religious and social force in Ireland for you and that I had nothing to rely on but myself.” Chambermaid and prodigal son might make a match of it; obloquy was a state they might share like pleasures of the bed.

JOYCE’S AFFECTION for Nora Barnacle developed rapidly, though she complained it lagged behind her own. He was already unconsciously altering his role in the affair from active to passive. “Allow me, dearest Nora,” he wrote her, “to tell you how much I desire that you should share any happiness that may be mine and to assure you of my great respect for that love of yours which it is my wish to deserve and to answer.” The word “love” was one that mustered up all his doubts, doubts of his own sincerity, doubts of the emotion itself. To talk of “spiritual love,” he informed Stanislaus, was “lying drivel,” though in a few years he used the phrase without irony. But as he said, he was deeply impressed by the unqualified feeling Nora Barnacle had for him, and the fact that she expressed it without the coyness he had come to expect in girls of his age. “I never could speak to the girls I used to meet at houses,” he wrote her later. “Their false manners checked me at once.” Stephen Dedalus represents Shakespeare as equally shy. If Nora was untutored she was also unspoiled, a “simple honorable soul,” and one “incapable of any of the deceits which pass for current morality.” It was very important for him, knowing with what intricate devices he met most people, to have in her someone he could trust. His reserve, his sense of watching his own dignity, are involved in almost all his other relationships. With Miss Weaver, for example, he seems to want not only to act politely towards her, but to see himself as meeting the English Protestant middle class with adequate decorum. A certain gentleness comes through regardless, but almost against his will. With Nora there was the possibility available to him nowhere else, of complete self-revelation, a great relief to a suspicious man. He came to feel that she was more than wife or mistress; she must triple as a symbol of Ireland and a more genuine one than Yeats’s Maud Gonne. In her he saw, as he said, “the beauty and the doom of the race of which I am a child,” and he asked her, “O take me into your soul of souls and then I will become indeed the poet of my race.”

This yielding of himself was not achieved without difficulty. Joyce had to pass through stages of amusement, perplexity, boredom, and even distrust. The last was of course the most serious. In 1909, on his first trip back to Dublin, he was led mistakenly to believe that Nora had been faithless to him during a period which he held sacred, the early months of their love. In a few days he was undeceived, and felt guilty for having so misjudged her. His first letters were filled with remorse: “What a worthless fellow I am!” But gradually he tried to turn the incident to advantage by ushering her into a greater intimacy. His letters became a turbulent mixture of erotic imagery and apologies for it, the apologies being accompanied by equally extreme flights of adoration. His relationship with her had to counterbalance all his rifts with other people. Having become partners in spiritual love, they must now share an onanistic complicity, agitating each other to sexual climax by means of their letters. In this way Joyce renewed the conspiratorial and passionate understanding that they had had when they first left Ireland together.

THESE LETTERS of 1909 and 1912 present Joyce with more intensity than any others. Often they transfer habitual attitudes to a different plane; he does not ask her for more money, as he does others, but for more proof of affection. He reminds her constantly of his art, often combining it with love tokens: the first present he brings her from Dublin is a necklace inscribed with a line from one of his poems, and the next is a manuscript of Chamber Music, laboriously copied out on parchment. His art is the lofty counterpart of that deeper nature which he will divulge otherwise only to her. And he mixes his pleas with tender rebuke, scolding her for scolding him. She is too rude to him, ruder than he deserves. To vary the note, he sometimes delights in acknowledging his faults, including his infidelities with prostitutes, in imagining her as even more merciless to him, as whipping him like the ladies of Sacher-Masoch, and with furs on to complete the picture. “You have me completely in your power,” he enjoys telling her, pleased to have, as whipping-boy, her undivided attention. Then, to renew his innocence and hers, he leans upon her as if she were a mother, and longs to be her child or even her unborn infant: “Take me into the dark sanctuary of your womb. Shelter me, dear, from harm!”

Yet one route of distrust remains: he can never quite understand her implacable unlikeness to him. He finds himself suspicious again: “Are you with me, Nora, or are you secretly against me?” When most allayed, this feeling can tease itself almost pleasurably with a curiosity like John Donne’s about her body’s life before she knew him, but she cannot reassure him enough: “I am sure there are finer fellows in Galway than your poor lover but O, darling, one day you will see that I will be something in my country.” And he writes again, in a letter three years later, “Can your friend in the sodawater factory or the priesteen write my verses?” He adores her as “my beautiful wild flower of the hedges, my dark-blue rain-drenched flower,” and compares her to the Virgin, then desecrates this romantic lyricism by naming her his “fuckbird” instead. One moment he is an angel, the next a frog, and then back again. He likes to boast of his prudishness with men, at whose dirty stories he never even smiles, to give a greater secretive value to his outspokenness with her, and to indicate that this erotic singleness must prove the essential innocence of his nature.

The atmosphere is not one of Catholic guilt, but it is certainly not one of pagan insouciance either. He feels compelled to set images of purity against images of impurity. He dwells upon the association of the sexual and excretory organs, then fears she will consider him corrupt, although he has found learned sanction in Spinoza, yet he also wants corruption to be a part of their love as well as incorruption. “Are you too, then, like me,” he asks hopefully, “one moment high as the stars, the next lower than the lowest wretches?” They must share in shame, shamelessness, and unashamedness.

FRANK AS THESE LETTERS ARE their psychology can easily be misunderstood. They were intended to accomplish sexual gratification in him and inspire the same in her, and at moments they fasten intently on peculiarities of sexual behavior, some of which might be technically called perverse. They display traces of fetishism, anality, paranoia, and masochism, but before quartering Joyce into these categories and consigning him to their tyranny we must remember that he was capable, in his work, of ridiculing them all as Circean beguilements, of turning them into vaudeville routines. Then too, the letters rebuke such obvious labels by an ulterior purpose; besides the immediate physical goal, Joyce wishes to anatomize and reconstitute and crystalize the emotion of love. He goes further still; like Richard Rowan in Exiles, he wishes to possess his wife’s soul, and have her possess his, in utter nakedness. To know someone else beyond love and hate, beyond vanity and remorse, beyond human possibility almost, is his extravagant desire.

In later life Joyce evidently wrote Nora in a similar vein, but with more sense of human limitations. Their relationship never achieved the complete understanding for which he had striven. The only letter of importance that has survived was one sent her in April 1922, when against his will she took their two children to Galway. She seems to have said she would not return, and wrote to ask him for money to remain. He replied:

8.30 a.m. Thursday

My darling, my love, my queen: I jump out of bed to send you this. Your wire is postmarked 18 hours later than your letter which I have just received. A cheque for your fur will follow in a few hours, and also money for yourself. If you wish to live there (as you ask me to send you two pounds a week) I will send that amount (£ 8 and £ 4) rent on the first of every month. But you also ask me if I would go to London with you. I would go anywhere in the world if I could be sure that I could be alone with your dear self without family and without friends. Either this must occur or we must part forever, though it will break my heart. Evidently it is impossible to describe to you the despair I have been in since you left. Yesterday I got a fainting fit in Miss Beach’s shop and she had to run and get me some kind of a drug. Your image is always in my heart. How glad I am to hear you are looking younger! O my dearest, if you would only turn to me now and read that terrible book which has now broken the heart in my breast and take me to yourself alone to do with me what you will! I have only 10 minutes to write this so forgive me. Will write again before noon and also wire. These few words for the moment and my undying unhappy love.


This letter, written while Ulysses was meeting with great success, is humorless and sad like almost all Joyce’s love letters. It assumes the old humility of subject to queen, but as usual it is the subject who controls the royal treasury. He is as eager now as fifteen years before to buy furs for her. Each sign of weakness has its implicit limit: he begs for more affection, but is still able to threaten that without it they must part forever. His heart is broken, so she must read his book. His “undying, unhappy love” and his physical collapse are proofs of his dependence upon her, but they are also curiously self-regarding. With all his testimony of surrender, Joyce utterly dominated that scene.

A MORE GUARDED PICTURE of his mind can be elicited from his imperfect and rather eerie liaison with Martha Fleischmann in Zurich in 1918 and 1919. Joyce wrote this young Swiss woman quite a few letters, of which four have survived. Their idiom is a less intense copy of that which he employed with his wife; he writes pitiably, with many references to physical weakness, and he prostrates himself before Martha. Though well aware that women are not necessarily susceptible to advances of this sort, Joyce seems to have been able to use no others. The letters make Martha his Virgin and Madonna like Nora before her; he suggests she might be Jewish but asks her not to take offense, since Jesus was born from the womb of a Jewess. And throughout he calls attention to his art, as in his slightly inaccurate remark that, at the age of thirty-five, he was at the same point as Dante when he began the Divine Comedy and Shakespeare when he had his affair with the Dark Lady of the Sonnets. He was actually thirty-six.

Joyce knew he was behaving absurdly, but he had never halted any line of action merely to avoid possible folly, and it is not necessary to doubt his statement in one letter that he was passing sleepless nights over her. That he intended only a clandestine affair, however, and so was not offering himself completely, is indicated by his caution in disguising his handwriting by using Greek e’s, as Bloom does in writing another Martha in Ulysses. The affair never came to much: These letters, and other information, suggest that Joyce engaged in a good deal of peering through windows at Martha Fleischmann, and that the chief pleasure he arrived at was probably voyeuristic like Earwicker’s in the Phoenix Park. He recognized the implicit comedy afterwards by depicting a similar episode in Bloom’s day, in which Gerty McDowell, like Martha Fleischmann, has a limp. There also a men’s retreat is going on at the Star of the Sea Church, and the prayers to the Virgin are amusingly juxtaposed with Bloom’s profane adoration of Gerty. Joyce, in turn, seems to have written Martha letters that contained obscene words, and his behavior also admixed detachment and passion.

The later parody of the emotions does not prove that earlier they were false, and it is unlikely that Joyce laughed at the time. But even though he kept his sense of comedy in abeyance as he clutched tentatively for support at another female figure, it must have existed in reserve as a defense against possible humiliation, ready if called upon to turn amorous defeat into artistic triumph when his original feelings had run their course.

THE DIP AND SWAY of Joyce’s love letters make an amusing counterpoint to his letters to men. With Nora the effort is to rip away pretenses, with men Joyce is very bespectacled and walking-sticked. There are exceptions, such as his bantering notes to Frank Budgen and Ezra Pound, but usually he pushes the correspondent away a little by continuing to employ “Mr.” after long association, by pretending some indifference to the things that most oppress him, by half-anticipating defeat in arguments, as with publishers, though he wishes to appear bold and steadfast.

The hints and declarations in his letters enable us to see Joyce a little as he saw himself. While he considered that rebellion had been for him the beginning of wisdom, a kind of birth of consciousness, he did not regard himself primarily as a rebel. His dominant image of himself was one of delicacy and fragility, of perpetual ill-health and ill-luck, of a tenor among basses. It led him to imagine himself as like a deer or a bird or a woman, or like a Gandhian Christ. He reacted against varieties of power by juxtaposing the strong with the weak, Boylan with Bloom or the Ondt with the Gracehoper. Then his wit challenged the powerful masculine energies until they had lost their strength. He wished to protect the lyrical center of his work by acknowledging with laughter all the absurdities of human conduct through which it must draw its breath. He counters a possible contempt for his almost effeminate delicacy by examining in the fullest and liveliest way its inescapably comic embodiment. Where other writers, like Wells, appear always to be thrusting, Joyce characterized himself more nearly by the parry. Each of his works concludes in a lyrical assertion, which is made possible by the undermining of maleness by comedy, as if brute force had to be overcome by subtler devices. In Finnegans Wake the Crimean War is reduced to a scatological joke, the Battle of Waterloo to an extravaganza in a waxworks museum, and the World War to a prizefight; in Ulysses the Cyclops is defeated; in A Portrait Ireland is left. Joyce’s distaste for war, crime, and brutality relate to this preference for all that is not the bully. His work is not conceived as a blow in the face, but, his letters help us to perceive, as a matrical envelopment.

But this appraisal of Joyce which his letters sponsor is not entirely satisfactory. His disclaimers of masculinity, his assumption of “feminine” weakness were secondary manifestations. After all, strong men have hidden themselves among women before. His succession of mewing exhortations always sprang from initial decisions inflexibly pursued. He cared for his daughter with a solicitude that could be called feminine, but his delicate coaxing and joking were directed to twist her mind back to sanity, like a resistant piece of iron. Though he lived in discouragement like a bad climate, and sporadically thought of not finishing his books, he needle-and-threaded each one to its conclusion. As if adjusting himself to his pliant, jointless body, which was basically tough and wiry, he imagined himself in the state of being malleable and passive, and commenced to live there, like a second residence. The mixture of such qualities as pride and plaintiveness, the flashes of cando amid stretches of tortuous reticence or confessions that are off the point, lend his spare self-portraiture in the letters an interest quite different from that to be found in the shaped nuances of Henry James or the open-collared eloquence of D. H. Lawrence. An urge to the immoderate is always there, but at various distances from the surface. Read in this light, Joyce’s letters—the best of them—are among the most interesting, and insinuating, ever written.

Copyright © by Richard Ellmann

This Issue

September 8, 1966