Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Adulterer

Giacomo Joyce

by James Joyce, with an Introduction and Notes by Richard Ellmann
Viking, 64 pp., $10.00

James Joyce
James Joyce; drawing by David Levine

“Who? A pale face surrounded by heavy odorous furs. Her movements are shy and nervous. She uses quizzing-glasses. Yes: a brief syllable. A brief laugh. A brief beat of the eyelids.”

Who? Ellmann does not give her name in his Introduction or his Notes. This means, I take it, that we are being asked to read Giacomo Joyce not as autobiography but as fiction, as a story about one Giacomo, a language teacher, and his Platonic affair with an anonymous Dark Lady, his pupil. In that case, the only relevant answers to the question “Who?” are those given in the text: she is young, Jewish, rich, frail, shy, has a very great admiration for her maestro inglese, but finally retires into frigid hostility. The time is about 1911-13, the place Trieste. And who is Giacomo? A poet in his early thirties, erudite and oblique, irlandese italianato, incarnate Lucifer in rebellion against a libidinous and epileptic lord and giver of life, a Renaissance soul in Prufrock-coat, writing his Portrait of the Artist as a Young- Middle-Aged Adulterer in a sequence of highly mannered prose poems, some of great beauty.

But it is impossible to sustain this purist view of the book, even as an aesthetic exercise, since Ellmann has already given the lady’s name, with a full explanation of the circumstances, in his notable biography of Joyce (1959). He also quoted most of the text of Giacomo Joyce there: it is therefore not quite correct for this edition to be hailed, as it was recently in the press, as the first publication of a recently discovered work. It is better to look at it as a private journal, not intended for publication, reflecting Joyce’s obsessions with adultery, dark oriental beauties, underclothes, laced boots, theology, Elizabethan music, and so on. As Ellmann shows in his excellent commentary Joyce composed this set of “epiphanies” with great care, and later used some of the best sentences in the Portrait and Ulysses. These reappear in Stephen’s meditations, e.g., “Belluomo rises from the bed of his wife’s lover’s wife: the busy housewife is astir, sloe-eyed, a saucer of acetic acid in her hand….” and in Bloom’s “She follows her mother with ungainly grace, the mare leading her filly foal.” Giacomo Joyce became split into Stephen and Bloom, the lady was combined with others and transmuted into Martha Clifford, Gerty MacDowell, and even Molly. But if Giacomo Joyce was used as a quarry for the novels, it is also significant that it contains at least one deliberate reworking of earlier writing, in the strange vision of the Good Friday Mass in Paris:

…Tawny gloom in the vast gargoyled church. It is cold as on that morning: quia frigus erat. Upon the steps of the high altar, naked as the body of the Lord, the ministers lie prostrate in weak prayer. The voice of an unseen reader rises, intoning…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.