The Curious Case of Amalia Popper

“Issues from the hand of God the simple soul….”; and issue from the pens of pundits definitive works. Or so they’re meant to be and so we, the readers, must take them on faith, not able to engage in our own arduous literary researches to confirm or contest that wealth of detail which scholars dredge up to confound and amaze us when mining the life and works of the particular authors they’ve claimed as theirs. The great men are not to be questioned; their words set slippery things like literary tastes in place. Eliot could change the taste for Milton and Dickens could be almost eradicated from the scene by critical edict.

Now, on the subject of definitive works and how much trust should be reposited in them, a curious chain of events has been set in motion here in Italy following publication of the last bit of James Joyce’s unpublished writing—the short, handwritten prose-poem entitled Giacomo Joyce. This poetic fragment—epiphanies of mood, a fusion of images, observations, and abstract implications—celebrates a moment of romantic grace in the life of the writer while he was living and teaching in Trieste during the years preceding the First World War. It is, in the new expressive linguistic form he was to perfect in Ulysses, his ironic evocation of the attraction he felt toward a young lady student of his—an attraction just as definitely rejected by the lady in question, who is the subject of Giacomo Joyce.

Who is the lady in question? This, for those who have a taste for such matters, is the heart of the literary puzzle concerning the new Joyce work, for her identity remains mysterious despite the fact that Richard Ellmann, the most eminent and prolific of the Joycean scholars, definitely identified the enigmatic lady in his 1959 biography of Joyce with Amalia Popper of Trieste. Professor Ellmann’s James Joyce is enormous, painstaking, erudite, and a pleasure to read—and has, therefore, inexorably become what is known as a definitive work. There is everything in this biography; every fact in Joyce’s life has been tracked down, every person connected with the writer has been approached and tapped. The list of acknowledgements alone makes up some 330 names divided geographically by thirteen countries. Decades-old remarks of cab-drivers, hotel porters, and landladies were somehow preserved fresh in people’s memories, waiting for Ellmann to call them forth and fit them into the mosaic of Joyce’s life. Ellmann did not stint time or labor on his work; as he states in his Preface, he began thinking of a Joyce biography in 1947, started working on it steadily in 1952, and went to Europe three different times between 1953 and 1956 “to see Joyce’s relatives and friends, and to gather records.”

In the light of the very magnificence of the results of his work it is hard, if not impossible, to explain his unsupported assertion that Amalia Popper is the heroine of Giacomo Joyce, for most of the evidence he offers in Chapter 21…

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