In response to:

Joyce's Many Lives from the October 21, 1993 issue

To the Editors:

In the Thirtieth Anniversary Issue of The New York Review of Books (October 21, 1993) you published an interesting article on “Joyce’s Many Lives,” written by Professor Denis Donoghue (pp. 28–35). Still one aspect of the essay made me wonder if Mr. Donoghue himself did not become one of the many victims of the great Irish writer in the way he assumes Brenda Maddox (biographer of Nora Barnacle) and Peter Costello (author of James Joyce: The Years of Growth 1882–1915) to have been.

Mr. Donoghue reproaches both Maddox and Costello to have followed the foot-steps of Richard Ellmann, the famous biographer of Joyce, in the wrong way. “Ellmann had the habit of citing fiction to establish a fact,” writes Mr. Donoghue. He calls this a “bad habit” by which Ellmann “made it respectable for lesser biographers to assume that Joyce had no power of invention; if something is in the novels, it must have happened.”

Next Mr. Donoghue gives an example to illustrate his irritation. He reminds of Joyce’s first date with Nora Barnacle, on June 16, 1904. On the evening of that day James Joyce and the girl went to Ringsend, a small park near Dublin’s harbour. Five years later, when Joyce in a rage of jealousy sent a couple of emotional letters from Dublin to Nora in Triëst, he wrote in one of them (August 7, 1909) about this night:

O Nora! Nora! Nora! I am speaking now to the girl I loved, who had redbrown hair and sauntered over to me and took me so easily into her arms and made me a man.

“No lover is on oath in such an avowal,” comments Mr. Donoghue, adding, “Joyce probably didn’t tell Nora that he had already been with prostitutes, so her making him a man may refer to a loftier achievement than masturbation. However, scholars have usually taken the sentence to mean that at Ringsend on June 16 Nora Barnacle masturbated Joyce.” (Professor Donoghue uses the “decent” word “masturbated,” although as far as I know this verb cannot be used in combination with a direct object; Joyce himself would never sin against the rules of grammar in order to sound decent.) Mr. Donoghue accuses Brenda Maddox to pretend “that she was at Ringsend that night and witnessed the following”:

To Joyce’s grateful astonishment, she unbuttoned his trousers, slipped in her hand, pushed his shirt aside, and, acting with some skill (according to his later letter) made him a man.

According to Mr. Donoghue Brenda Maddox fabricated this story from nothing else but the already cited letter of August 7, 1909, and a passage from Ulysses. About the same reproach Mr. Donoghue makes towards Peter Costello (who, and here I agree with Mr. Donoghue, indeed wrote a sometimes rather irritating over-detailed book on Joyce’s youth).

What amazes me is that Mr. Donoghue seems to forget that James Joyce reminded Nora on yet another occasion of their first date. In a letter of December 3, 1909, he wrote to her:

It was not I who first touched you long ago down at Ringsend. It was you who slid your hand down down inside my trousers and pulled my shirt softly aside and touched my prick with your long tickling fingers and gradually took it all, fat and stiff as it was, into your hand and frigged me slowly until I came off through your fingers, all the time bending over me and gazing at me out of your quiet saintlike eyes.

This moving passage is to be found in one of the so-called “obscene letters” from Joyce to Nora, firstly published in 1975 by Richard Ellmann (Selected letters of James Joyce, ed. by Faber and Faber, London, p. 182).

May this passage be enough proof that Nora indeed frigged (“masturbated”) James Joyce at Ringsend on June 16, 1904, even more amazing is that Mr. Donoghue takes for granted that Joyce already had been “made a man” before he met Nora—“he had already been with prostitutes,” according to Mr. Donoghue. However, the burning question is: how does Mr. Donoghue know that?

As far as I know there is only one source for the story that Joyce ever slept with a prostitute in his early youth—and this source we are forbidden to use…Mr. Donoghue. The source is the end of the second chapter of A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, Joyce’s autobiographical novel. Ellmann says, thus writes Mr. Donoghue, that Stephen Hero, like A Portrait, is both autobiographical and fictional, adding, “While some details of Joyce’s life are stylized and otherwise changed, many are kept intact.” And it is here that Mr. Donoghue, rightly, warns, “But those ‘some’ and ‘many’ could be distinguished only if there were independent evidence for them.” (Italics are mine—KT.)

Where is that “independent evidence” for the “detail of Joyce’s life” that he ever slept with a prostitute before he met Nora? Is it unthinkable that Joyce “needed” his visit to a whore in A Portrait just in contrast with the burst of repentance depicted in the next chapter? Of course, there are the complaints of Joyce’s brother Stanislaus and the testimony of others that Joyce, especially after his mother’s death in August 1903, often visited the brothels (the “kips”) of Dublin’s Nighttown, together with two of his friends, the medical students Vincent Cosgrave and Oliver St. John Gogarty. But there is not one evidence that Joyce really had been “made a man” by one of the ladies.

Ulick O’Connor, who wrote a fine biography of Gogarty, tells, “You could drink all night in the kips without having to absent yourself on felicity upstairs” (Ulick O’Connor, Oliver St. John Gogarty, A Poet and his Times, A Panther Book, Granada, 1981, p. 59). And it has been, still according to O’Connor, Gogarty who, characterizing Joyce as a “virginal” (!) visitor of brothels, wrote this famous limerick:

There is a young man named Joyce,
Who possesses a sweet tenor voice.
He goes down to the kips
With a psalm on his lips,
And biddeth the harlots rejoice.

I suppose that Mr. Donoghue will agree with me that a young man does not become a man by singing. Gregorian psalms for prostitutes. It is always fascinating to see everybody writing about Joyce stepping on a booby-trap—fifty years after his death even more than half a century ago.

Kees Tamboer
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Denis Donoghue replies:

Three points, please. (1) Mr. Tamboer’s English is far better than my Dutch, but it is not impeccable. He claims that the verb “to masturbate” “cannot be used in combination with a direct object.” It can. The Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary (Vol. 2, p. 855) says of this verb: “trans. to cause (another person) to have an orgasm by stimulation of his or her genitals.” (2) I have never doubted that on the evening of June 16, 1904, Nora Barnacle masturbated (trans) James Joyce at Ringsend. Nothing in my review carries any other implication. What I disapproved of is the biographical procedure by which passages from Joyce’s fiction have been quoted as glosses on the event at Ringsend. Of course I disapprove, too, of the procedure by which fiction is quoted to establish fact. (3) I did not cite A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or any other work of fiction to justify my saying that Joyce had been with prostitutes before June 16, 1904. What justifies my saying this? I see no reason to doubt what Mr. Tamboer refers to as “the complaints of Joyce’s brother Stanislaus and the testimony of others that Joyce…often visited the brothels.” Mr. Tamboer doesn’t appear to doubt this, either. If he chooses to believe that Joyce went to the brothels merely to drink and to sing psalms, I can only say that this notion does not square with several documents, including Stanislaus Joyce’s My Brother’s Keeper and The Complete Dublin Diary of Stanislaus Joyce.

This Issue

May 12, 1994