Wednesday 11 December 2019

James Joyce: A Dubliner's Tale of Chaos, Sex & Exile

In a year commemorating revolution, Jonathan deBurca Butler looks back at the life of Ireland's great cultural revolutionary, James Joyce

James Joyce pictured in Paris in 1934. Photo: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images.
James Joyce pictured in Paris in 1934. Photo: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images.
Family man: James Joyce pictured with wife Nora Barnacle (far right) and their daugher Lucia (second left) in 1932.

On meeting James Joyce for the first time, writer and artist, George Russell, recognised his "keen and cold intelligence," but told the young man, that he had "not enough chaos in [him] to make a world."

Luckily for Joyce, who passed away in 1941, 75 years ago this month, there was plenty of chaos in the world around him. In fact, it seemed to follow him everywhere.

"Certainly Joyce's early life was quite chaotic," says Professor Nicholas Johnson of Trinity College Dublin. "Moving from house to house, the desperate financial situation of his family. There really was no middle class stability."

Indeed, by the time Joyce left Belvedere College, his family had lived all over Dublin. Each time they moved, the houses were smaller but the number of siblings around him increased; there would be nine in total. At the heart of this turmoil was his father, John, a heavy drinker. He had married May Murray in 1879 and the couple started out in leafy Rathgar. When, three years later, their first son, James, was born, the Joyces' future looked bright. John, who had inherited some land from his father in Cork, also worked as a rate collector for Dublin Corporation. But he was a poor manager of money. At the age of ten, Joyce had to be removed from Clongowes Wood College because his father could not pay the fee.

After graduating from University College Dublin, Joyce spent a short time studying medicine in Paris. He was forced to return home to his dying mother but the seeds of flight had now been planted.

As one woman left his life, another entered. In June 1904, Joyce met "a sleek blond beauty" from Galway named Nora Barnacle. She would become his muse and, eventually, his wife. For the next 37 years, they would love and torment each other in almost equal measure in an often chaotic relationship. Their first romantic liaison, down a back alley, was, for Joyce, something of an epiphany.

"She seemed to have greater sexual experience than him," says Professor Johnson, "and certainly more than he expected. I think the sort of liberation that he achieved [because of her] in the context of a society that was quite repressive might have enabled him to gather the strength to go forward, to go away and establish a home elsewhere. There's certainly a case to be made for her part in the decision to leave Dublin."

Nora's role as muse is evident in many of Joyce's works. Both Molly Bloom in Ulysses and Greta Conroy in The Dead were inspired by her. But Nora Barnacle was much more than just a catalyst for Joyce's imagination.

"In the early biographies she was seen as nothing more than an elevated chamber maid, lucky enough to meet a literary genius," says Professor Johnson. "But she really was a partner in the firm that became the Joyces and she stuck by him through difficult periods."

And there were plenty of those from the outset. When they left Dublin, the couple had moved from Zurich to Trieste and onto the town of Pola before eventually returning to Trieste where Joyce secured a job teaching English. He soon became bored and decided to move to Rome where he had secured a job in a bank.

He spent nine months in the eternal city and hated it. The Forum was "like an old cemetery" while the locals were vulgar and prone to hypochondria. On his last night he got drunk and on his way home was mugged. He left Rome penniless.

He returned to Trieste and would settle there (somewhat) for the next decade. Joyce paid the occasional visit to Ireland. On one of his visits he brought his now four-year-old son Giorgio to meet his father. Months later he oversaw the opening of Dublin's first cinema, The Volta. His involvement in that venture did not last but he remained in Dublin for several months, corresponding with Nora in so-called 'dirty letters'. Her replies were equally sexually charged.

"When they went on the market a few years ago, people were surprised that she was an erotic instigator," says Professor Johnson. "But there are a lot of ways of reading it. I mean she knew her husband and knew his needs and desires. He was in Dublin and she didn't want him using prostitutes so she sent him these letters in the same way that people in long distance relationships might exchange pornographic material today. Judging by the morals of the time you ask yourself was she progressive? Maybe she was just being smart."

Joyce visited Dublin just one more time. In the summer of 1912 he aimed to settle a years-long dispute with publisher Maunsel and Roberts which centred on costs relating to the publication of The Dead. Ultimately, he lost his battle with the publisher and it would be two years before the triumphant collection of 15 stories was published in London by Grant Richards.

Though Joyce's curious physical relationship with Dublin ended after that incident, another, more fruitful one, had already begun.

"He more or less conceived of Dublin after he left it," says Mark Traynor of The James Joyce Centre. "He conceived it in his imagination but in such detail that people often suggest it's a central character of his work."

Had Joyce returned to Dublin after 1912 he may have risked destroying a world he had created. As Traynor points out: "by the time Ulysses was published in 1922, Dublin had changed quite dramatically". And not just physically. The cultural and political transition was also immense. Although Joyce was urged to come back by family, friends and other writers such as Yeats, he resolved to stay away.

"I'm not sure he could have written something like Ulysses if he had stayed in Dublin," continues Traynor. "He had a strong desire to leave. He felt it was quite restrictive. He saw himself as an artist and he felt that in order to fulfil his goals he had to, as he described it, go into exile. I think Joyce thrived on looking at things from afar."

The year 1914 looked promising. Not only had Dubliners been finally published but Joyce also completed Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.

But then war was declared and the Joyces, who with the birth of Lucia in 1907 now numbered four, were on the move again. This time they settled in Zurich where Joyce was introduced to Harriet Shaw Weaver, a wealthy editor and activist who became his patron and his ticket to becoming a full time artist. It was just as well. Joyce's sight had begun to fade and eventually he underwent several operations. They helped little and he spent his remaining years virtually blind.

When hostilities ended the Joyces were keen to return to Trieste. They found it changed however and soon they moved to Paris where Joyce became a member of the elite avant garde.

In 1922, Ulysses was published in Paris. Britain, Ireland and even the United States banned the book for its salacious content.

Val O'Donnell, helps to run Sweny's Pharmacy in Dublin, a place that plays a cameo in Ulysses and is today a hub of Joyce activity. He is in no doubt where Joyce's great tome sits in world literature.

"He used new literary techniques which have influenced the whole course of modern fiction," he says. "Innovations like the stream of consciousness or interior monologue technique; the extensive use of a mimetic narrative style to convey characters thoughts and feelings; his compounding of language; use of portmanteau words, and his astonishing command of literary styles, make him stand out as a literary innovator of the first rank."

By the time a young Samuel Beckett met him in Paris, Joyce was a literary star. Beckett became his assistant and helped prepare Finnegans Wake for publication. He soon found himself in a relationship with Joyce's fragile daughter, Lucia. She became infatuated but when she declared her love for him, Beckett rejected her. Whether that rejection resulted in Lucia's mental decline is debatable but eventually she was admitted to an asylum. She spent much of the rest of her life in institutions.

The one constant was Nora. The couple married in London in 1931. When war broke out across Europe for a second time, Joyce was forced to move home again, but this time for the last time. He and Nora returned to Zurich. In January, 1941 he underwent surgery for a perforated ulcer. It was unsuccessful and on the 13th January, arguably Ireland's greatest revolutionary passed away.

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