James Joyce, 1882–1941 

Joyce was born in Dublin, middle class and Catholic. 

He died neither---nor even a Dubliner, a city he never revisited in the last twenty-one years of his life. He was the eldest surviving son of John Stanislaus Joyce, a local government official, and Mary Joyce, a wife ten years younger and many ranks lower, as her husband thought, in social standing. Mary would die prematurely, exhausted by thirteen pregnancies. Her death echoes, guiltily, through the opening chapter of Ulysses.  A brood of nine children and a series of reckless mortgages impoverished John Joyce. 

The Joyces came down in the world. 

In Joyce's boyhood the family was well enough off, and at this stage small enough, for the six-year-old James to be sent off as a boarder to Clongowes Wood College in Co. Kildare. The Jesuit education marked him for life although Joyce professed to hate Clongowes and distilled his hatred into A Portrait where Stephen (true to his martyr's name) is bullied, 'pandied' (corporally punished), misunderstood by teachers and---at the very lowest point---tipped into a cesspit, precipitating a dangerous bout of amoebic dysentery. 

He was withdrawn from Clongowes for non-payment of fees in 1891. His father's improvidence, and drunkenness, and possible financial misdealings had brought the family to bankruptcy. Joyce finished his primary education at another Jesuit institution, Belvedere College, a local day school. The teachers liked him and he was seriously inclined himself towards the priesthood. He responded sensitively to the beauty of ritual and---as Chapter 3 of A Portrait records---hypersensitively to the terrors of damnation. 

Terror acted as a moral discipline on Joyce until 1898, when he met a 'gay girl' and ventured to have sex. Thereafter  'He would never swing the thurible before the tabernacle as priest.' When his mother died, he refused her dying wish to kneel by her bed. 

Joyce went on to university and graduated in 1902 with a lowly pass degree. But he left University College Dublin fearsomely well read, a skilled dialectician, and intellectually 'solitary'---his own man. The principal literary influence on him in these formative years was Henrik Ibsen, whose spirit, he recorded, blew through him 'like a keen wind'. It was also in this period that Joyce began recording what he called 'epiphanies': moments laden with meaning, crystallized in language.

In 1902 he went to Paris to study medicine. He returned to Dublin after a year, to teach. This is the rootless interim commemorated in Ulysses---specifically a week or so that he lodged in a Martello Tower, in summer 1904.  He developed what would be a lifelong addiction to drink and toyed with the idea of a singing career. Meanwhile he was struggling with a long Bildungsroman, initially called 'Stephen Hero', eventually to be given the Rembrandtian title, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He would be a middle-aged man before it was published.

He was also working on a set of poems called 'chamber music'---chamber as in chamber-pot, music as in the tinkle of a whore's urine. In 1904 he managed to smuggle some of the stories later to be published in Dubliners into print, under the loaded nom de plume 'Stephen Dedalus'. Another turning point came on 10 June 1904, when he first encountered Nora Barnacle, a hotel chamber-maid. She was, to his gratified astonishment, easy-going sexually. He came to regard her as his ‘soul’ and his ‘Ireland’. At exactly the same period he met the man who would inspire Leopold Bloom.

In autumn of this eventful year he resolved to leave Ireland with Nora, soon to be pregnant with their first child, Giorgio. He and Nora would not marry until 1931. Why Joyce should have gone into exile is obscure. He may have wanted a place more tolerant of a man and a woman  'living in sin'. Self-preservation as an artist may have come into it. Ireland, as Stephen puts it, the sow that eats her farrow. 

A series of mishaps as to teaching posts across Europe led to them finally taking up residence in the tiny city state, Trieste, where he found secure employment in the Berlitz school. Joyce by now had several literary projects on the go---most hopefully his Dublin short stories.  It was a bumpy road to eventual publication in 1914. Invariably there were censorship problems.

In 1906 Nora was pregnant again with a daughter, Lucia. As he approached thirty, Joyce published his first book---Chamber Music (1907). There was no money in poetry. He ventured on a madcap scheme to open a cinema in Dublin, managed from Trieste. It came to nothing, as did the most recent attempt to publish Dubliners, which ended with a thousand copies destroyed before sale. It was Ezra Pound who at this point took charge of Joyce's career, arranging for the serial publications of Portrait (it came out whole in 1917) and, later, Ulysses. It was Pound, too, who agitated to get Joyce handouts from the Civil List and the Society of Authors. Most importantly Pound put him in touch with the woman who would be his principal patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver, who took the Irish author (whom she had never met) as her pensioner. 

It was at this relatively stable point in his writing career that Joyce began serious work on Ulysses. As with everything in his life it did not go smoothly. World War meant the family moving to Zurich in 1915. What would be chronic, and eventually blinding, eye problems had set in.  Joyce's drinking was periodically pathological. The furore over Lawrence's The Rainbow meant that no British publisher would take an unexpurgated text which contained the word 'fuck'. And Joyce would never expurgate. The novel (if one calls it that) was marginally less objectionable in the US and most acceptable in Paris, after the war, where it was put out, in full, by the expatriate American bookseller, Sylvia Beach.

Ulysses, once published, was universally notorious but rarely read throughout, even by its most ferocious opponents and warmest advocates. The first volume edition of Ulysses published in London was widely confiscated and banned, despite a dauntingly impressive subscription list. It would not be until 1934 that an enlightened court case in the US acquitted Ulysses. The Bodley Head edition came out two years later in the UK---but not in Ireland.

By now the family of four had moved to Paris---the only place for a modernist to live, Pound urged. Joyce's health was precarious. All his teeth were extracted, he was virtually blind in one eye, and prone to crippling depression. But he forged ahead with his most ambitious work Finnegans Wake. This, and the dire condition of his daughter Lucia, would be his main preoccupations over the years that remained to him. She sank into a state diagnosed as schizophrenic---although the diagnosis has been much debated, as is the possibility of incest within the family. She was eventually institutionalised.

Joyce finished Finnegans Wake in 1939 as war, once again, consumed Europe and enforced flight. Once again Switzerland was their refuge. In this last work, in his last years, Joyce had brought fiction 'to the end of English’. The first line is one of the most famous in literature: ‘riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.’

Very few readers make it to the last line: ‘A way a lone a last a loved a long the PARIS, 1922-1939.’

Joyce died in Switzerland of complications arising from stomach ulcers. 

© John Sutherland, 2012.