Joyce’s Death & Wake

January 13: Onthis day in 1941, James Joyce died in Zurich at the age of fifty-eight fromperitonitis brought on by a perforated ulcer. Even without the dislocation ofWWII, Joyce’s last years were beset with difficulties—the schizophrenia of hisdaughter, his son’s floundering career and broken marriage, his eyesight,ongoing battles over Ulysses and newworries about Finnegans Wake.”Though not so blind as Homer, and not so exiled as Dante,” writesbiographer Richard Ellmann, “he had reached his life’s nadir.”

Most troubling to Joyce was Lucia’s mental illness. He hadshuffled her from doctor to doctor and clinic to clinic looking for successfultreatment, or some support for his refusal to accept the bleak prognosis. Amongthose consulted was Carl Jung, whose attempts to treat Lucia in the mid-1930shad ended with the double diagnosis that she and her father were like twopeople heading to the bottom of a river, she falling and he diving. Joyce had apsychological style that was “definitely schizophrenic,” said Jung,though he transformed it by genius: “In any other time of the past Joyce’swork would never have reached the printer, but in our blessed XXth century itis a message, though not yet understood.”

Joyce was in the home stretch on the seventeen-year Wake at this point. In the text he couldbe jocular about his daughter’s doctors—”grisly old Sykos” whopronounce “on ‘alices, when they were yung and easily freudened”—butin private he despaired. Whatever the improvement, he doubted that Lucia wouldever be able to turn for long from her “lightening-lit revery” to”that battered cabman’s face, the world.” And if he might soon escapethe “folie of writing Work inProgress” (his manuscript title for FinnegansWake), the “monster” had nearly killed him:

Having written Ulyssesabout the day, I wanted to write this book about the night…. Since 1922 mybook has been a greater reality for me than reality. Everything gives way toit. Everything outside the book has been an insuperable difficulty: the leastrealities, such as shaving myself in the morning, for example.

Joyce’s interest in ordinary living was always, as Ellmannputs it, “erratic and provisional,” but his books show him as”one of life’s celebrants, in bad circumstances cracking good jokes,foisting upon ennuis and miseries his comic vision.”


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.