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The TennesseanThese books are not mere outlines for dummies. They're lucid narratives.
— Brian J. Buchanan
James Joyce was born in Rathgar, a middle-class suburb in south Dublin on February 2, 1882. His mother Mary Jane (known as May) had met his father John Stanislaus Joyce when they were both in the choir of the local Catholic church; music, especially singing, would continue to play a prominent role in Joyce family life. James was the eldest surviving child but would not remain an only child for long, soon acquiring several brothers and sisters. James's father was secretary of the Dublin and Chapelizod Distilling Company; later he became a civil servant in the taxation department.
At the age of six, young James was sent to Clongowes Wood College, a Jesuit boarding school some fifty miles away in County Kildare. This was generally regarded as the finest Catholic school in Ireland. On arrival, young James was asked his age, to which he replied, "Half-past six." From an early age, James exhibited a precocious verbal talent-no mean feat in a nation noted for such talent at all ages. James was young to be sent away as a boarder, even at a time when middle-class children were customarily packed off early to boarding school; as a result he suffered from homesickness, but he was quickly chided out of this, as was the manner of the time. He was soon participating in the usual rough and tumble of boarding-school life, to the pointwhere the priest in charge of the pupils' health remarked in a letter to James's mother: "He is very well-his face being, as usual, very often well marked with any black thing that comes within reach." James's precocious intellect soon began manifesting itself in an eye for detail and a love of sorting things in order, causing his father to observe admiringly, "If that fellow was dropped in the middle of the Sahara, he'd sit, be God, and make a map of it."
Then disaster struck. In 1892, James's father lost his job in the tax department, and his tendency to a certain fecklessness now became pronounced. From this time on he was never able to find regular employment, taking on various temporary and part-time jobs, including work soliciting advertisements for a Dublin newspaper. Owing to the rapid decline in family fortunes, James was withdrawn from Clongowes Wood College after just three years. For the next two years he would remain at home, largely educating himself, with a little help from his hard-pressed but sympathetic mother. After thirteen years of marriage she would find herself looking after a household of ten children, with dwindling support from her husband, who now spent more and more of his time in the pubs of Dublin. When he returned home he would sometimes be violent toward May, and on one occasion the teenage James was forced to pin him to the ground while his mother fled to the refuge of a neighbor. During James's teenage years the family was forced to move from their home, then moving became a more regular occurrence, with the family occasionally resorting to a "moonlight flit" to avoid paying the rent. As they moved from house to house, the next always poorer than the last, James became intimately acquainted with one Dublin district after another.
At the age of eleven, James had been sent with his brother Stanislaus to Belvedere College in Dublin, a school run by Jesuits where fees were not required. Here he again shone and was eventually elected head of the Marian Society, the equivalent of head boy. Despite this, he remained an object of suspicion to his Jesuit teachers. He was thought to have lost his faith, and by the time he left Belvedere his doubts about the existence of a Catholic God were beginning to harden. But this was no easy lapse. James's intellect had taken a highly spiritual inclination under the tutelage of the Jesuits, and he spent many long nights of the soul before coming to terms with his loss of faith in his own fashion. He had begun to write poetry, and art now began to take the place of religion in his spiritual life. He took his new vocation very seriously. As he explained to his brother Stanislaus in all earnestness: "There is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the mass and what I am trying to do. I mean that I am trying in my poems to give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own." In one way or another, this would remain Joyce's artistic credo throughout the years to come.
In 1898, Joyce entered University College, Dublin, the city's Catholic university. This had opened just a half-century earlier, with high hopes of rivaling the ancient Protestant Trinity College, Dublin, alma mater of a long line of distinguished Anglo-Irish figures, including Oscar Wilde and the philosopher Bishop Berkeley. During the preceding decade the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins had been professor of ancient Greek at University College, but by the time Joyce arrived the Jesuit staff were already imposing a rigid Catholic orthodoxy, and an air of mediocrity prevailed. Nominally Joyce studied English, French, and Italian, but though he read widely in these languages he put in few appearances at lectures. His Jesuit professor of English eccentrically believed that Francis Bacon had written the plays of Shakespeare; Joyce was more interested in who was writing contemporary plays. When he was just eighteen he wrote a long review of Ibsen's final play When We Dead Awaken. This he extended into an eight-thousand-word review of Ibsen's entire work, which concluded with a bold psychological study of the controversial Norwegian playwright himself. Perceptively, Joyce noted that although Ibsen was
... an eminently virile man, there is a curious admixture of the woman in his nature. His marvellous accuracy, his faint traces of femininity, his delicacy of swift touch, are perhaps attributable to this admixture. But that he knows women is an incontrovertible fact. He appears to have sounded them to almost unfathomable depths.
The article was accepted by the prestigious, London-based Fortnightly Review, where its appearance was the cause of some admiration and not a little jealousy in literary Dublin. It also came to the notice of the aging Ibsen himself, who wrote Joyce a letter of thanks. Later, Joyce wrote a long letter to Ibsen on the occasion of his seventy-third birthday, translating his own English into Norwegian. In this Joyce claimed that "Ireland has produced nothing but a whine to the literature of Europe." This was a controversial opinion of a rich centuries-old tradition which had culminated in his contemporaries Wilde, Shaw, and Yeats. But Joyce had a very pertinent point here. This great Irish literary tradition consisted almost entirely of Anglo-Irish or Protestant writers, who were mainly middle or upper class. There was nothing Anglo about Joyce. He was a Celt, who came from the majority Catholic background, and he no longer subscribed to middleclass mores. What he sought to establish was a real Irish tradition, produced by its indiginous Celtic people. He continued his letter to Ibsen by confidently saluting his literary hero:
Your work on earth draws to a close and you are near the silence. It is growing dark for you.... You have only opened the way-though you have gone as far as you could upon it.... As one of the younger generation for whom you have spoken I give you greeting-not humbly, because I am obscure and you in the glare, not sadly because you are an old man and I am a young man, not presumptuously nor sentimentally....
Joyce was not diffident in implying that he was the man who would one day go farther along the way that Ibsen had opened and "gone as far as you could."
As is often the case with psychological insight, Joyce's characterization of the feminine in Ibsen's nature had more than a touch of the autobiographical about it. Joyce's perception was imbued with a feminine delicacy of touch. But his assertion that Ibsen had "sounded the almost unfathomable depths" of female nature was autobiographical in a very different way. Joyce's early religiosity, along with the sexual represssion that pervaded Irish society, had left him with a deeply ambivalent relationship to his own sexuality. He was at the same time highly sexed and highly repressed. This led him to develop a distinctly perverse obsession with intimate bodily odors, a fetish he would retain for the rest of his life.
Joyce's normal sexual appetites eventually found release through encounters with prostitutes in Dublin's "Nighttown," a district frequented mainly by sailors and "tommies" from the British army garrisoned in the country to suppress the Irish independence movement. These sexual encounters left Joyce with a deep sense of shame, arising from his repressive Catholic education by the Jesuits, whose celibacy induced a horror of sex. Yet on a more conscious level Joyce knew himself well enough to recognize his own needs. He wanted sex, and if he wanted to become a complete artist he had to complete his experience. His insights into Ibsen's knowledge of women were in many ways his justification to himself of his sexual encounters with prostitutes. These were necessary for him, both as an artist and as a man-despite the deep undertow of shame that such acts induced. If repressed Ireland prevented him from knowing the unfathomable depths that he felt sure women possessed, he could at least take a step in the direction that Ibsen had taken.
Like many a student, especially in Dublin, Joyce drank more Guinness than he could handle. He preferred the company of medical students, renowned for their hard drinking and Rabelaisian behavior. Anecdotes tell of Joyce being returned home "curled up in a cab like a tobacco spit." In the daytime his visits to lectures were rare; instead he spent hours on end in the National Library, which was just down the street. Here he read far and wide, following the serendipity of his imagination, acquiring a deep knowledge of the world's literature and philosophy as well as a vast accumulation of intellectual trivia, phrases from esoteric languages, obscure sayings, and minor historical facts.
He also continued writing poetry, but now he also began experimenting with poetic prose pieces, which he called "epiphanies"-a theological term referring to a heightened sense of consciousness in which a vision of the godhead or religious revelation takes place. For Joyce, the revelation was spiritual, though expunged of any religious content or sacred meaning. His epiphanies could occur in a vision of "the soul of the commonest object ... in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself." This was a vision of the art and the meaning that lurks in the everyday world, waiting for the artist to apprehend it and discover its radiant truth-an experience which both inspires in him, and is in itself, a heightened sense of consciousness.
In June 1902, Joyce took his final exams, gaining a distinctly ordinary degree with the minimum of effort. His attitude is summed up in the following conversation, which is said to have taken place during his English oral exams:
EXAMINER: How is poetic justice exemplified in the play of King Lear? JOYCE: (apparently bored) I don't know. EXAMINER: Oh come, Mr. Joyce, you are not fair to yourself. JOYCE: Oh yes, but I don't understand your question. The phrase "poetic justice" is unmeaning jargon so far as I am concerned.
This episode aptly encapsulates both his arrogance and his originality at this early stage of his development. Joyce was now determined to become a writer and equally determined to break free from the stifling parochialism of Dublin. But to do this he realized he would need a job to support himself-so he decided he would become a doctor. He borrowed money from his friends and in December set off with high hopes for Paris. He would study medicine and at the same time write in the capital city of the artistic world. All this was little more than an impractical dream, but it took him to Paris. The study of medicine was soon abandoned in favor of his usual habits. Days of reading in the Sainte-Geneviève Library were followed by nights consuming prodigious amounts of cheap red wine and occasional encounters with prostitutes. In between times he starved, waiting for letters containing money sent by his long-suffering friends. He lived in a small room in the cheap Hôtel Corneille, which in his letters home to his sick and worried mother became transformed into "Le Grand Hotel Corneille." After just four months he received word that his mother was dying and hurried back to her bedside in Dublin. A few months later she was dead.
Joyce now took on various jobs in Dublin, including a four-month stint as a teacher at a private school in Dalkey, south of Dublin. His difficult relationship with his father continued, as his father spent what little money he had on drink, condemning his family to penury. Joyce no longer lived at home, putting up at various addresses with his friends. For a brief period of ten days he lodged with the writer Oliver St. John Gogarty who was living in the Martello Tower by the sea at Sandycove. In the midst of all this Joyce began writing a novel called Stephen Hero, whose central character, Stephen Dedalus, was largely based on the spiritual progress of Joyce himself and his epiphanic formative experiences. In 1904 the writer George Russell (better known by his pseudonym "AE") offered to publish a series of short stories by Joyce at u1 each in the journal he was editing. This was the Irish Homestead, whose readership consisted largely of farmers and country people. Joyce published three stories under the pseudonym Stephen Dedalus before it became clear that the blatant realism of his writing was unsuitable for such an audience. Russell rejected his story Clay, which described a cousin of Joyce's, thinly disguised as "Maria," who worked in the Dublin by Lamplight laundry, which was in fact an institution providing employment for reformed prostitutes. Despite Russell's rejection, these stories marked Joyce's coming-of-age as a writer.
At the same time Joyce underwent an experience that would mark his coming-of-age as a man-an experience he would celebrate as the most important in his life. On June 10, 1904, as he was walking down Nassau Street in central Dublin, he noticed a young woman with striking red hair. On the spur of the moment he introduced himself to her and asked her out. This was Nora Barnacle, from Galway, who had run away from her home in the west of Ireland and was now working as a chambermaid in the small Finn's Hotel. Nora was struck by Joyce's blue eyes, and the fact that he was wearing a yachting cap made her think he must be a sailor. She was an independent spirit and jauntily agreed to meet him-but later thought better of it. When she didn't turn up, Joyce was crestfallen; he sent her a note, asking for another date "if you have not forgotten me." They met again on Thursday June 16, which Joyce would one day transform into the most famous date in twentieth-century literature. During the course of their evening walk together at Ringsend, a drab suburb at the mouth of the river Liffey, the twenty-two-year-old Joyce must have had the first inkling that Nora was the woman he had been looking for. She was bright, self-confident, yet uneducated. To anyone else she might have seemed distinctly ordinary; but this was part of her attraction to Joyce, along with her native wit and forthright, unaffected character. She appeared both knowing and yet innocent, both mocking and affectionate, in a way that he had never encountered. For all his intellect and apparent self-confidence, Joyce remained essentially a buttoned-up personality, incapable of expressing himself fully except on paper. And even there, his self-exposure was disguised by art. Nora was the first person to penetrate his formidable intellectual defences. Likewise, her curious combination of brazenness and innocence drew him to her in a way he had never felt before with a woman. The nineteen-year-old Nora was still a virgin, yet as they embraced she slipped her hand into his trousers, slowly coaxing him to orgasm while looking at his face with her "quiet saint-like eyes."
Excerpted from James Joyce IN 90 MINUTES by Paul Strathern Copyright © 2005 by Paul Strathern. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 11, 2009