There is a Facebook page called ‘I Hate James Joyce & Co.’ Its creator declares that it is For Everyone Who Hates Joyce. In one of the video posts the caption ‘When someone says Ulysses is one of the best books ever’ runs across the screen while a bored teenager simulates throttling himself with a telephone cord. At the end of the cord is a cream Bakelite phone that could have been the one in my parents’ hall where I would sit on the stairs for hours at a time shouldering the bowl of the receiver as I and my best friend discussed the weighty problems of teenage life including ‘James Joyce the head wrecker’ and ‘Have you done your essay yet?’ Our shared worldview focused mostly on the prison of school, hated teachers and a planned ‘mich’ (playing truant). What could James Joyce have to offer us? Did we seriously have to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? According to our English teacher Joyce had told an Italian friend ‘I will be the new D’Annunzio’. And this was before he had even published a book. He was full himself.
My friend cried off on the day of our ‘mich’. After wandering around Dublin’s streets with the edges of my coat pulled tight across my uniform, I sat cringing in my very public aloneness during a busy lunchtime in Stephen’s Green. A young dark-haired man settled himself and his backpack into the park bench where I sat. An overweight elderly woman squeezed in on my other side. After a mutual eye-roll with the dark-haired boy, we fell into friendly conversation while he ate his sandwich. He was a student from Trieste who had come to study at Trinity College. After a while he gestured at my all too obvious school bag and asked what books were in there. One of them was Dubliners, which I had not yet opened. Our teacher had encouraged us to read it as well as the dreaded A Portrait. He asked to see it, so I pulled it out from the bag, declaring that I was ‘miching’. He looked mystified. ‘Miching’, I repeated, hearing the word’s glamour fade as he stared blankly at me while I further explained. Eventually he asked me to spell ‘mich’ then he sounded the word in his mouth repeatedly in his Italian accent making it sound exotic and quite daft. I didn’t know that he was a Joycean scholar and had Joyce’s obsession with language and how words sound in the mouth.
While he leafed purposefully through Dubliners he spoke about Joyce’s life in Trieste. I was distracted by the rolled ‘r’ and triple syllables of his ‘Tri-es-te’, but later in life I discovered that Trieste was indeed Joyce’s most loved, and adopted city ‘la mia seconda patria’ as he called it (John McCourt, from his essay in A Companion to James Joyce). To achieve his ambitions as an artist Joyce believed that he had to, as he described it, go into exile. He needed distance from Dublin in order to be able to write about it. Besides he felt confined by closed-minded Dublin. When he lived, with Nora Barnacle, in Trieste from 1904 to 1915, it was a large cosmopolitan city, a major port of the Austrian-Hungarian empire.
Trieste was a powerful incubator for his ideas – intellectually and culturally stimulating with its mingling of three cultures: Italian, Austrian and Slav, and he met people there from all over Europe, many of them multilingual, as well as Jewish intellectuals and business people. Joyce had French and Latin and had begun learning Italian at the age of twelve for entry to Belvedere College and had continued studying it as well as Dante and D’Annunzio at University College, Dublin, earning the nickname ‘Dublin’s Dante’. While he lived in Trieste he wrote most of Dubliners and A Portrait, and conceived his ideas for Ulysses.
When my bench sharing Italian friend found the story he was searching for in my uncherished Dubliners book, he read a few lines aloud:
‘The summer holidays were near at hand when I made up my mind to break out of the weariness of school-life for one day at least. With Leo Dillon and a boy named Mahony I planned a day’s miching.’
The ‘miching’ word again. He went on to tell me that this story ‘An Encounter’ is based on Joyce’s personal experience, as is A Portrait. I read ‘An Encounter’ and all of Dubliners in the following days. I never again met the handsome exile from Trieste, but while I was reading ‘An Encounter’ it was thrilling to see some of the similarities between my truancy adventure and that of the boy in the story who, like the boy in ‘Araby’ and ‘The Sisters’ is moving from childhood to adulthood, as I was, and who encounters a stranger while playing truant, though not a friendly Italian, but a more sinister creature whose attire:
‘… shabbily dressed in a suit of greenish-black…’
curiously echoed (though I didn’t notice at the time) that of the dying priest who has
lost his faith, in the previous story ‘The Sisters’:
‘It may have been these constant showers of snuff which gave his ancient priestly garments their green faded look…’
Perhaps Joyce is implying that the disheveled man in ‘An Encounter’ who fantasises about the violent whipping of boys is a repressed Jesuit priest (The Jesuits used corporal punishment to control children):
‘A slap on the hand or a box on the ear was no good: what he wanted was to get a nice warm whipping…if ever he found a boy talking to girls or having a girl for a sweetheart he would whip him and whip him…’
The suggestion is that only by escaping the oppression of religious education can the boy fully experience life. He also senses a sleazy version of adult desire and power that perturbs him. And he realises the importance of friendship.
The notion of being trapped, or paralysed, by psychological, social or religious strictures permeates Dubliners, and the incentive for Joyce’s exile, evident in its pages, is described by Anthony Burgess:
‘When he carried himself and the innocent Nora Barnacle to Trieste, Joyce felt that there was no room for his idiosyncratic artistic ambitions in a country that was scared of beauty and truth and had a crippled notion of goodness. A kind of renaissance was proceeding in Ireland, but it was too parochial for Joyce’s taste. There was talk of the forthcoming liberation from the British yoke, there was much learning of Erse, there was a literary movement that owed more to vague myth than to stern reality. The Celtic twilight, which in Finnegans Wake Joyce mocked as the ‘cultic toilette’, produced poetry and prose crepuscular in their anaemic images and arthritic rhythms.’ (Anthony Burgess, 1986, from his unused introduction to Dubliners, re-printed in the ‘Irish Times’)
Joyce wrote that he intended the stories to ‘betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city’. His characters may eventually become conscious of their paralysis, or if not, the reader does, through his famously epiphanic moments of revelation. ‘Epiphany’ is a spiritual term taken from the church. Though hugely significant in Joyce’s work, these epiphanies are not ostentatious moments of disclosure, rather a brief instant where some truth about being human is subtly revealed. Joyce saw them as ‘little errors and gestures – mere straws in the wind – by which people betrayed the very things they were most careful to conceal.’
We spent no more than thirty chaste minutes together but for weeks I dreamed about ‘my’ Italian. The only person who seemed to understand my crush was James Joyce. In his beautiful story ‘Araby’, a boy is infatuated with his friend Mangan’s sister. At one point he talks about seeing her everywhere, even when walking through noisy Dublin streets while helping his aunt to do her shopping:
‘These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me: I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.’
At the time some of the lofty romantic phrases seemed old-fashioned to me and words like ‘chalice’ and ‘bosom’ were not part of my vernacular, but I was full of admiration for the clarity of Joyce’s description of intense feelings as if he was both inside and outside the boy’s mind and heart, and I identified with those feelings. Joyce is of course known for his ability to write faithfully about human experience as if he is close up to the object of his analysis as well as seeming to be very far above it.
The ‘Araby’ in the story is a bazaar advertised as an exotic fair:
‘The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me.’
Mangan’s sister yearns to go there but is unable to and so the boy promises to go instead and bring back a memento for her. He does not succeed and Joyce uses words like ‘marketing’, ‘bargaining’ and ‘shop-boys’ to show how the boy finds Araby to be a hard place of money and trade, not a place for romance. I could not see the absurdity of my own infatuation back then whereas in Joyce’s story the adult voice at the end of the narrative appears to view his romantic longing as illusory.
‘Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.’
Another of Joyce’s epiphanies.
My Triestino encounter spurred me on to revisit A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man too, because he told me it was about ‘Identity’. My English teacher had probably said that already, but she wasn’t a handsome young Italian. A Portrait is Joyce’s semi-autobiographical story of one person’s (Stephen Dedalus) development from childhood to adulthood. I knew nothing of modernism, but what I liked most about it, being a teenager at the time, is how Joyce portrays Stephen’s sexual and artistic maturing and shows what makes his identity by allowing us into the flux of the inner life of young Stephen instead of writing directly from Joyce’s own voice. And for a lot of the story Stephen’s language is that of an acutely sensitive child or teenager. The sensory writing is intensely fluid and impressionistic and many of the events are memorable: a heated row at Christmas dinner between Parnellites and anti-Parnellites:
‘They are the Lord’s anointed, Dante said. They are an honour to their country.’
‘Sons of bitches! cried Mr Dedalus. When he was down they turned on him to betray him and rend him like rats in a sewer.’
And later in his life his guilt and terror after a priest’s vivid sermon on the horrors of hell:
‘Every word of it was for him. Against his sin, foul and secret, the whole wrath of God was aimed. The preacher’s knife had probed deeply into his diseased conscience and he felt how that his soul was festering in sin. Yes, the preacher was right. God’s turn had come.’
Parts of A Portrait confirmed my earlier impression of Joyce (Stephen) as an arrogant, pompous young man, indeed a bit of a ‘head wrecker’. But later I understood that the subjective nature of writing from the perspective of Stephen’s unique consciousness necessitates the novel being ‘full of himself’. And it is likely that Joyce, a man so in touch with his own humanity, is candidly examining his own arrogance through Stephen.
Stephen is full of pride too when it comes to Emma, a girl who makes efforts to show interest in him. He fails to connect with her, though in his imagination he sees himself as the partner of Mercedes in The Count of Monte Cristo. He writes flowery poetry about Emma in secret but afterwards is more interested in admiring his own reflection in a mirror.
Two years later just before performing the lead part in a play his acting experience ironically, and briefly, changes his lonely, brooding nature.
‘Another nature seemed to have been lent him: the infection of the excitement and youth about him entered into and transformed his moody mistrustfulness. For one rare moment he seemed to be clothed in the real apparel of boyhood…’
However, throughout the novel reality breaks in on fantasy and while the illusion of the play is accompanied by another dream – that Emma is watching him perform and waiting for him afterwards – it transpires that she is not, and he ends up in a street that smells of rotting hay and horse urine, a somewhat comic and sad irony. Eventually he visits a prostitute, which is at least a lived human experience for him, if far from romantic idealism. These tensions and struggles within Stephen continue with his contemplation of the priesthood as a vocation.
By the end of the novel Emma is no longer significant and he has bravely chosen Art not only over the priesthood, but also over Irish nationalism, Catholic indoctrination, his own class, and family.
‘I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning.’
He has found his true vocation as an artist:
‘a priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.’
In the final pages of A Portrait Stephen is making preparations to leave Dublin. Joyce’s own travels were undertaken somewhat haphazardly with little money and mostly informal employment plans. He left Dublin first for Paris, then Zurich, where his promised teaching position never materialized, then he travelled to Trieste, and to Pola, where he stayed for a while teaching English, before returning to Trieste. When he first arrived in Trieste at the age of 22 he left Nora Barnacle on a park bench near the station while he went to search for a pensione. She stayed there until the following morning because he apparently got sidetracked by attempting to translate for some drunk English soldiers who were being arrested, and ended up in prison with them. Eventually Joyce’s brother Stanislaus came to live with him and Nora in Trieste, helping to support them financially.
Joyce and Nora lived in Zurich with their children, Giorgio and Lucia from 1915 to 1919. When they returned to Trieste in 1919 it was no longer part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. After its annexation to Italy it was less economically and culturally significant. Joyce began teaching again at the Revoltella, but Trieste was no longer the same place with the same social circles that had informed his writing. The family moved again in 1920 to Paris. They remained in Paris for 20 years but Joyce never forgot ‘la bella Trieste’.
The Joyce family returned to Zurich in 1940 after the German occupation of Paris. A few weeks later Joyce became ill and died after a failed operation on January 13, 1941. Ulysses is set on 16th June, 1904, the day of his first outing with Nora Barnacle. Padraic O’Laoi in his book Nora Barnacle Joyce:A Portrait (1982) writes about what most attracted Nora to Joyce, and it is something that uncannily reflects an essential element of his artistry too: his impartial candour and unflinching willingness to get to the truth of the flawed and ‘wondrously paltry’ (Borges,‘Invocation to Joyce’) humanity of his characters.
‘One quality above all others attracted her to Joyce – it was his absolute candour. He opened his soul to her in its entirety and never attempted to hide from her even his most secret thoughts.’