James Joyce – Into the Labyrinth

James Joyce

Into the Labyrinth

Ireland has punched above it’s weight in many fields, but few in more distinction than literature. And of our greatest literary talents, none are more enigmatic than James Joyce. A master of the intricacies and subtleties of his craft, he could turn into a large than life’ hell-raiser under the right conditions. We can’t think of a much better definition of a TwoTon icon. Guest contributor Niall O’Leary’ ‘explores the man’s legendary life.

James Joyce Through Words and Letters

Born in 1882 in Rathgar, James Joyce, literary revolutionary, is a slippery character. For much of his life he was in self-imposed exile from his native land, yet he never wrote about anything else. He had a religious upbringing and prided himself on his theology, yet he railed against Catholicism and had most of his books banned for obscenity. Twist follows turn. He’s hard to pin down, and for many years his constant travelling reflected this restlessness. Paris, Trieste, Pola, London, Hamburg, 4 Bowling Green Galway; he and his family threaded their way across Europe for over thirty years. Perhaps to provide some sort of an anchor, he wrote and received thousands of letters. This huge and varied correspondence with everyone from T. S. Eliot and Lady Gregory to the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, gives us a tempting entry point into the maze of his life. But once we go in, just how far can we go? Is there a thread throughout and does it lead us to the real Joyce?

Joyce's letters help us map his travels

Joyce’s letters help us map his travels

Right from the start, Joyce had an eye on foreign shores. One of his earliest letters was to the great Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, in 1901[1].

It was a fan letter and he even learnt Norwegian to write it. Always good with languages, he had studied French and Italian at UCD. No doubt this linguistic mastery freed him both aesthetically and geographically; he could travel anywhere because he could communicate anywhere. This letter, however, also shows his willingness to reach out.

His fearlessness in approaching the great and the good led him to accost W. B. Yeats in the street. When he proceeded to criticize the older poet’s work, Yeats was not immediately impressed. They nevertheless struck up a correspondence. If Yeats had his doubts, his one-time secretary, Ezra Pound, certainly didn’t, at least not initially. It’s no exaggeration to say that without Pound, Joyce might never have made the impact he eventually did. Pound encouraged the young writer, promoted him, and fought for publication of his work. Not only did Pound become a tireless promoter of Joyce, he became almost a lifelong friend. Their letters, often bizarre, always forthright, chart how the two great writers came to diverge over “Finnegan’s Wake”. Pound simply didn’t get it:

“I will have another go at it, but up to the present I make nothing of it whatever. Nothing so far as I can make out, nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clapp can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization.” (15th November 1926)[2]

James Joyce, Ezra Pound, John Quinn, Ford Madox Ford (New York Public Library, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/8c501998-'­f004-'­6c37-'­ e040-'­e00a18062911

Joyce, Pound, Quinn & Ford

James Joyce, Ezra Pound, John Quinn, Ford Madox Ford (New York Public Library, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/8c501998-‘­f004-‘­6c37-‘­ e040-‘­e00a18062911)

Pound wasn’t the only great American writer to encounter the Irishman. While in Paris, James Joyce met the bullfight–âloving, hard drinking, perambulating, left–âleaning Ernest Hemingway himself. Like Joyce, Hemingway liked to drink and travel, but he also liked to fight. Joyce, always willing to help a fellow writer, would deliberately pick a fight at a party and, when things were just about to get out of hand, shout out, Deal with him, Hemingway!'[3] Always in the mood for a bit of devilment, but cute enough to get out of harm’s way.

The burly author was always happy to sort things out. Strangely enough though, in all of Joyce’s letters, and indeed of the 2,500 written by Hemingway, there are no letters between the two, not even a postcard. For all that they had in common, they had antagonistic characteristics too. While they both tried to accurately capture the essence of Life, the bullish Hemingway tried to do so by fighting it into his sparse prose. The more effete Joyce cajoled it into his. He let Life roam free within his words, bucking against them, even transforming them, until it eventually found itself trapped in his aesthetic labyrinth. Ultimately this tortuous style makes for very difficult reading, but it’s also exhilarating.

Throughout all of Joyce’s travels, there is of course one figure who lies at the end of each journey: Nora Barnacle. His long-time companion and eventual wife, Nora left Galway to follow him around the Continent. While Hemingway is famous for his affairs, Joyce is just as famous for his steadfast devotion to his partner. However, like Molly Bloom, Nora was no shrinking violet and actively encouraged this obsession. On one occasion while the two lovers were living apart, Nora instigated a series of erotic letters to keep her partner hot and bothered in the right way. The infamous ‘dirty letters’ show a Joyce exploring every aspect of his wife in word and idea.

Nora Barnacle in 1916 (http://www.ricorso.net/rx/library/gallerys/authors/Joyce_JA/Portraits/JJ_Album/htms/ JAJ_Ports.htm)

Nora Barnacle

Although Nora’s side of the correspondence has been lost, it is clear she contributed just as much as Joyce to the fevered exchange. Her role as muse and partner pervades all aspects of his life. In many ways she is the thread that weaves through Joyce’s life and letters, binding everything and leading the way to a central truth.

Or is she? All is not as it first seems. Certainly James and Nora had a strong relationship that lasted until his death. They had two children, Giorgio and Lucia, and Joyce was a devoted father. Nevertheless, in 1918, four letters to the mysterious Martha Fleischmann complicate this family portrait.[5]

The Joyce family were living in 38 Universitatsstrasse, Zurich. One evening while walking, Joyce noticed a woman opening the door to her apartment on the nearby Culmannstrasse. He was dumbstruck. When he finally found his voice, he apologised for staring at the woman, but claimed she looked the image of a woman he had once seen standing on a beach in Dublin many years before. That woman had made such an impression on Joyce that he had already immortalised her in a scene at the end of Chapter 4 in ‘The Portrait’. This woman, Swiss through and through, had never been to Ireland nor did she speak English. Without even knowing her name Joyce sparked up a correspondence with the woman, an insistent one:

“I thought of you often, and later, when I recognised you at the window, I watched you with a kind of fascination from which I cannot free myself.”

He referred to her in one letter as Nausikaa while he signed off as Odysseus. In Greek legend, Nausicaa had an unrequited love for Odysseus. In this instance the roles were reversed:

 “Is it possible for one person to have feelings like mine, and for the other not to have them at all?”

And she didn’t. Despite tea in her flat, and later visits by Joyce when he returned to Zurich in the 30’s, Martha Fleischmann, never reciprocated Joyce’s feelings. Indeed, she never even read his work, despite him giving her an inscribed copy of “Chamber Music”. The letters themselves only came to light much later when the penniless Martha tried to sell them. She died not long after, paralysed, penniless, and alone. She had died for Joyce much earlier:

“It seemed that the sole ray of light which in all these last years has pierced the darkness of my life has been put out.”

James Joyce left Ireland, physically at least, in 1904, and though he did return at least twice, the continent became his Mediterranean. Something always pushed him on and on until he reached his endpoint in Europe’s heart, Switzerland. It was there that his duodenum did him in; he died of a perforated ulcer on the 13th January 1941. The Irish Government refused to take back his body, despite being offered, so he remained homeless even in death. In some ways, his travels never stopped.

Reading through his letters, the shocks and double-entendres that populate James Joyce’s fiction constantly pop up in his life. Obsessed with aesthetics and literary ideals (he ridiculed Pound’s sense and pence), he was nevertheless constantly struggling with money matters and resorted to good old TEFL on more than one occasion. (He taught English to Italian modernist, Italo Svevo.) He drank, he sang, he partied; yet he was a devoted family man, though one with an eye for the neighbours. One eye only, for he constantly suffered problems with his sight and frequently wore an eye patch. Bad health plagued his family too. His daughter, Lucia, who casually dated his secretary, Samuel Beckett, was eventually lost to schizophrenia. While treating Lucia, her psychiatrist, no one less than C. G. Jung, felt that though she was sinking into insanity, Joyce himself had dived into its depths and was already a schizophrenic.[6]

Others say his writing kept him sane.James Joyce the writer cannot be pinned down in place, time or meaning, with his timeless works causing frustration, amazement, and joy everywhere and always. And like those works the man himself is a mass of contradictions, slippery innuendo, and brazen falsehood. We must see Joyce as the architect of this maze and a maze maker doesn’t play his tricks to lead us anywhere. He wants us to get lost; just ask the designer of the original Labyrinth, Daedalus.

However, we can only get lost if we are trying to get somewhere. The key to Joyce is to give up trying to find some mythical Rosebud to explain the man. It is much more enjoyable to just wander around and see where the journey takes us.

Genius talent but a shady underbelly to a complex character. A near clich© Irishman. But as iconic an Irishman as you will find. TwoTon Murphy® tips the hat to James Joyce.

You can explore more of James Joyce’s correspondence at http://www.correspondence.ie




Forrest Read, ed., Pound/Joyce: the letters of Ezra Pound to James Joyce, with Pound’s essays on Joyce. London, Faber, 1968





Letters of James Joyce. Vol. 2. Edited by Richard Ellmann. London: Faber & Faber, 1966.



Peter Crowley

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