06 September 2014

Silence, Exile, Punning

James Joyce's chance encounters

>Published in The New Yorker on 2nd. July, 2012<

by Louis Menand

''I will tell you what i will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls 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 defense the only arms I allow myself to use--silence, exile, and cunning.''

-James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

The detritus of reality is the material
of Joyce’s fiction. “If ‘Ulysses’
 isn’t fit to read,” he once said,
“life isn’t fit to live.”
Artist: Delphine Lebourgeois
On a day in May, 1922, in Paris, a medical student named Pierre Mérigot de Treigny was asked by his teacher, Dr. Victor Morax, a well-known ophthalmologist, to attend to a patient who had telephoned complaining about pain from iritis, an inflammation of the eye. The student went to the patient’s apartment, in a residential hotel on the Rue de l’Université. Inside, he found a scene of disarray. Clothes were hanging everywhere; toilet articles were scattered around on chairs and the mantelpiece. A man wearing dark glasses and wrapped in a blanket was squatting in front of a pan that contained the remains of a chicken. A woman was sitting across from him. There was a half-empty bottle of wine next to them on the floor. The man was James Joyce. A few months before, on February 2nd, he had published what some people regarded then, and many people regard now, as the greatest work of prose fiction ever written in the English language.
The woman was Nora Barnacle. She and Joyce were unmarried, and had two teen-age children, Giorgio and Lucia, who were living with them in the two-room apartment. The conditions in which the student discovered them were not typical - Joyce lived in luxury whenever he could afford it, and often when he couldn't - but the scene was emblematic. Joyce was a nomad. He was born in 1882, in Rathgar, a suburb of Dublin, and grew up the oldest of ten surviving children. After he started school, his family changed houses nine times in eleven years, an itinerancy not always undertaken by choice. They sometimes moved, with their shrinking stock of possessions, at night, in order to escape the attention of creditors. They did not leave a forwarding address.

James was the favorite of his charming, cantankerous, and dissolute father, John Stanislaus Joyce, and was adored by his brothers and sisters. They called him Sunny Jim, because he laughed at everything. He was a brilliant student when he chose to excel, a prodigy; and, despite the family’s relentless downward spiral—John Joyce wasted a considerable inheritance—he received a serious education at Jesuit schools. By the time he got his degree, from University College, Dublin, in 1902, the family was living in the northern suburb of Cabra. A friend later described the house: “The banisters were broken, the grass in the back-yard was all blackened out. There was laundry there and a few chickens, and it was a very very miserable home.” Joyce’s mother, Mary, died there, of liver cancer, in 1903.

Joyce left Ireland a year later, when he was twenty-two, but he never really left the manner of life he had known. Like his father, he was a raconteur and a barfly. He had a good tenor voice (as did John Joyce), and he loved to sing and to dance. When he had no money, he borrowed it; when he had it, he picked up the tab for whatever company he was in, booked himself and his family into fancy hotels, and bought fur coats for Nora and Lucia. He was generous in the free-spirited way that only the inveterately insolvent can be.
For many years after he moved to the Continent, he scraped a living as a language teacher in Berlitz schools, a job he disliked. He started out in Pula, moved to Trieste, to Rome, then back to Trieste, and, finally, to Zurich. He changed residences regularly wherever he was, sometimes under a landlord’s gun. In 1920, he moved to Paris, where he was supported by patrons and—though only toward the end of his life, since “Ulysses” was banned for twelve years in the United States and for fourteen in Britain—by royalties. During the twenty years he lived in Paris, he had eighteen different addresses.
A man of small virtue, inclined to extravagance and alcoholism” is how Joyce described himself to Carl Jung. He was frail—he avoided contact sports like rugby as a child and barroom pugilism as a grownup—and he was frequently laid low by nervous attacks and illnesses. His eye troubles forced him to submit to a series of tricky and painful operations. At times, he was virtually blind. When he wrote, which he did usually stretched out across a bed, he wore a white jacket, so that light was reflected onto the paper; as he got older, he used a magnifying glass, in addition to his eyeglasses, to read.
After the Second World War broke out and the Germans occupied Paris, Joyce managed to get to Switzerland. He died there, in Zurich, of a perforated ulcer, on January 13, 1941. He was fifty-eight, and a very old man. He had burned the candle all the way down. He had spent eight years on “Ulysses,” and fifteen years on “Finnegans Wake,” which was published in 1939. “My eyes are tired,” he wrote in a letter to Giorgio, in 1935. “For over half a century, they have gazed into nullity where they have found a lovely nothing.”

Louis Menand has contributed to The New Yorker since 1991, and has been a staff writer since 2001. His book “The Metaphysical Club” was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for history and the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians. He was an associate editor of The New Republic from 1986 to 1987, an editor at The New Yorker from 1992 to 1993, and a contributing editor of The New York Review of Books from 1994 to 2001. He is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard University. He has also taught at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Queens College, Princeton, Columbia, and the University of Virginia School of Law.

No comments:

Post a Comment