Edna O’Brien, James Joyce (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1999), 182pp.

In A Portrait of the Artist Stephen Dedalus would say, "I tried to love God" but implicit in this defection is his revulsion for God’s ministers. Poets were keepers of spirituality and priests the destroyers and usurpers. The bodies of the damned crying out for mercy, their tongues, balls of fire, were as real to him as the flames of hell so vividly described. Escape it he did but leaving the Church was not the same as leaving God. Religious motifs would permeate his work, the sermon in A Portrait of the Artist would send shivers through the sensibilities of future readers and parodies of prayer and ejaculation would be strewn in his work both in defiance of, and in homage to, his raving mentors. He would carry his work "like a chalice" and all his life he would insist that what he did "was a kind of sacrament". Father, Son and Holy Ghost along with Jakes McCarthy informed every graven word. On a secular note he likes blackberry jam because Christ’s crown of thorns came from that wood and he wore purple cravats during Lent. [14]

The priests warned his mother of his waning faith, calling him an infidel because he refused confession or communion, and she knew without knowing that he had falling into mortal [16] sin. Her influence over him was gone. Packing his second-hand clothes as he prepared to set out for Paris, she told him of her prayer, that away from home he might learn what the heart is and what it feels. Piety and sentiment he spat on. It unnerved and disgusted him. Just as his country did. He left it, so he said, for fear he might succumb to the national disease which was provincialness, wind-and-piss philosophising, crookedness, vacuity and a verbal spouting that reserved sentiment for God and the dead. But though he had taken himself emotionally away from his mother he was haunted by her memory and bore her a grudge that persisted to her deathbed and ever after.

Her letters [to him in] Paris are a cry for reconciliation and her own strangled longing for recognition. [.] His letters veer from arrogance to self-pity. (pp.16-17.)

Monstrously indifferent to her reality, he seems only to have grasped it when in some letter she alludes faintly to her ailing health. He writes back and says to let him know what is wrong. Not long after came the never-failing heart-rending cryptic Irish telegram -"Mother dying, come home". It was Easter Sunday and he had to borrow the boat fare from one of his pupils. On that boat journey, he mused not on the dying woman but on the Paris boulevards, the prostitutes with their perfumed bodies and warm humid smells, then the grey engines, the mist over the French cliffs and the movements of the sea creating a corresponding music inside his brain. The artist had taken precedence over the son. (p.20.)

A prostitute’s lingual kiss, the Host on the tongue and his mother’s tenderness had been the three symbols battling for his soul. If she had not died then he would for his art have had to kill her. Writers and their mothers - the uncharted deep. (p.22.)

James came and went. He stayed with friends or with cousins and was often evicted because of his vagabond ways. He had a definitive sojourn with Gogarty in a Martello tower, formerly a bastion built by the British against Napoleonic invasion and named after the wild myrtle. Their life was wild and bibulous, coopers of porter brought up the rope ladder which served as a stairs and caustic argument. Gogarty liked to get Joyce drunk in the hope that it would thwart his genius. It ended with Gogarty firing a revolver above Joyce’s makeshift cot and so the "wandering Aengus" got up and left in the rain. Gogarty would appear as 'stately, plump Buck Mulligan’ in the opening pages of Ulysses , holding his shaving bowl aloft and intoning " Introibo ad altare Deo ". Jealous from the outset, Gogarty always saw himself as an "accessory" and took a loathsome revenge after Joyce’s death.’ (p.24,)

Christmas morning feelings don’t last long. Soon Nora was taking in laundry - chemises, blouses, vests, items listed on the back of a short story which Joyce was writing at the time. It was called "A Little Cloud" and depicted the strained relations between a man and wife as new love waned, the man imprisoned and driven to distraction by a wailing child. [.] Disenchanted by home life, Joyce kissed one of his students, Amy Schliemer, even suggesting that they might marry. (p.49.)

He would sit alone in a café at seven in the morning to go over some of the phrases in his stories - "the rhythmic rise and fall of words"; and of course to read. He was merciless in his judgments. "Why are English novels so terribly boring," he wrote and then went on to give a cruel though brilliant synopsis of a Hardy short story. Always beating about the bush English authors were. Irish authors did not fare much better the curlews and lakes - school of thought! Oscar Wilde was not tough-minded enough. The riot at the Abbey Theatre over Synge’s Playboy of the Western World excited him though he had no sympathy for Synge. In the play Christy Mahon, the winsome wooer, had spoke of "a dream of women in their shifts," which the nationalist and religious motley deemed an insult to Irish womanhood. For Joyce it merely demonstrated the paucity of Synge’s imagination. From his distant vantage point, Joyce sided with the mob who had orchestrated the riots in the theatre each night because Synge had been accepted in the fold of Yeats’s literary clique and Joyce was not. The nationalists whom he glancingly admired at that time would later be ridiculed too - 'Intensities’ gassing on about Vinegar Hill and lovely Irish gammon and spinach. French authors, he conceded, did have something to recommend them but their inflated sense of Gallic destiny was too much. [.] he questioned why Verlaine had to be the future of Rimbaud. Only James Joyce would be James Joyce’s future. (p.60.)

Without knowing it he had conceived of his novel Ulysses , "that little epic of the Irish and Hebrew race", and he had given voice to his daring manifesto. To Stanislaus he wrote that if he were to put a bucket down into his own soul’s sexual department, he would also draw up the muddied waters of Arthur Griffith (leader of Sinn Féin), Ibsen, Saint Aloysius (his own saint name), Shelley and Renan, in short, cerebral sexuality and rank bodily fervour run amok. Not since the Jacobeans would sex be so openly and so rawly portrayed. Dickens, Thackeray, the Bronte sisters, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Proust, all had dwelt achingly on love, unrequited love, and by implication on sex, but Joyce was determined to break [60] the taboos - to depict copulation, transvestism, onanism, coprophilia and all else that was repellent to Victorian England, puritanical America and sanctimonious Ireland. If people did not like it he couldn’t help that either. On the "saince" of a certain subject, he said that very few mortals did not wake up each morning in dread of finding themselves syphilitic. "Talk about pure men, pure women and spiritual love" was all bunkum. There was no such thing. Sexuality was central to human impulse. More importantly sexuality was a universal trait and not just an Irish one - he would Hellenize, Hebrewize, demonize and immortalize his native city and for his crimes he would be punished and long after his death he would be rewarded by having snatches of his Ulysses transcribed on small bronze plaques and bevelled into the pavements which Leopold Bloom and others had trodden. (pp.60-61.)

[On the so-called 'black letters’:] Nora’s powers over him were strengthened [by the events of 1909.] She had proved herself to be the stronger one, he, the suitor, asking that their future love be "fierce and violent". / Many have been baffled that a man of Joyce’s daunting intellect chose and remained constant to this peasant woman It is beyond these letters, it is beyond propriety, it remains inexplicable as the Eleusian mysteries. (p.68.)

Much has been written about the impropriety of publishing the infamous letters and Richard Ellmann, who selected them,] was castigated. Years earlier far less incriminating ones were published with the permission of Nora and Giorgio, and Samuel Beckett fumed against literary widows, saying that they should be "burned on a pyre along with the writer himself" But do they make us think any less of Joyce or of Nora? Do they demean the marriage? Hardly. True, they are as outright in their earthiness as the mystics are in their ecstasies, yet they share the mystic’s longing for a couple to dissolve into one. Joyce’s chaos is our chaos, his barbaric desires are ours too, and his genius is that he made such breathless transcendations out of torrid stuff, that from the mire he managed to "bestir the hearts of men and angels". Moreover he was a young man filled with a scalding passion and at that very same time attending a hospital in Dublin to be treated for a "damned dirty complaint", an infection which he had picked up from a prostitute.

These letters are about more than smut. First and foremost they are a measure of the inordinate trust that he had in Nora to allow him to be all things, the child-man, the man-child, the peeping Tom, and the grand seducer. But there is also her own sexual prowess, no small thing for a convent girl from Galway and a radical thing in defiance of that male collusion whereby women are expected to maintain a mystique and conceal their deepest sexual impulses. Sexuality and maternity being thought to be contrary.

The letters are fascinating for yet another reason - why did he never destroy them or ask her to destroy them? He who was so obsessed with secrecy that he would not allow even his sisters to see Nora’s underclothes when they had come back from the wash, was sending these ejaculations into a small apartment where any member of the family could easily have chanced upon them. He was also asking Nora to conceal her excitement, almost. Almost! The voyeur in him had at last been unleashed and in his own city, amongst his own kin and in the country which he believed had repressed him and upon which he wished to pour the glorious and unabated bucket of sexual slime. The letters were for Nora, of course, but they were also for Joyce, to convince himself that he was free of every vestige of Roman Catholic guilt. But was he? (pp.74-75.) [.] He did not offer these letters to the world but neither did he ensure that they be destroyed. (p.76.)

Errata: Unfortunately Edna O’Brien comprehensively confuses "Sirens" with "Wandering Rocks" in her chapter entitled "Sirens", speaking of the chapter as a 'dazzling feat of sound and narrative, a tableau in which the high and low, the nobs and the lame pass along the city of Dublin, their encounters punctuated with broken chords of sound and sharp sarcastic interjection. The horse and carriage bring the lord lieutenant [. &c.]" (pp.110-11.)

Austin Clarke, a Dublin poet, said many years later when they met in Paris , that Joyce was eager to hear the latest smutty stories circulated among Dublin schoolboys. Clarke thought Joyce was afflicted "with a particular kind of Irish pornography", but that he was also a dreamer. (p.102.)

Blind to their needs at that time as the fate of his [Joyce’s] book consumed him, Giorgio would be sent around Paris to various bookshops to see how many copies of the second edition of Ulysses had sold. Later he tried, then shrank from different occupations and as his life drifted he said it would have been better if he was the 'son of a butcher’.

Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create? I believe that they do. It is a paradox that while wrestling with language to capture the human condition they become more callous, and cut off from the very human traits which they so glisteningly depict. There can be no outer responsibility, no interruptions, only the ongoing inner drone, rhythmic, insistent, struggling to make a living moment of both beauty and austerity. For Joyce, people were becoming more remote and would eventually be spectres. He was not the only one. Flaubert’s mother thought that her son’s love of words had hardened his heart and all who met Joyce found that though he could be humorous, he lacked warmth. Nora complained of an impossible life, minding a difficult daughter and sitting up with artists till all hours, "bored stiff" "Men," she decreed, "were only up in your tail." (p.130.)

"Miss Weaver" [chap.] is an encomium to her 'flawless behaviour’, unstinted generosity, and the special quality of Joyce’s letters to her, 'shot with humour [and] full of gravity and depletion’, p.134-35; 'she never had the hardness of heart to say no’, p.136.]

[.]One morning in Paris , despite upheavals, failing eyesight, and poor health Joyce took a notebook with foolscap paper and commenced on his Work in Progress, the title of which he jealously guarded, confiding it only to Nora in case he died. It would, of course, be " Finnegans Wake - Live It or Crick it". " Ulysses - who wrote it, I’ve forgotten," he said. If Ulysses was a book about daytime, Finnegans Wake was a book of the night. Dream and riddle, myth-making, myth-breaking, syllipses [sic], syllogisms, naturalism, supernaturalism, fabulism, kings and giants along with Sir Tristam, violer d’amores, the brothers Bruce and Anna Livia with her "rhunerhinerstones" and her seven rainbow handmaids. He thought the two pages the strongest stuff he had ever written but he also guessed that the book would be the death of him. Already he felt himself to be both man and ghost and a ghost he had described as one who has faded into impalpability, through death, through absence, through change of manners.

He was laying siege to literature, ensuring a nice little attack of brain ache’ on his readers. Art was to move on to reveal ideas and formless spiritual essences, the old language was to be put to sleep. Words would be broken down to extract the substance from them, 'water would speak like water, birds chirrup like birds’ as he freed language from its erstwhile servile, contemptible role. The ports of call not known beforehand. Words spliced, added to and compounded to have a denser meaning. The boudoir for instance, where Anna Livia with the help of her seven rainbow girls braids her hair, was converted to boudelaire, a meshing of bou for mud and a deference to Baudelaire. [137]

The first two exuberant pages which he sent her dealt with the fate of Roderick O’Conor, the last High King of Ireland. Roderick had " a terrible errible lot todue todie todue tootorribleday ... when he found himself all alone by himself in his grand old handwedown pile ... faix ... and with venerated tongue he began to suck up the leavings left by the lazy lousers - the chateaubottled Guinness’s, Phoenix stout, John Jamieson and Sons, Roob Coccola or Dublin ale which he considered better far than jesuitical tea or halibut oil." The Roderick O’Conor of history was a more robust and warring fellow who ruled a small principality in stony Connaught and naturally aspired to be High King of all Ireland . His chance came when the High King McLochlann took a hostage from Ulster and blinded him. In a century and a culture noted for its barbarity, blinding was nevertheless thought to be sacrilege and the High King was thus deserted by his loyal followers and slain near Armagh . Roderick marched through three provinces, had himself crowned as High King, only to be later toppled echoing the line in Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary -"the King is dead, long live the King." (p.137-38.)

Oliver St John Gogarty called it the 'most colossal leg-pull since Macpherson’s Ossian ’ in which the author claimed to have [141] received psychic communication from the dead. Gogarty had waited almost thirty years to wreak his revenge, a revenge founded on nothing more or less than that they were contemporaries in Dublin , both writers, the one a genius, the other a satirist. His essay has all the bile and malice which the lesser talent reserves for the greater, or in Anna Livia’s words - "All the greed[y] gushes out through their small souls". According to Gogarty, Joyce’s mind was hardly consistent with sanity. He concluded his epitaph with the (false) hope that the indiscriminate adulation which Joyce was receiving from the literary dilettantes of Paris would soothe a heart insatiable for fame. [.]

Joyce was all alone. The intricacy, the binding together of sound, semi-sound and image to make his weirdly beautiful word constellations was too much. While writing it he pored over the workmanship of the tunc pages [sic] of The Book of Kells not only because of their intricate illuminated designs but because they told the story of the Gospel. He believed that he was doing the same. He had said that the idea for the book came from Vico’s Scienza nuova , the use of ethnology and mythology to uncover important events, destruction and recurrence of human history always repeating itself - "The seim anew" But once he started on it Vico’s theory was a "mere trellis". His mind into which everything had to be crammed was "a transparent leaf away from madness".

The telephone wires which he saw through a manhole in the street resembled navel cords and the flowers which he had been told of in the ruins of Carthage became the lilts of dead children. [.; 146] Land and water, image and counter-image, the oaks of old rising out of the ashes of time to create "yonder elms" and above all Dublin and its outskirts reinvented in breathtaking vignettes. Edgar Quinet, whom he admired, was paid the honour of having, a piece of his prose ceremoniously moved from Illyria and Numantia to the environs of Dublin - "the cornflowers have been staying at Ballymun, the duskrose has choosed out Goatstown’s hedges, twolips have pressed togatherthem by sweet Rush, townland of twinedlights, the whitethorn and the redthorn have fairygeyed the mayvalleys of Knockmaroon ... fresh and made-of-all-smiles as on the eve of Killallwho." (pp.146-47.)

[.] the apostles include Frank Budgen, Samuel Beckett, Stuart Gilbert, Robert McAlmon and others, all of them expatiating on its prelingual symbolism, its aqueous influences, its riparian geography, the facts of its being "conical rather than spherical"; written in a language "drunk, tilted and effervescent". Another glaring example of the ongoing mistake of trying to explain or dissect a single line of James Joyce. He loathed literary conversations and said he would rather talk about turnips but he was wise now to the fact of the bombast and falsehood of literary and academic sensibilities. He knew the essays would excite tremendous interest, as they did. They are marvels of ponderousness, abstraction and opaqueness, and ultimately irksome. (p.148.)

Into this Work in Progress Joyce crammed everything, the "fistic styles" of boxers, the "silent O’Moyle Waters", Christy Colomba. Brendan the Navigator, Bruno, Cassio, squawking seagulls and Bartholoman’s Deep somewhere in Chile . But it was "Trappo Grossa San Giacomone". The English critic Desmond McCarthy said Joyce was determined to write "as a lunatic for lunatics". What he was determined to do was to break the barrier between conscious and unconscious, to do in waking life what others do in sleep. Madness he knew to be the secret of genius. Hamlet was mad in his opinion and it was that madness which induced the great drama. The characters in the Greek plays were mad and so was Gogol and [149] so was Van Gogh. He preferred the word "exaltation" which can merge into madness. All great men had that vein in them. The reasonable man, he insisted, achieves nothing.

so was Van Gogh. He preferred the word 'exaltation’ which can merge into madness. All great men had that vein in them. The reasonable man, he insisted, achieves nothing.

In a rare moment of candour he said to Miss Weaver, "Perhaps I shall survive, perhaps the raving madness I write will survive and perhaps it is funny." Behind this doubt and barely concealed despair was a deeper and more desperate hope that "the fire of madness kindling" in Lucia’s brain "would die out". "When I leave this dark night she will be cured" was his one consolation to himself during the seventeen-year labour of his "crucefiction". As always for him, life and work had a secret and magical corollary. By drowning Vincent Cosgrave in Ulysses Joyce believed that he had precipitated Cosgrave’s own drowning and in the same occult way he would bring Lucia back from the brink.

"Kith and Kin" [Chap.]: In his fifties Joyce reached life’s nadir. Three irreparable things had happened to him: his father’s death, the world’s indifference to Finnegans Wake and Lucia’s askewed and fragmenting psyche.

[To be cont.]

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