Wednesday, February 8, 2012

James Joyce / Ulysses Years



In some ways Ulysses begins where Portrait leaves off. It opens on June 16, 1904, with Stephen Dedalus sharing rooms in a Martello tower on the east coast of Ireland, south of Dublin, with "Buck" Mulligan and a visiting Englishman named Haines who is studying Irish culture.

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Stephen has returned from Paris, where he has had experiences much like Joyce's, and he is recovering from the death of his mother. But in the fourth chapter of the book we are introduced to a new character, a Jewish advertising canvasser named Leopold Bloom whose wife, Molly, is planning on committing adultery with a man named "Blazes" Boylan that afternoon. Bloom knows Stephen's father, but has no obvious connection to the boy; nevertheless, the meeting of the two is as much of a dramatic climax as the book admits. The entirety of Ulysses' seven-hundred-odd pages takes place on the same day, during which we go deeply into the minds of both main characters--and, finally, of Molly as well--and meet a bewildering variety of subsidiary ones.

But perhaps the book's most striking feature is its narrative innovations. Starting around the ninth chapter, the narration, which had begun in a mode something like the last chapter of Portrait (although with more internal monologue), begins to vary wildly.

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Joyce and Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company
There are interpolated episodes in play form, a chapter narrated by an unnamed barfly, one that is told as if it were a poorly written domestic romance, one told in ludicrously abstract question-and-answer form, and so forth. Perhaps the most noticeable shift in tone from Portrait is due to the humor of the book: it is crammed with jokes, from high intellectual verbal play to the most vulgar slapstick. On several occasions Joyce remarked that he wished reviewers, instead of worrying about the book's obscenity, would at least notice that it was funny. While writing Ulysses Joyce had returned to Trieste, and then in 1920 at the urging of Pound the Joyces had gone to Paris for a week's excursion. They wound up staying twenty years. With the enthusiastic support of Pound, T. S. Eliot, and a Parisian bookstore-owner named Sylvia Beach, Joyce soon gathered an admiring circle of friends, French literary luminaries, and aspiring young writers from England and America. When the Little Review editors were prosecuted for obscenity because of an episode of Ulysses that appeared there, it only added to Joyce's international fame. By the time Beach's bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, published the first edition of the complete book in 1922, Joyce was already the literary toast of Paris, and had been acclaimed by many as the greatest modern writer of English prose.

Meanwhile, Joyce circulated among friends a chart showing in detail what the book's title had not made entirely clear: that despite its surface naturalism, his novel contained an elaborate series of correspondences to Homer's Odyssey. Indeed, in 1930, after considerable help and occasional direction from Joyce, Stuart Gilbert published a book on Ulysses exploring these correspondences and many other subtle features of the novel. Critics now conventionally refer to the chapters of the book by the titles of the parallel episodes in the Odyssey, such as "Lestrygonians" or "Aeolus." Gilbert also helped with the French translation of Ulysses, which--again with Joyce's advice and encouragement--appeared in 1929, and had considerable impact upon French literature.

Despite the fact that it was banned from publication in America, Ulysses was frequently smuggled into the country, becoming one of the best-known banned books of all time. Still, it was not until 1934 that Random House, under the leadership of Bennett Cerf, won a landmark court battle and the right to publish Ulysses in America; two years later it was published in England as well. But in the meantime, starting in 1923, Joyce had begun work on his most radical and ambitious work of prose, the book parts of which were published as Work in Progress (among other provisional titles) but which finally emerged as Finnegans Wake.

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Ford Madox Ford
From its first fragment, published in Ford Madox Ford's transatlantic review in 1924, the Wake caused trouble for Joyce. Many of his friends and supporters were dismayed. Pound confessed himself baffled, and even Harriet Weaver expressed disappointment, which caused Joyce considerable pain. The book is written in a "night-language" far removed from ordinary English, jammed with portmanteau words and multilingual puns. When a friend objected that some of the puns in the Wake were trivial, Joyce replied that some were indeed trivial, and some quadrivial. Worse, there are no fixed characters or events in the book--or, alternately, there are too many for comfort.


Far more elaborately planned and embellished even than Ulysses, Finnegans Wake on one level concerns the family of a pubkeeper in Chapelizod, a Dublin suburb, named Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, his wife, two sons, and daughter. But character, time, and place seldom remain fixed for more than a sentence in this work; the ultimate male character appears in a wide variety of guises signalled by the initials "HCE", such as "Haveth Childers Everywhere" or "Here Comes Everybody", and in a great number of less easily identifiable ones as well, such as Adam, Humpty Dumpty, Parnell or King Mark of the "Tristan and Isolde" legend. This figure merges into that of Tim Finnegan, hero of an Irish comic song about a man who arises at his own wake to share the drink, and with the mythic Irish hero Finn, who is also a mountain. The main female figure, usually called Anna Livia Plurabelle, or ALP, is most frequently identified with rivers, although she too has a variety of mythic and historical guises. The two embattled sons, Shem and Shaun, represent respectively the "artistic" personality--withdrawn, exiled, obsessed with sex and with excrement, a universal scapegoat--and the successful public personality--alternately postman, policeman, politician, and empire-builder. The daughter, Issy, merges into virtually any young woman, or splinters into groups of them. But even this vague summary is far too explicitly literal: Joyce indicated his "characters" by "sigla", geometric symbols that seem to represent functions rather than anything we would ordinarily call "characters." In its own strange fashion the book reprises the history of Ireland, the author's life, and a selection of major myths from European culture. But more than any narrative line, the Wake's structure depends upon a conception by the eighteenth-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, the idea that history progresses in a three-part cycle followed by a "ricorso" that returns us to an initial stage, passing through theocratic, aristocratic, democratic, and chaotic phases. The book's three major chapters, followed by a briefer one, mirrors this structure.

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Samuel Beckett
As with Ulysses, Joyce tried to orchestrate the reception of the Wake. He encouraged twelve of his friends, including Stuart Gilbert and Samuel Beckett, who had informally apprenticed himself to Joyce, to produce a volume treating the book. This was published as Our Exagmination round His Factification for Incamination of "Work in Progress" in 1929. But events conspired against him. By the time the book was finally published, in 1939, the world was on the brink of war. Joyce's own health and eyesight were failing during his last decade. Most painfully, his children, whom he had grown to cherish passionately, were in trouble.

By 1929 it was becoming clear that his daughter Lucia, a bright and talented girl, was mentally unstable. Joyce fought the realization as long as possible, arranging projects in which she could express her artistic impulses and encouraging her in everything, but by 1932, when she had conceived a hopeless passion for Samuel Beckett, even he had to seek treatment for her, and finally institutionalization. In 1931 for various reasons, including the wish to make a gesture of reconciliation with his father, who was dying, Joyce took Nora to a London registry office to legalize their marriage.
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Nora, Joyce and their solicitor, 1932

Joyce's son Giorgio was unable to undertake a successful career, and his marriage was troubled; in 1939 his wife had a breakdown and the two were separated. Perhaps the brightest spot in this period was the birth of Joyce's grandson Stephen James Joyce in 1932, less than two months after Joyce's father's death. Perhaps Joyce's most moving poem, "Ecce Puer" ("Behold the Child"), commemorates these two events with stunning simplicity.

In 1940 the Joyces were forced to leave Paris for Vichy, where they stayed with a family friend while Joyce carried on protracted negotiations to be allowed to enter Switzerland. Meanwhile, he was assisting a number of Jewish friends to escape to neutral territory.

He left only a few scattered comments about his ideas for his next book: that it would be a book of reawakening (after the dream-world of the Wake) and that it would be short and simple. In December 1940 the Joyces entered Switzerland, and soon returned to Zurich. Less than a month later, Joyce was taken to the hospital with severe stomach cramps and was diagnosed as suffering a perforated duodenal ulcer. Although an operation was apparently successful, he soon weakened, passed into a coma, and died on January 13, just before his fifty-ninth birthday. He was buried in the Fluntern cemetery above Zurich. Nora, out of respect for her husband's lifelong rebellion, refused the offer of Catholic rites.

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