The airline clerk refused to cash my check for the price of a round-trip ticket, so I flashed assorted documents confirming I was en route to Dublin in search of James Joyce and literary truth and zap went the money problems. I wondered what the Franciscan who taught me religion and who liked to refer to Joyce as “that pig” would say, now that the drop of his name opened transatlantic corridors to truth seekers. Here I was, about to join 176 literary scholars, two-thirds of them Americans, at the Fourth International James Joyce Symposium, a week-long revel in Joyce’s real and imaginary worlds.
Americans have a mystical affinity for Joyce. The headquarters for Joyce scholarship in the world is the James Joyce Quarterly, published at the University of Tulsa, and the Quarterly‘s advisory editors and consultants also interlock with the directorate of the more international James Joyce Foundation, which runs the biennial symposium.
The Quarterly recently printed a checklist of work about Joyce that had been published during 1970. This included 155 books, articles, or complete issues of magazines, with American scholarship dominating numerically.
An often-heard view is that the Irish have a greater awareness of Joyce today, principally because of the first two Joyce symposia, held in Dublin in 1967 and 1969. (The third was in Trieste in 1971; Joyce lived there for a time.) Irish newspapers covered those first symposia’s lectures and discussions at unusual length and to the astonishment of many Dubliners.
How, they wondered, could this long-dead renegade author of foul-mouthed gibberish dragoon so many otherwise bright Americans into swarming all over the city and all over those filthy books in search of God knows what? The sin of the foreigners, to the Irish, was not only presumption but the reverence with which they treated Joyce. The Irish view their writers more with hostility than solemnity, and Joyceans were as solemn as bloody owls, so went the rumble. The gentlest comment I heard about them from an Irishman was Conor Cruise O’Brien’s line that they were “an affectionate joke” to the Irish.
I had forgotten it, but it was swiftly pointed out to me as the Joyceans gathered at the National Library, that the Gresham Hotel, where I was staying, was where Gabriel and Gretta Conroy stayed on that immortal evening in “The Dead,” when snow was general all over Ireland. “His own identity,” Joyce wrote of Gabriel in that story, “was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.”
That world had indeed dissolved, but some of it was coming back to visual life in the library, where an exhibit of photos of Joycean time past was interwoven with some of his manuscripts and memorabilia. Kieran Hickey, who lent the photos and also directed a film, Faithful Departed, which used them and which was about to be shown, wrote in a flyer: “The Dublin through which the young James Joyce walked, that Dublin which he carried with him in his heart, in his mind and in his memory during his long years of exile, no longer exists. The destruction during the past decade of so much of the Victorian city removed most of what remained of the atmosphere of Joyce‘s world.”
Hickey’s film was lovely, a montage of photos of the time between 1880 and 1917, taken by Robert French, a once anonymous, now revered documentarist: O’Connell, and other streets of old, with their horsecars and wagons, men in derbies and boaters, women in shawls and straws, taking their pleasure, going to work, caught and stilled for our eyes.
“It is difficult now,” Hickey wrote, “to see these fadographs of a yestern scene in anything but Joycean terms.” Jack McGowran, the late actor who popularized Samuel Beckett’s work for Dubliners with his television adaptation of Beckett fragments, narrated and closed Hickey’s film with a line of Leopold Bloom’s at Paddy Dignam’s funeral in Ulysses: “All these here once walked round Dublin. Faithful departed. As you are now so once were we.”
And so Joyce and Dublin were mutually evoked on a note of sacred humanism. Terence de Vere White, literary editor of The Irish Times, spoke briefly in the library, which was almost unchanged from the days Joyce read here, and he added a sour note to this Irish love song. Joyce, he said, neglected the library, giving it few of his manuscripts. And after he died, his wife Nora said he hated this country and she wouldn’t give the library anything either.
Out on the sidewalk I met two delegates to the symposium, one named Knight, another named Day. Someone immediately wondered if Father Noon was attending this year and we were off on the punnyride. Even the Irish newspapers reflected the need to pun when Joyce’s name was raised. A review of Anthony Burgess’ new book on the hero, Joysprick, carried the equivalently organic headline: Joystalk.
We adjourned for a welcoming wine party at 86 St. Stephen’s Green, part of University College, where the symposium would be held, and whose worn floors and stairs were still weighted with Joyce’s spiritual tread from student days. In the men’s room (sometimes called the Jacks), I turned up two bits of graffiti which kept the punning on course: “I know they have no ‘arm in ‘em, but I just can’t find Jacks writers humerus.” And one which would surely put the visiting pundits at ease: “Wholly, Holy, Holey, A Sponge Saint.”
Yes, Mr. Joyce, it was apt. The gang was here to bathe in every drop of blessedness they could squeeze from you.
At the first Ulysses seminar two dozen people, a third of them women, sat in an old high-windowed classroom overlooking the splendid, sprawling Green, while a man on a panel discoursed funereally on “the comic in Ulysses. ” Joyceans seem to be willing to tolerate anybody at least once in their continuing quest for a new nugget of insight into the master. Of course, the symposium functions on attendance (twenty dollars a head) and the organizers strike a democratic attitude toward neophytes, nebbishes, and bores to avoid giving the gathering a more elitist image than it already has. The school back home usually kicks in at least part of the carfare for a professor invited to give a paper or speak on a panel, and the symposium’s urge for self-perpetuation through such support counterbalances worry over the dud factor.
Academic obeisance to status is also part of the game. If a professor wrote a great paper on Joyce twenty years ago, it follows he will always write great papers, and so he is up there still as we doze, floating toward oblivion on the nuances of old nuances, the discovery of yet another Homeric allusion.
The young man at the front of the room was telling us that to Joyce, Bloom was not comic. Did he really say that or was he blaming somebody else for it? Must pay attention. The dynamics of the novel . . . the complex choreography of characters . . . the Catechistic style of Ithaca . . . the collision . . . the agon . . . the seguri . . . the seven samurai . . . the twee-twee-twee-qua-qua . . . zzzzzzz.
Movies. Joyce and movies. Somebody else talking. My head snapped to. Wandering Rocks chapter is a virtual blueprint for a script . . . Yes, even camera angles dictated ... It would be interesting to see ... Yes, Joyce anticipated movie technique ... He opened the first cinema in Dublin ... He met Eisenstein.
Did he go to the movies in Paris? Someone who knew him there said, oh yes, indeed yes, even after his eyesight was so poor. His friends sat with him and filled in the gaps he missed, such as the famous topless film of the thirties, Hedy Lamarr in Extase, and there went Hedy in the buff, bouncing through the woods; and Joyce nudging his companion to ask, “What are they doing now?”
“Just so stylled with the nattes are their flowerheads now and each of all has a lovestalk onto herself and the tot of all the tits of their understamens is as open as he can posably she and is tournesoled straightcut or sidewaist, accourdant to the coursets of things feminite, towooerds him in heliolatry, so they may catchcup in their calyzettes, alls they go troping, those parryshoots from his muscalone pistil . . .”
This is a fragment of Finnegans Wake, a book which intimidates everybody. Unlike the committed Joyceans, I doffed my hat to its corpus long ago and moved on, planning to make other visits when I grew up or old or wise or crazier. At times, sections of it resurrected my spirit without rational explanation. The strange words alone, plus perhaps my reverence for them, reverence built on faith rather than reason, touched some inner region Joyce meant to touch in his readers and I responded emotionally to things I understood only in fragments.
Wake scholarship, then, was a source of awe, for these scholars had not only read all those incredible words; they went ahead and snippeted them up for digestion by others. They were connoisseurs of the arcane and esoteric, privy to the answers to the riddles of the sphinxes and the jokes of the cavemen.
And so with trepidation I entered the workroom of the Wakers, a classroom packed with fifty people, mostly middle-aged or middle-aging, only one recognizable as a student. There was a Jesuit in mufti with a black Smith Brothers beard, an old man with a white Hemingway beard, an effectual blonde, a dozen longhairs, a dozen straights in ties and coats, a pair of elderly women, one with a floppy hat, both of whom turned out to be old friends of the hero’s. Many of the scholars knew one another and a few were renowned as Joyceans–Vivian Mercier, Father Robert Boyle, Nathan Halper, Bernard Benstock, and, chairing the action, Fritz Senn of Zurich, editor of A Wake Newslitter, a periodical devoted totally to Joyce’s masterful puzzle.
I entered on a discussion of the Wake‘s puns. Did they come clear when you read them aloud? someone asked. Yes, said one man. No, said another. Only sometimes, said a third, for there are puns which are purely visual and not pronounceable. The use of doodles was discussed, and our ignorance of the semantics of dead languages. Making up glossaries of Wake words, someone suggested, is a sterile exercise unless we simultaneously derive human value from the work. Ah ha, said a lady, this is an either/or attitude, and why do we have to have one? We work with induction and deduction in every other field. Someone cited Hart’s Law, a creation of Wake scholar Clive Hart, that when you’re reading the Wake and suddenly something hits you, you should go with it. Yes indeed, said a lady. I trained as a cryptoanalyst and a basic rule was don’t sit there and fiddle. Make a wild guess. The intelligent guess is so important. What you should do, someone else said, is to let it all flow past you, like Bach, and just feel it.
It is about a dream, someone said. But even if it’s not about a dream, it works as if it were a dream. Making an inspired leap opens doors into other situations. It isn’t a lock where you have a key and therefore have total comprehension. Wait, said another man, I know somebody who thinks it is a lock and if you have the key it will all open up. Personally, said another man, I think it’s more like a key and you have to find the lock.
The words, a woman suggested, are complex, and if we get through them to the ideas behind them, perhaps we will find that those ideas are equally complex. I read it twice without help, said a man, and couldn’t understand it and I was furious. A book should communicate. But then I began to read the commentators. Yes, said another man, we go to doctors and each one of them has a different diagnosis, but most ailments are selfcuring. The point is that everybody who reads it says something different. Yes, but they also say that about Hamlet. The discovery of the Joyce notebooks in Buffalo was thought to be a breakthrough, said a man, but they turned out to be no help at all. You have to be Irish to understand it? Wrong. You have to know Shakespeare? Equally wrong. You just have to be a reasonable man. Listen, said one man, Finnegans Wake is a conscious work of art. It’s less of a dream than the Buffalo notebooks. We’ve forgotten that one of the main points is the polarity of Shem and Shaun, two ways of approaching everything. We’ve always talked about the identities of contraries. One of the things it’s giving us is multiple points of view at once. That’s right, we lack a theory about Finnegans Wake but we all laugh at it. Yes, and we read it and sometimes it is all clear and sometimes it’s nothing to us, but if you can get his association of ideas, his symbolic code, then you receive it. Wait a minute, a woman said, a graduate student told me every time her baby cried she read him a page of the Wake and he stopped crying. He was absolutely satisfied with the surface alone.
The two-hour session had no long or boring papers. It was a lively interchange among people who respected one another because of friendship or literary reputation or knowledge of Joyce. Wakers had more fun than Ulysseseans, playing games, whistling up meanings, cracking jokes, needling each other. No solemnity here. The impenetrability of the Wake was reinforced, and yet anyone’s burden of ignorance would have been lightened a few straws by the session. For vast though the scholarship may be on the book, here were the specialists, people who’ve given great portions of their careers to the study of it, talking about how to read it, as if it were published last year instead of in 1939.
I sat through two other Wake sessions, all lively and full of wit, centering largely on the difficult Chapter Nine, but rambling everywhere, like the book itself: how Joyce used Macbeth, Wilde, Blake, Freud. What did heliotrope mean in Chapter Nine? The speculation was vast, ingenious. One questioner suggested considering the heliotrope as an eagle, the only bird that can look at the sun and is therefore a symbol of Saint John and therefore the visionary and author of the Apocalypse.
Said Fritz Senn: “We have erred. We have not dealt with subjects of equal importance. It’s possible we’ve overlooked an entire dimension. I would like to suggest that when we get together again groups split off and devote all their time to something like heliotrope.”
Like so many, Senn looks for the big key to the book’s riddle and is impatient with scholarship that is clearly ingenious in decoding sections of the Wake but that doesn’t get nearer any larger meaning. He was equally impatient with Nathan Halper, whose plea to the group was to treat the Wake as a “humanistic document,” and not an endless puzzle.
“I quite agree with him,” Senn said when we talked after the last session, “but hasn’t that been present here in our meetings somehow? To babble about humanity doesn’t help me.”
How would he assess the status of Wake scholarship?
“I’ve been discouraged. I’m waiting for more enlightenment. Halper says we have enough but it doesn’t satisfy me. There’s no way of measuring how far we’ve gone in linear terms. We’ve been moving on a plane and it should be a cube.”
A quarter century ago an Irish critic wrote that any book in plain English that attempted to deal comprehensively with the Wake would have to be far longer than the Wake itself, for its author would have to “decant a quart of old wine from each of Joyce’s pint bottles.”
Did Senn see such a book coming to pass? Probably. “But there will always be a new theory that says the old theory is going in the wrong direction. It‘s the game we play. It makes us go on.”
What Joyce knew intimately was Dublin. And no true Joycean goes there without exploring some segment of it relevant to Joyce’s work. A map of the city, marked out with all the principal points Joyce described in Ulysses, is part of the kitbag symposiasts are given for their twenty dollars. For those more concerned with the man, the covers of the symposium’s program were given over to photos of the facades and address plates of sixteen houses where Joyce lived, fourteen of them still standing and visitable.
By what I presumed to be an accident, but which I would like to think was something mystically richer than that, I stopped at a street corner, looked up. and saw the sign ECCLES STREET. 1 quickly found number 7, where the Blooms lived. It was one of four row houses, gone now but part of their facades still erect, including, at number 7, two boarded-up windows, the doorway nailed over with corrugated aluminum, a black iron picket fence in front, and the chalky discoloration where the 7 used to be. The bedroom door from number 7 is now installed at The Bailey, the Dublin pub. Grass and weeds grow just beyond the doorstep in the now vacant lot that was once the house. What remains was marked long ago by a reverent Joycean or two: over the absent door, erratically printed in now faded black paint, and also carved on a horizontal board, is the name Molly Bloom. There is also the mark of, perhaps, an anti-Joycean: the word “shit” the only legible item among the faded bits of graffiti. It is probably psychically confusing to visit a house in memory of people who lived there but never actually existed. And yet such is the detail available about the Blooms and how and where they lived that they have a bygone reality equivalent to our dead relatives. Through this use of the real in service of the fictional, said one symposiast, Joyce “canonized the obsession with being Irish– the whole love of place, of knowing a particular street in Dublin and talking all night about it.”
Darcy O’Brien, a Joycean from Pomona College, recently wrote in the Joyce Quarterly of his meeting with a Dubliner who’d been twenty years in the British Navy and who was reading Ulysses for the twenty-fifth time: “He would become terribly homesick and he found that reading Ulysses was as close to being home as he could get . . . the thing that brought him back to the book again and again was the authenticity of its Dublin speech and atmosphere.”
Dubliners have a special sense of place that seems to relegate the rest of Ireland to the back porch, like Bugs Baer’s line that after you leave New York everyplace else is Bridgeport. A woman in Galway told me she felt Dubliners were snobs: “They think the sun, moon, and stars shine on the durrrty, contammynated Liffey,” she said with considerable vehemence.
I felt the Dublin sense of place one night when, flushed with Joycean detail. I toured an area in the center of Dublin that led into what was the old Kips, the vast brothel area, no longer functioning and some of it long gone, that Joyce used for his Nighttown episode in Ulysses.
Ulick O’Connor, the biographer of Brendan Behan and Oliver St. John Gogarty (the Buck Mulligan of Ulysses), was the tour guide through the streets of old Georgian houses, now occupied by working-class families. O’Connor, who’d been on a symposium panel earlier in the day, is a newspaper columnist and controversial television talk show figure, and widely known in Ireland.
A group of women sitting on a stoop in the old Kips area recognized him and swarmed around for an autograph, a chat, a peck on the cheek. “Sign me paper, Ulick,” said one, who quickly confided, “I‘ve been here all me life and had fourteen children and fifteen grandchildren and I’m seventy-three and no good at all anymore.”
“Ah, me old flower,” said another, when O‘Connor talked of how the city was changing, “you‘re a Dublin man all right.” He took that as a compliment.
Two men recognized him further on and gave him some advice on his column. “Never mind writin’ about them philosophers and aristycrats over in America,” one said. “Keep it local and put in a good word for us here in Dublin.”
It was after the 11 P.M. closing hour but we found an oasis and after a few discreet knocks we entered a room where two dozen people were drinking and the talk was still of place—a noted pub where Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh, and other writers drank under a stained glass window in what was known as the pub’s Intensive Care Unit.
We were drinking in the place where the poet Louis MacNeice had sat upstairs by a window to observe the passing of John F. Kennedy’s motorcade in 1963, his purpose to write of it. But MacNeice went on the nod and when the pub owner saw him dozing she shook him and said if he didn’t stay awake he’d lose his place, for others wanted it. Then someone told her he was a poet and she went back and apologized and said it was all right if he slept as long as he was by the window when the motorcade went by. For as everybody knows in Ireland, poets can feel things without actually seeing them.
The evening was literary enough to satisfy any visitor with expectation of the Dublin pub tradition, and it was redolent of Joyce without being scholarly. Then the conversation veered back to the late Paddy Kavanagh and how he came into a pub one morning and asked the question:
“Were you here last night?”
“I was,” said the bartender.
“Was I?” asked Paddy.
I bought Kavanagh’s collected poems the next day, found the one about Joyce, his response to all that the symposium stood for in the mind of Irish literary chauvinists. He called it “Who Killed James Joyce?” Some excerpts:
I, said the commentator,
I killed James Joyce
For my graduation.
To slay mighty Ulysses?
The weapon that was used
Was a Harvard thesis.
In a broadcast symposium.
That’s how we buried Joyce
To a tuneful encomium. . . .
I, said a Yale-man,
I was the man who made
The corpse for the wake man.
And did you get high marks.
I got the B. Litt.
And my master’s degree.
For your Joycean knowledge?
I got a scholarship
To Trinity College. . . .
Leslie Fiedler, in his Bloomsday address (June 16, the day on which the events in Ulysses occur) to the Joyceans in 1969, cited an incident which parallels the poem. It happened at The Bailey, where a group of Joyceans were gathered for drink and talk and a young Irishman suddenly rose up and told them: “I am an illegitimate grandson of James Joyce, and I want to tell you that he would spit on every one of you.”
Said Fiedler: “Ah, the young man was wrong, alas, since I fear that Joyce would have approved rather than spit upon even what is worst about us and our deliberations. . . . He would have relished the endless pilpul, the Talmudic exegesis, in which the sacred is profaned without any feelings of guilt. He would have rejoiced, after all, at the soulless industry which has grown up around his tortured and obsessive works.”
Fiedler then was knocking what he described as the scholarly Stephen Dedalus element in Joyce and Joyceans, and not the Bloom element–comic father, harassed Jew, self-appointed prophet–which he exalted.
His 1973 speech at mid-symposium Fiedler called “Joyce Against Literature,” the title suggesting we could expect new shafts at the Stephenesque scholar, which Fiedler clearly was trying to unbecome. His subject was, again, Ulysses, which, he said, “straddles and crosses a border which maybe never existed at all . . . the line between belles lettres and schlock.”
He spoke of Ulysses as a dirty book with ambivalent cultural pretensions. “It’s easy to grant that it was an attack on Caesar and Christ,” he said, “but we find it difficult to conceive that it was also an ambivalent attack on Flaubert and Henry James”–that is, on the notion of high culture. He cited Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, her celebration of the flesh interwoven with an anti-literature stance: she dismisses Rabelais and Defoe, Joyce’s favorites.
“Is Joyce using Molly to make fun of literature or is he making fun of Molly?” Fiedler wondered. “Joyce gives you the choice, always.” But Joyce ended the book with her, and he ended on the note of her “yes” to fleshly impulses, and this contributed to Fiedler‘s conclusion on Joyce that “clearly as he would like to sustain the elitism–the artist as secular priest, and have his work pored over by exegetes for centuries,” what Joyce really was was a “crap lover.”
“He was a coprophile ... a peeper at ladies pissing in the bushes,” and also the purveyor of his own most obscene fantasies, “in short, a pornographer.” He ticked off the porn that Bloom peruses. Fair Tyrants, by James Lovebirch, The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, Tales of the Ghetto by Sacher Masoch, Sweets of Sin, books by a writer named Paul de Kock. None of it was hard-core porn, Fiedler said, but softer stuff. “I like to think Joyce would have liked Russ Meyer’s films.”
Fiedler talked of Ulysses as “metaporn”–Joyce imagining Bloom imagining Molly reading the porn–porn at a second remove. He talked also of Joyce’s use of old soap-opera fiction. The Lamplighter and Mabel Vaughan, and added that he’d read all those nineteenth-century books which Bloom and Gerty McDowell knew and Joyce parodied, and gave this too as part of his justification for calling Joyce a coprophile.
“What I felt I had to do (in this speech) is throw the counterweight. If you don’t know those books of the 1870s, then you don’t know what he’s doing.” Fiedler’s arguments were dense with substantiation of his viewpoint, his speech electric, his delivery manic, his appearance–rotund, graybearded, red-faced–somewhere between a sated satyr and a Jewish Santa Claus. The speech and rebuttal lasted two and a half hours, a high point in the symposium and the only time anyone seemed genuinely angry. Rebuttal was hostile. One man found the speech “pernicious.” Many felt Fiedler was belaboring, grossly, what they already knew. His anti-literature thunder, his remark that he would rather be a Philistine than Matthew Arnold, made high art seem ridiculous, someone said.
He answered such attacks with his ambivalence. He hadn’t argued that Joyce was either/or, but rather that he was both: an elitist as well as a pornographer, an Arnoldian as well as a crap lover, Fiedler himself wanted to close the gap between high and popular art.
Harry Staley, a Joycean from State University at Albany, New York, observed on the way out: “I don’t take the aristocracy seriously, and I told Her Majesty that just the other day.”
Fiedler expressed the hope that Ireland would one day wake up to the master. “I’m always dismayed that Joyce is still not accepted here,” he said.
I found Ulysses on sale at a boutique in a rural hotel. The salesgirl said she’d gotten three copies, the first the shop ever handled, and sold two in a week. A relative of Joyce’s said that any number of small-town shops now sell the book and that some hotels and guest houses now have a Joyce Room, a bedroom with photos of Jovce or old Dublin and maybe a free copy of Ulysses.
I read of the Galway city council discussing a plaque to its noted daughter, Nora Barnacle. Joyce’s wife. In a flyer put out by the Women’s Progressive Society in the town of Bray I saw this civic improvement note: “Martello Terrace should be renovated and Joyce House made a feature of interest.” The house is where Joyce lived from 1887 to 1891 and is the setting of the famous Christmas dinner scene in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. A Dublin businessman, Thomas J. Keating, financed the restoration of the deteriorating Martello Tower at Sandycove (site of the opening scene in Ulysses), which is now a Joyce museum.
The Irish Times, several years ago in what must surely be a singular gesture for daily journalism anywhere, ran three unusually long articles by John Garvin, an Irish Joycean, interpreting Finnegans Wake. On Bloomsday, 1972, the Times editorialized: “James Joyce and Dublin are inseparable; and every citizen should resolve on this day to see to it that no other James Jovce, if he can help it, will ever flee the country as Joyce did.”
Literate people in Dublin are not surprised at all this Joyceana, but the surprise comes, I think, in that it turns up in unexpected places. David Hanly of the Irish Tourist Board, who may be the most literary tourism official anywhere, mentioned the taxi driver who quoted Joyce and Addison to him. And on a visit to two pubs on the eve of Bloomsday, I met three people in half an hour who had all at least read in the Wake. One was an old revolutionary who could discourse as easily about Pasternak and Dutch Schultz as about Paddy Kavanagh and H. C. Earwicker.
And near midnight in a greasy vest in Dublin, I was having coffee with friends when a man of about thirty-five, a computer mechanic, broke in to say hello to someone. There was brief football talk and then he asked: “Do you know what day tomorrow is?” Nobody responded and he said, “Bloomsday.” Joyce’s name had not been mentioned before he made this remark. He went on to say he usually got snockered on Bloomsday and that he planned to get up early and take his son to the Martello Tower, then walk from Sandycove to Dun Laoghaire.
“Just because I know he lived there.”
The Joyce legend attenuates. It grows closer to the day when there will be nobody alive who will remember the real man except through the haze of childhood. No literary legend has been better documented in this century, most notably in the great biography by Richard Ellman. Yet the desire to know everything about his life, even after you feel you’ve already heard it all, persists. This was the case with the reminiscence of Mme. Maria Jolas, who, with her husband Eugene, founded transition, the Paris-based magazine in which the Wake appeared first as Work In Progress. The Jolases were close to Joyce and much of what she had to say had been reported in Ellman’s book. But her presence gave the recollections a force no biography could match and so her words became a high point of the symposium.
Madame Jolas was an honorary participant at the symposium, along with Dr. Carola GiedionWelcker, an art critic who knew Joyce in Switzerland near the end of his life. Frau G-W too reminisced, briefly, about the man.
I also talked privately with Joyce’s niece, Mrs. Bozena Delimata (daughter of Joyce’s sister Eileen), who was close to Joyce’s daughter, Lucia. What the three women revealed were random footnotes to the Joyce legend, footnotes to remind us (and the tendency was to forget) that Joyce was not a disembodied mind but a frail, drinking, singing, anguished, vulnerable, isolated, and introverted family man awash in heavy trouble as well as indomitable genius.
Here is some of what the women remembered:
Madame Jolas: She met him in 1927 and found him an “extraordinarily dignified man.” even when drunk. Only Nora called him Jim; others called him Mr. Joyce. He was an “immense gentleman and comprehending friend” who didn’t make friends easily, for that entailed the responsibility of empathy. He loved parties with intimates and they always ended in singing, often in a duet with Madame Jolas, and sometimes the party ended in dancing. He wouldn’t drink until 7 P.M. or let anyone else in the house drink either. He was told by doctors to stop drinking white Swiss wine, that it would advance his blindness; but he kept on drinking.
He was “both father and mother,” especially to Lucia, who did not get along with her mother and once threw a chair at her. Socially, Joyce “wouldn’t move without his wife”–Nora was “absolutely essential” to him, although she wore down emotionally after Lucia’s illness–schizophrenia. Joyce, when talking of the illness, once remarked: “And I’m supposed to be writing a funny book,” meaning the Wake. Lucia is now sixty-five, in an English sanitarium, and “rather touchingly attached to this period of her life.” Samuel Beckett took care of Lucia in France after Joyce was forced to leave her behind when he fled to Zurich, the Nazis having withdrawn permission for him to take her at the last minute. Beckett was, and remains now, “absolutely, inevitably loyal.”
Madame Jolas went with Joyce’s son Giorgio to make arrangements for the burial of Nora. The Swiss priest asked, without commenting, for birth dates of Giorgio and Lucia, both born out of wedlock; for Joyce had resisted formalizing his marriage religiously. Madame Jolas recalled that the priest behaved sympathetically. But at the graveside, after leaping off a trolley and donning his clerical garb as he walked toward Nora’s open grave, he delivered the funeral prayers with the gratuitous remark that this was “a great sinner who is being buried.”
And so in Joyce’s long feud with the Church, the Church had the last, bitter word.
Dr. Giedion-Welcker: She said that at one stage in the writing of the Wake, Nora complained she couldn’t sleep. Why not? “That man,” she said, “he sits in there at his desk, writing and laughing out loud.” Joyce, she said, had plans to write another book after the Wake, one on the order of a Greek tragedy or comedy, based on the Greek resistance to the Nazis.
Mrs. Delimata: She was close to Lucia and still communicates with her. “She writes to me every fortnight, always one letter: ‘Please come and fetch me. I want to go to Ireland with you. My father and mother are in heaven and I’m all alone.’ But there is no chance of letting her out; I asked about it and they won’t.”
A few years ago Lucia came to herself and said to Mrs. Delimata: “Was I much trouble? I’m sorry I was so much trouble to my father.”
“Uncle Jim was so happy Lucia was getting better when she stayed with us in Ireland. But then she’d get spasms of wanting to commit suicide. Everybody wanted to keep her free as much and as long as possible but twenty doctors examined her. She used to go around half-dressed and went into the sea naked. People here would say, ‘Of course it would be James Joyce’s daughter that would do this.’ Jim never stopped writing to Lucia to read this book and that book and go to this play and that.
“When my mother died in 1963 I started a guesthouse in Bray and called it Ulysses, but my heart didn’t behave and I had to give it up. ... I want to start a Joyce house in Bray, the one where he set the Christmas dinner scene. The house is just the same as when he lived in it but I haven’t been able to raise the money.
“The family? Some said Uncle Jim only wrote when he was drunk and they said he was half crazy. He loved my mother but years ago some of his other sisters would pretend he wasn‘t their brother at all. Aunty May came around and eventually kept a correspondence with Jim. Aunty Florry [who was eighty-one and dying in a nursing home] had nothing to do with Jim and blamed him for their mother’s death. . . . Giorgio is in
Germany and I understand he’s very ill.Jim was such a madcap. He’d get money from somebody and he’d go and buy a scarf, or some flaming thing. He wasn’t very good with money. . . . But in 1938 he said to my mother he would get a beauty salon in Paris if I would study beauty culture in Ireland. I was starting in it when the war came. ... He never forgot my birthday and he called himself my godfather, but by proxy he was, really. ... He called me Baby. Lucia still calls me Baby. Lucia got a dressing gown from Beckett last Christmas.”
A letter from Lucia: “Dear Baby, I hope you are
all well. I wrote to Mr. –my solicitor to send
you 25 pounds. Did you get it I wonder? Mrs.
–says it is a lot of money so I don’t know if
he will let you have it. ... I hope he will send you the money so that you can come to see me. I have a small room and there is a big tree just outside my window with lots of birds flying about all day. With lots of love, from Lucia.”
The symposium ended on Bloomsday, with an early evening visit to the Martello Tower and then a dinner at the Royal Marine Hotel in Dun Laoghaire. The Joyceans descended from chartered buses and came up the walkway toward the tower, some in their new tweed caps and knitted sweaters bought the day before yesterday on Grafton Street. They stood hip to hip in the small museum, which is busy with photos, letters, Joyce’s death mask by sculptor Paul Speck (that detail arranged immediately after his death by Frau Giedion-Welcker).
There in showcases, like rare Etruscan pottery, lay Joyce’s last walking stick, his brocaded vest donated by Beckett, the guitar his friend Ottocaro Weiss photographed him playing, his books in so many languages.
Ulick O’Connor recollected in a monologue for the tower visitors the days when Gogarty and Joyce had lived in this room. O’Connor had planned to bring back both their voices via recordings, to be heard here together for the first time since 1904, but Gogarty’s son invoked a copyright and so Joyce alone, in his squeaky, simulated brogue, welcomed these benevolent invaders of his soul.
At the dinner which followed, two stunningly talented Irish singers, Anne Makower and Bill Golding, evoked for an hour the long-gone Joycean time with superbly rendered songs and patter, songs that were in the air in Joyce’s day and which he used in his books–“I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls,” “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” part of Don Giovanni, and, of course, “Finnegan’s Wake,” before which the singers gave the audience the compulsory Irish jab: “Let us remind these scholars who take him too seriously that concert Joyceans are aware that Joyce was a great comic novelist.”
Madame Jolas said it was the kind of evening she’d often spent with Joyce, this music their common ground, and, “What a good account of this evening he could have given!” Paris was announced as the site of the 1975 symposium, two short Joyce films were shown, the symposium’s organizers cracked in-group jokes, and since everybody was surfeited with song, literature, food, fellowship, and also deep into the French wine, the mood was as mellow and lyrical as a Tom Moore melody; and, some would say, just about as relevant to the contemporary world.
The most vituperative argument I heard against the Joyceans is not that they are solemn, which they generally are not as often as they are, but that as a group they are like Joyce: cultural imperialists and moral neuters; elitists turning up pointless esoterica and framing it in prose that is often brilliant, often redolent of rancid socks. I heard an Irish Marxist denigrate Joyce as irrelevant today to the Irish masses who are still trying to overturn British colonialism in Northern Ireland and British economic imperialism in the Irish Republic. Marxists similarly attacked Joyce in his lifetime.
Benedict Kiely, the Irish short-story writer, told a story at lunch one day during the symposium about an Irish master of ceremonies at a Belfast musicale who came on stage and announced that “Mary Ann McGattigan will now sing ‘The Londonderry Air.’ ” Someone from the balcony shouted down: “Mary Ann McGattigan is a whore!” The emcee, taken aback, stepped away, composed himself, and then returned to the microphone.
“Nevertheless,” he said, “Mary Ann McGattigan will now sing ‘The Londonderry Air.’ ”
The stalwart Joyceans, like that emcee, know that neither the artist nor his partisans ever bow to vituperation. The quest for heliotrope will continue. □