James Joyce: A Man of Contradictions
Despite having only published four novels in his lifetime, there have been more articles and books written about James Joyce than probably any other writer in the 20th century. And yet, despite the wealth of material on both his life and his works, he still remains something of an enigma.
Every year on the 16th of June, Bloomsday is celebrated in Ireland and all around the world, commemorating the events that took place on that date in Joyce’s novel Ulysses. Many commentators have pointed out that Joyce would have probably found it ironic that his life and work should be celebrated in the country he felt he had to leave to be able to pursue that work. Even more ironic that it would be the novel Ulysses that is commemorated given that the novel – released in 1922 – was not available in Ireland until the 1960s. Bloomsday is also celebrated in England and America, two other countries where Ulysses was banned for many years. And the fact of the matter is, millions more people have probably read Gone with the Wind than have read Ulysses, a book that – rightly or wrongly – has always been regarded as “difficult”. So why then this continued fascination with James Joyce?
There is a clever saying often used to describe enigmatic people: “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. This is certainly true of James Joyce. He was a man of many contradictions and perhaps that is one of the reasons he continues to fascinate us.
One of the most striking contradictions about Joyce was his relationship with money, which is the stuff of legend. He spent his entire life borrowing, haranguing and begging for money from family, friends and acquaintances (and even from his students!) But this wasn’t because he was always penniless. Indeed, at various times in his life Joyce had substantial sums of money (His patron, Harriette Shaw Weaver, is estimated to have given Joyce well over a million and a half dollars throughout his lifetime). Had he been frugal, these sums might have meant he could have led a comfortable life. But such was the contradictory nature of the man, when he had money he spent it lavishly. On his blog, “My Journey with James Joyce”, Michael Sherman writes:
“For most of his life, Joyce was hopelessly in debt. He was constantly scrounging money from friends, family and colleagues. When he did have money in his pocket, he’d invariably splurge lavishly: eating at fine restaurants, drinking expensive Swiss wine and ordering rounds of drinks for his friends and anyone else fortunate to be around the bar when Joyce was flush. Quite often, after a night of eating, drinking and revelry, he’d leave the restaurant in a drunken stupor with nothing left to pay his rent.
There’s a famous photograph of Joyce standing outdoors with a quixotic look on his face. When asked what he was thinking about while being photographed, Joyce said ‘I was wondering would he lend me five shillings.’”
One famous story illustrates this. The writers Wyndham Lewis and T.S. Eliot were travelling to Paris and had arranged to meet with Joyce. Their mutual friend, the poet Ezra Pound, had given Eliot a package to deliver to Joyce. When Joyce met the two men, he was excited about what was contained in the package. He unwrapped it only to find a pair of rather worn brown leather shoes. All three men were embarrassed. Wyndham Lewis continues the story:
“Joyce … asked us where we would like to dine and did we know Paris well, or would we commit ourselves to him and allow him to conduct us to a restaurant where he dined, from time to time, not far from where we were just then, and at which it was possible to get a good meal enough, though he had not been there lately.
We replied that we would gladly go with him to the restaurant he mentioned … [When they got there] he selected a table, took up the menu before we had sat down, asked us what we liked, inspecting the violet scrawl to ascertain what was available in the matter of plats du jour … he ordered a large and cleverly arranged dinner as far as possible for all palates, and with a great display of inside knowledge of the insides of civilized men and the resources of the cuisine of France, discovering what wines we were by way of liking if any. And he had asked for a bottle to start with to introduce the soup.
And so on, through a first-class French repast until we had finished, he pushed on, our indefatigable host: then at a moment when we were not paying particular attention, he called for the bill: and before either of us could forestall him, he ‘had whisked out of his breast pocket a handful of hundred-franc notes, and paid for this banquet: the wine, the liqueurs, the coffee, and added to it, it was evident, a lordly pourboire. Nor was it ever possible for T. S. Eliot or myself to pay for the smallest thing from that time onwards….
We had to pay his `Irish pride’ for the affair of the old shoes.”
Image by Louis le Brocquy
Derek Flynn runs writing.ie's SongBook blog, and is an Irish writer and musician. He has an Honours Degree in English Literature and Philosophy. He’s been published in a number of publications, including The Irish Times, and was First Runner-Up in the 2011 J. G. Farrell Award for Best Novel-In-Progress. His writing/music blog – ‘Rant, with Occasional Music’ – can be found on his blog and on Twitter.