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Joyce: His Life & Times

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Our Literary Heritage

By Conor Fennell

When I began researching for my book, A Little Circle of Kindred Minds: Joyce in Paris, it became clear that the Joyce I would be writing about – a man in his forties and fifties – would be quite different from the man who had left Dublin at the age of 22. Gone was the arrogance of youth. The vitriolic attacks on the Catholic Church and the National Theatre were left behind. The older Joyce had become relatively conservative – though not in his writing – and many of his former classmates who saw him in Paris were surprised to see that Stephen Dedalus had become more like Leopold Bloom.

In some ways, though, he never changed at all. He still borrowed money from friends – despite royalties from his books and thousands of pounds in patronage. He moved home 19 times during the 20 years he spent in Paris, echoing the moves his family made as he was growing up in Dublin. In a sense he never really left his native city, for Dublin was what he was always writing about. As he was writing Ulysses he told a friend that he wanted to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of his book.

Dublin was where James Joyce was born in 1882. It was where he was educated by the Jesuits (at Belvedere College) and where he graduated from the Royal University (now UCD) with a bare pass of a BA degree. He left the city with his lover, Nora Barnacle, in 1904, never to return but for only two brief visits (in 1909 and 1912). He died in Zurich in 1941, shortly before his 59thbirthday.

What happened in Joyce’s life during his 37 years in exile is what has most fascinated his biographers. He and Nora went first to Zurich where he hoped to teach English but there was no work. So he went to the Berlitz school in Pola in the former Yugoslavia and was diverted from there to Trieste (then part of Austria) where he would stay until the outbreak of the First World War. In between teaching he wrote stories that were to formDubliners, a book which he found extremely difficult to get published. In the meantime he had been working on Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He sent some of that semi-autobiographical novel to Ezra Pound, who was acting as secretary to W. B. Yeats, in England.  Pound placed it with the literary magazine, the Egoist, which serialised it. This was the start of a pattern by which Joyce’s works appeared as extracts before being published in book form.

Joyce had just started writing Ulysses when the Great War of 1914-18 broke out. When Italy declared war on Germany, the family left for neutral Switzerland and they spent the rest of the war in Zurich. Virtually penniless, he eked out a living giving English lessons until money came from other sources. W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound persuaded the Royal Literary Fund to send him money. Then, an anonymous donor provided him with a regular income of £200 pounds a year (about 10,000 euro today). Her name was Harriet Shaw Weaver, a wealthy feminist and editor of the Egoist. Over the subsequent six years she would give him £21,000 – the equivalent of about one million euro in today’s terms – and financed him for the rest of his life. But Joyce spent the money as quickly as it came in and often asked for more. He felt as a writer he was entitled to such patronage.

Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist was published in book form during his stay in Zurich. But the writer was to have less good fortune with Ulysses. He worked steadily on the novel in Zurich and in Trieste when he returned there at the war’s end. But within a year his life was to change dramatically.

Ezra Pound invited him to come to Paris where he had settled. Joyce and his family made their way to the French capital, intending to stay for a week before continuing on to London and possibly Dublin where he would finish writing Ulysses. But he remained there for almost 20 years.

Within days, Joyce met Sylvia Beach, the American owner of a bookshop and lending library called Shakespeare and Company. She agreed to publish Ulysses when no-one else would touch the book. He also got to know the French writer Valery Larbaud who praised his book and was instrumental in having it translated into French. This combination of Pound/Beach/Larbaud made Paris the right place for Joyce.

After Ulysses was published in 1922, Joyce started writing a book that he called his book of the night (Ulysses was his day book). He called it simply his Work in Progress and told only Nora its real name, Finnegans Wake. She kept the secret until its publication in 1939.

When I began researching Joyce’s time in Paris I found there were also other Irish writers there who became friendly with him – among them James Stephens, Padraic Colum, Thomas MacGreevy and of course Samuel Beckett. They admired Joyce as a writer (although they did not all understand his work). But Joyce used them. He got them to run errands for him and to write articles defending his Work in Progress when it came under criticism from Pound and others. He could be quite manipulative.

All his time in Paris, Joyce had trouble with his eyes and had to undergo twelve operations. But it was the health of his daughter Lucia that wore him down the most; she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and he was devastated when she had to spend the rest of her life in institutions.

As the Germans invaded France in 1940, Joyce, Nora and their son Giorgio made their way to neutral Switzerland to live again in Zurich. Joyce’s health deteriorated and in January 1941, following an operation for an ulcer, he died. He is buried in a local cemetery.

About the author

(c) Conor Fennell June 2011

Conor Fennell started his career with the Irish Press in the 1960s before joining RTE as a reporter.  He went on to present Countrywide and was later appointed Television Chief Sub Editor in the News Division.  A Little Circle Of Kindred Minds: James Joyce In Paris is his first book.  He lives in Sandycove, Dublin.

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