Researching James Joyce and Finding Myself Writing Fiction
Last September, I fulfilled one of my life’s dreams: I moved to Ireland to pursue a PhD on James Joyce Studies. After several rejections from different universities, I was finally awarded a scholarship from the School of English in DCU, where I’m currently researching Joyce’s influence on contemporary Irish women’s writing. What has surprised me most, however, is the fact that – as well as engaging in research – I have started writing fiction myself, something I had never considered before. I suddenly realised that, in order to write about literature, I needed to look at it from a more complex angle which included not only the reader’s perspective but the writer’s as well. In other words, I had to think as an author.
“You know what? You should start writing a journal or something about you, your experiences in Dublin… Write down whatever comes to your mind. Giacomo Joyce thingy. Epiphanies,” a translator friend once told me. Moreover, my friends and professors often expressed their admiration for my academic works, so I thought: “Why not try? After all, I have nothing to lose.” For further inspiration, I thought of the great Edna O’Brien who, after reading Introducing James Joyce by T. S. Elliot while working in a pharmacy in Dublin at the age of nineteen, felt her first impulse to write fiction.
One day – driven by an urgent need to communicate the fire burning inside me – I grabbed my laptop and began working on a novel, a sort of autofiction about a young woman moving abroad. Although I was satisfied with what I was doing, I soon noticed that writing in Italian – my mother tongue – didn’t stimulate me that much. Furthermore, I knew no one I could send my Italian work to in order to receive feedback. Unfortunately, nowadays Italy lacks an enthusiasm for literature. Ireland, on the other hand, is teeming with literary events every month. Besides the fact that many young people write here, there is also a proliferation of short story competitions, readings and festivals. Italy can’t boast of the same literary ferment as Ireland. In my country literature is of interest to very few people, especially among the younger generation. It breaks my heart to see our bestsellers are often YouTubers or books by TV celebrities today. To think, mine is the country of Dante, Calvino, Pavese and Ferrante, the cradle of one of richest and appreciated literatures in the world. Joyce himself, as well as studying Italian first in Belvedere College and then in University College Dublin, was an admirer of Italian literature and culture. He read the works of Giordano Bruno, Gianbattista Vico, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Antonio Fogazzaro among others. Besides Rome (where he and his family lived in 1906), he also spent about eleven years in Trieste between 1904 and 1920 where he completed Dubliners, wrote A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Exiles, Giacomo Joyce, and started Ulysses. In Trieste, he also became a close friend of Italian novelist and short-story writer Italo Svevo (one of the models for Leopold Bloom), an English-language student of his at the local Berlitz School. Although Joyce’s fiction and poetry were in English, he wrote articles, essays and some of his correspondences in Italian and, with the collaboration of Nino Frank, translated “Annalivia Plurabelle” into Italian himself in 1940. His translation – embellished with local Italian dialects, rivers, quotes and sayings – proved to be further evidence of his love for Italy.
Inspired by Joyce writing in a second language, I decided to do the same. Feeling completely unmotivated to write in my own language, I decided to convert an extract from my Italian novel into a short story in English and sent it to some friends who, to my surprise, enjoyed the piece and encouraged me to continue writing in English. Although I was initially rather sceptical about it, I met the challenge and began my adventure as a writer in a foreign language. As a university student, I had often heard about authors writing in two languages, including Samuel Beckett who wrote in both English and French. This had always intrigued me but I couldn’t understand why someone felt the need to write in a language which was not their own. And yet, when I embarked on this path, I soon realised writing in English was such a pleasure for me. I unexpectedly felt a freedom I had never experienced before, to the point of overcoming any sort of embarrassment about what I may write and not being afraid of what other people would think. I never thought I would find myself writing about a vagina one day. One of my short stories, for instance, is inspired by “L’Origine du Monde” by Gustave Courbet, a painting from the Realism period depicting a naked woman, visible only from the breasts to the thighs. However, the reference to the painting is only a pretext for critiquing the position of women in contemporary society. Moreover, writing in English made me more aware of language. How often do we misuse words? Maybe we think they mean something when in fact they have a different meaning altogether. In the aforementioned story, the title of which takes its name from the painting, one of the characters confuses the term “Impressionism” with “Expressionism” thereby ending up referring to a completely different artistic movement. Words are important. Sometimes we forget this truth.
During the lockdown due to the outbreak of Covid-19 I returned to my family home in Rome. On that occasion I experienced something which had never happened to me: I was struck by a bizarre feeling of homesickness for the literary country that was now my second home. Of course, I missed my routine, my office and my friends in Dublin, but most of all I was struggling to remember some details of the city. For example, what kind of noise did the LUAS make? I needed to describe the urban setting of a story of mine and was trying to think about the comings and goings in O’Connell street, the traffic flow, the crowd, the background noise so much so that once I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep. I sat up in bed and started searching for information about tram noises, finally finding out that they can have both rubber tyres and metal wheels which – as in the case with the LUAS – squealed on the track in some circumstances. Today, thanks to the internet, it is easy to travel the globe from your home but just think how hard it must have been to accurately write about the world in the past. Joyce set almost all his works in Dublin although he spent most of his lifetime abroad. In order to meticulously write about his city, he often asked his family in Ireland to send him materials – maps, newspapers, etc. – so he could portray it as viscerally and realistically as possible. It must have been torturous for him to wait for days for a response in the midst of his creative process. Sometimes your imagination is not enough.
Writing has made me a more attentive observer and has utterly changed the way I look at my surrounding reality, pushing me to go beyond the surface of things to penetrate their true essence. My writing odyssey has only just begun. Sleepless nights or homesickness are only some of the trials I’ll have to deal with during this Homeric journey into language’s womb. I still have many things to learn and many seas to navigate. All that remains is hoisting my sails and letting myself be directed by the powerful wind of words.
(c) Annalisa Mastronardi