Joyce as a concept is objectively terrifying. As a literary figure he looms large over any young writer aiming to represent the city and when a comparison or contrast can be drawn with him it inevitably becomes a soundbite for someone’s work. I first read Dubliners as part of my Leaving Cert course and was generally more concerned with memorising themes and character profiles than engaging with Joyce’s depiction of Dublin. As an English Literature undergraduate a couple of years later I found it incredibly difficult to connect with Ulysses and found myself resolutely avoiding engaging with it unless forced. Joyce can be intimidating, arcane, wilfully misleading and frustrating. So what drives someone with that relationship with Joyce to co-author a book on him?
I started working at the James Joyce Centre in 2014 and quickly had to re-acquaint myself with the overlord of Dublin fiction. Working my first Bloomsday and seeing how Joyceans around the city perform the work in situ from Sandycove to O’Connell Bridge I started to get a sense of just how important space and geography are to Joyce’s work and how much can be derived from physically seeing and experiencing the landscape he describes. Equally, a knowledge of Joyce’s family background and the elements of his personal experience that inspired his work help to put the puzzle pieces in place and can allow you to engage with his more challenging works like Ulysses and Finnegans Wake with a bit more confidence and context.
Reading things like Joyce’s hilariously explicit love letters to his wife Nora gives you the gusto to delve into the rambling madness of the Penelope episode of Ulysses with an eye for the dirty talk. Similarly, taking a walk down North Richmond Street where the Joyce’s once resided at number 17 transports you to the opening paragraphs of ‘Araby’ from Dubliners. Joyce loved to draw from his friends and surroundings to inspire his works and learning about how these snippets of reality became woven into his works makes his work more relatable, appealing and crucially, understandable. The oft-maligned Finnegans Wake might seem completely impenetrable when you look at it as a foreboding 628 page tome but there are plenty of stupid little jokes about place names to be enjoyed (my favourite being Chapelizod as ‘couple of lizards’) if you can find a way into it.
One of the aims of Written in my Heart is to give Joyce enthusiasts and novices alike a window into a different type of Joyce, one that might remind you more of the local eccentric you always see around town instead of the sole preserve of the academic world as he can sometimes be perceived. There are plenty of strange and bizarre anecdotes that feature in the book that we hope can help change the perception of him from a myth to – an admittedly very odd but interesting – man. Things like the fact he almost won the 1904 Feis Ceol but stormed off stage because he was asked to do a sight reading (and had never learnt to sight read despite knowing it would be part of the competition), or the fact he hid from a piano delivery man because he didn’t want to tip him and then lost his piano, or that the only time he ever dedicated a piece of work was to himself.
Writing with a non-fiction voice can be both a blessing and a curse. The fact that the information is already at hand and you just need to research to access it is very comforting, particularly with the vast swathes of information available about Joyce. On the other hand the confines of word counts and the amount of information you need to insert into the text can sometimes be overwhelming and the idea of cutting elements brutal. One of the challenges about the type of book we were writing was that critical works on Joyce are typically very dense and academic. We were charged with finding a lighter tone and a more accessible way to present the life and times of a person that is often written off as being beyond the grasp of the typical reader. We also needed to find a way to represent the city as it oscillates between the capital of Joyce’s lifetime in the late 1800s and early 1900s and the geographical reality of today. Fuchsia’s illustrations on this count really helped us to display a rich history with colours and textures that reflect this. We wanted to veer away from all the black and white photos and historical depictions of the places we were discussing because Joyce’s work is enduring and many of his surroundings are remarkably similar to the way they would have been in his era.
Overall we hope that we’ve created a world of Joyce that offers a new point of entry for those that have always wanted to learn more but might have felt put off or intimidated by his reputation. Equally, the era depicted in the book spanned the Irish Literary Revival, meaning Joyce’s city at that time was one brimming with creativity and exciting new ideas. We hope that we’ve managed to capture at least a little bit of that spirit with the book.
(c) Emily Carson
About Written in my Heart: Walks Through James Joyce’s Dublin
James Joyce’s Dublin sprawls through the intricate street networks of Dublin’s inner city, quaint village main streets that pass through its coastal towns, vast park lands, prim suburban roads and grotty back alleys.
Discovering Joyce’s Dublin is to learn more about the fabric of a city and society that was changing at an astonishing rate, and bore the marks of a country that was struggling to define its national identity. You’ll see the places where figures like W.B. Yeats and George ‘AE’ Russell, who had a large influence on Joyce’s work, would meet with him to discuss the Irish literary revival amongst other things.
This book shows the hidden landmarks of Dublin city that make Joyce’s work so vastly detailed and illustrious. It takes you on a coastal tour of Dublin’s seaside villages, through the manicured lawns of the suburbs and on a pub crawl of bars that make appearances in his work. A unique way to delve into Dublin and learn about its history through the eyes of one of its most famous former residents.