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The Author of Himself

Anthony J Jordan writes:
Sean Latham remarks of James Joyce: “Mapping the contours of Joyce’s biography is difficult, in part, because so much of his work deliberately muddies the boundaries between fiction and autobiography. In the major and minor works alike beginning with A Portrait of the Artist, we encounter figures like Stephen, Bloom and Shem who all echo aspects of the author’s own life.”

I came to the writing of a short biography of Joyce through my earlier biography of Arthur Griffith. The contrast between the two contemporaries is vast, particularly in the context of their current public recognition. Yet both confined their life’s work to their native land. Griffith hardly ever physically left it, while Joyce, though abandoning it physically, never left it mentally or artistically. An Italian visitor to the James Joyce Museum in Sandycove said to me in the summer of 2016: “The great thing Joyce did was to create an international community.” Griffith, though an accomplished Dubliner, was also of Ireland and a high achiever, but has been relatively forgotten. Yet both their lives were intertwined up to the publication of Ulysses in February 1922 and Griffith’s premature death that same year. Joycean scholars and enthusiasts generally shun the Griffith-Joyce links, fearing that the grounded one would delimit their literary interpretations of the artistic genius. I encountered this dichotomy during the four years I spent researching and writing James Joyce Unplugged.

As in any biography, one tries to deal in facts germane to the subject. Éamon de Valera advised his secretary: “History depends on documents; no documents, no history.” A difficulty with Joyce was the surfeit of documentation on his life contained in his own published writings, which as Sean Latham suggests are in essence fiction, though containing much autobiographical material. This is not unusual in imaginative literature, with the author having carte blanche to shape the biographical record to his/her purpose. Normally such a practice will bestow only positive attributes on the author, but Joyce is unique in this as in most things, in that he includes materials which portray him in a very negative light. One example occurs in Ulysses as Buck Mulligan chides Stephen:

O, the night in the Camden hall when the Daughters of Erin had to life their skirts to step over you as you lay in your mulberrycoloured, multi-coloured, multitudinous vomit!
The most innocent son of Erin, Stephen said, for whom they ever lifted them.
About to pass through the doorway, feeling one behind, he stood aside.
Part. The moment is now. Where then? If Socrates leaves his house today, if Judas goes forth tonight. Why? That lies in space which I in time must come to, ineluctably.
My will: his will that fronts me. Seas in between.

What is his motivation for including this? The event occurred on June 20th, 1904, four days after he had first met Nora Barnacle. The lady who had stumbled over him was an actress named Vera Esposito. The four men who dealt with the drunken Joyce were the brothers Frank and Willie Fay, Seumas O’Sullivan and George Roberts, who would later give him grief over the publication of Dubliners. Joyce thanked the Fays by soon writing a poem:

O, there are two brothers, the Fays,
Who are excellent players of plays,
And , needless to mention, all
Most unconventional,
Filling the world with amaze.

But I angered those brothers, the Fays,
Whose ways are conventional ways,
For I lay in my urine
While ladies so pure in
White petticoats ravished my gaze.

Joyce was not averse to “correcting” some facts to suit his purpose. When Herbert Gorman was writing Joyce’s biography, with support from his subject, Joyce insisted that he married Nora in 1904 and that his relationship with his father was sufficiently filial. Ellman wrote that Joyce used the opportunity to “ventriloquize a little” and “to pay off scores”. Joyce insisted that his relationship with Fr Henry in Belvedere was a good one towards the end of his time there. But in fact the opposite was the case, as testified to by a number of contemporaries. Richard Ellmann comments: “Other witnesses indicate that Joyce’s memory was at fault.”

The most difficult and most important area where there is a discrepancy between fact and fiction in Joyce is in relation to Portrait of the Artist. This is the work which is accepted as illustrating Joyce’s abandonment and rejection of his Catholicism and his country. But it was a greatly contrived book, even in the choice of the name of the hero, Stephen Dedalus; Stephen after the first Christian martyr and Dedalus after paganism’s greatest inventor. He was consciously making his life as he was living it into fiction, all the while realising that he could adapt or change it to suit his purpose. He controlled the real people he wrote about, often much to their annoyance. He excised his one loyalist, his brother Stanislaus, deciding that he must be alone in his life ‑ “A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella,” he wrote. It is ironic, as Brenda Maddox has written, that eventually it was Stanislaus and his family who gained from “his memories and his brother’s papers”.

Indeed Matthew Hodgart accuses Joyce in Portrait of lying in suggesting that he did not go to a Christian Brothers School for a few months when his father could no longer afford to send him to Clongowes and before he was taken in as a “free” boy to Belvedere. Joyce has his mother say in Portrait:

I never liked the idea of sending him to the christian brothers myself, said Mrs. Dedalus.
Christian Brothers be damned! said Mr. Dedalus. Is it with Paddy Stink and Micky Mud? No let him stick to the jesuits in God’s name since he began with them. They’ll be of service to him in after years. Those are the fellows that can get you a position.

He anticipated, even urged, friends, and especially Oliver St John Gogarty, to betray him in his need for a victimhood like that of Christ or Parnell. He wrote: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home or, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning.”


A Portrait began life as an autobiographical story intended for the magazine Dana, which rejected it, as the editor, John Eglinton, said he could not understand it. It 1903 Joyce developed it into Stephen Hero ‑ a novel in a realistic style. At this time he was also writing short stories which became Dubliners. In 1907, with twenty-five chapters written, he abandoned Stephen Hero, developed the story instead into a five chapter novel about Stephen’s developing consciousness. It was serialised in The Egoist in 1914-15 and published as a book in 1916.

While writing Portrait, Joyce was an exile in real time, living a different life, in contact with Ireland through reading Arthur Griffith’s newspaper, Sinn Féin. He gradually became to support Griffith’s views on Irish nationalism, writing to his brother Stanislaus;

If a victorious country terrorises over another, it cannot reasonably take it amiss if the latter responds. Men are made that way and no one, unless he is deluded by self-interest or cunning, can still believe that a colonising country is driven by purely Christian motives when it takes over foreign shores – if the Irish have not been able to do what their American brothers did, this does not mean that they will never do so – a moral separation already exists between the two countries.

The practicality of Griffith’s emphasis on trade and consuls abroad, replacing Irish members of parliament at Westminster, appealed to him. When Stanislaus sought to get his brother to support Tom Kettle’s Irish Parliamentary Party, James would have none of it, ridiculing those MPs as self-serving. He also ridiculed the idea of Home Rule, declaring that the British would never grant it to Ireland without partitioning the country. Declan Kiberd remarks that “this was one of the most accurate predictions of partition”. James wrote to Stanislaus in 1907 of Griffith: “ ... so far as my knowledge of Irish affairs goes he was the first person in Ireland to revive the separatist idea on modern lines nine years ago … The Sinn Fein policy comes to fighting England with the knife and fork … the highest form of political warfare I have heard of.”

Even when the IPP held the balance of power after the 1910 general election and Home Rule appeared to be just a matter of time, Joyce remained sceptical, even to the point of visualising that parliament would reduce Irish representation by half. He said that despite Ireland becoming part of British democratic life, she had never been faithful to England nor to herself, as she discarded her own language for English, betrayed her stars and served only the Catholic church. Even when the Home Rule Bill was passed in 1912 he was astute enough, like Griffith and Sinn Féin, to realise that Britain would as usual control taxes. Kiberd writes: “Joyce wrote from the viewpoint of a staunch republican.” Herbert Gorman stated: “Joyce, if anything, was an Irish nationalist at heart.”

Joyce’s most poignant take on Irish independence saw him writing about an unlikely revolution: “One thing alone seems obvious to me. It is way past time for Ireland to have done once and for all with failure. If she is truly capable of revitalizing, let her rouse, or let her cover her head and lie down graciously in her grave forever ... But though the Irish are articulate, an insurrection is not made of human breath and negotiations ... If she wants to put on the show for which we have delayed so long, this time, let it be comprehensive, and conclusive. But telling these Irish actors to hurry up, as our forefathers before us told them not so long ago, is hopeless. I, for one, am certain not to see that curtain rise as I shall have already taken the last tram home.”

But when the performance did unexpectedly occur in Dublin at Easter 1916, Joyce remained quiet. Of course the tragic murder of his old friend Sheehy-Skeffington and the partial destruction of Dublin did affect him. The Sheehy family suffered another tragedy when Tom Kettle was killed fighting in France in September 1916. Joyce wrote a letter of sympathy to the two widowed Sheehy sisters he had known so well. As Richard Ellmann writes, “Joyce followed the events with pity; although he evaluated the Rising as useless, he felt also out of things.” Later in 1918 he was glad when the British had to abandon their plan to introduce conscription to Ireland, remarking “Erin go bragh”. At that stage he looked forward to the time when he would revisit an independent Ireland.

When Nora was in Galway as the Civil War was in progress and had to flee amid gunfire, Joyce felt that it was all part of the ongoing conspiracy against himself. Constantine Curran later visited Joyce in Paris and “found exaggeration of Nora’s danger from the Civil War preposterous”.

The publication of Ulysses had coincided with the coming into being of the new Irish state, with Arthur Griffith as president. Richard Ellmann writes that “Ulysses creates new Irishmen to live in Griffith’s new state … For a moment it seemed that the two events were allied, that Ireland would be a nation once again in terms of both spiritual and political emancipation. But Griffith died after only a few months in power, and Joyce had second thoughts.” The several references to Griffith and Sinn Féin in Ulysses demonstrate that Joyce had an intimate and detailed knowledge of the man and what he was about. The book features many references to the Sinn Féin leader, alone of the politicians of his day, while Joyce also called attention to the ultimately political direction of his own work by having the Irish Stephen, at the end of the brothel scene, beaten up by a British soldier, whom he describes as “The Uninvited”.

Joyce was visited in Paris in 1922 by Desmond Fitzgerald, a minister in the new Irish government. He wrote to Stanislaus that “the Dail Eireann minister of propaganda called on me and wished to know if I intended to return to Ireland – to which I returned an evasive answer. He is proposing me, it seems, for the Nobel prize in his capacity of cabinet minister as soon as the Treaty is ratified at Westminster, though not in the name of his cabinet. I will take a small bet that if he does not change his mind when he sees the complete text he will lose his portfolio while I have not the faintest chance of being awarded the prize.” In the event it was WB Yeats who won the prize and Joyce was never even nominated.

6/2/2019

Anthony J Jordan’s biography is called James Joyce Unplugged and is published by [email protected]