The Joyce Girl, by Annabel Abbs, Impress Books, 350 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-1907605871
The Joyce Girl is a biographical novel, which details the sad and poignant story of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia, as told by herself, during her crucial period in Paris and ending with the awareness of her own mental disturbance and her forced entry into a clinic. The novel focuses on the years from November 1928 to 1934, when Lucia seemed to have a career as a dancer, which was aborted, and there is, naturally, heavy emphasis on her affair, or non-affair, with Samuel Becket and other potential husbands, and finally her mental breakdown. In distress, Lucia Joyce underwent an extended therapy with Carl Gustav Jung in Küsnacht (near Zurich). It seems that her memories are the result of Dr Jung’s request for “an account of your years in ‘Robiac Square’” (as Square de Robiac, where much of the action takes place, is consistently named).
The novel’s characters are based on real people as we know them from the numerous biographies of Joyce, his family and the artists he was in contact with, like Samuel Beckett or Zelda Fitzgerald. The inclusion of “real” and famous people may attract readers who welcome an entertaining approach to the lives of a notorious and supposedly obscure writer, his family and some fellow artists, but it does carry a risk for those readers who are familiar with the scholarly accounts on which the novel is based. These readers, however, may be sidetracked into possibly misguided comparisons with what they have learned from the biographies of Richard Ellmann, Peter Costello, Gordon Bowker, Brenda Maddox and Carol Shloss (not “Schloss” as in the acknowledgements) and many memoirs without whose work the novel could not have been written. Some extra-fictional issues are raised. Do the imaginary characters of the novel measure up to what we think we know about the real persons, or – to put it differently ‑ should they?
It is hard at any rate not to match the historical characters that we know from the biographies, already inevitably a distortion, with those in the novel. It made me realise that we, or at least I, with all the sources at our disposal, still do not know how these people actually behaved in everyday life, above all, how they talked to each other, always assuming that the language in the Joyce family was English and not, as we also learned, Italian, of which one trace remains in Lucia calling her father “Babbo”. In particular, I wonder if Joyce in the early thirties would have called Nora, and a rather grumpy Nora at that, “my mountain flower”. I never had the impression that Joyce was particularly witty in his conversation and am unsure whether he ever attempted to be. Would he, in the privacy of his family, have pompously declaimed that the “future of literature depends on me”, or “Those philistines who mock me, who maim and mutilate my work”, followed, incidentally, by a sigh? “What fierce and unadulterated ambition you have, Lucia” does not sound like talk at home. Joyce appears fond of quoting himself and his attempts at jocularity look strained and somewhat inept, as when he straightens a portrait of his father that is hanging on a wall: “Ah, cleft by a crooked crack. I can’t have a crooked father in my house … There was a crooked man and he walked a crooked mile …” He may deserve better than being ridiculed by saying: “Rejoyce, Mrs Joyce, no longer joyless or juiceless but joyful juicy Mrs Joyce” (chortling). For all I know, he may have been practising his Finnegans Wake phrases on his family: “They leap so looply as they as they link to light”, but the existence of an “eyeful hoyth entowerly” in his book does not make it plausible that he would try it out on his surroundings: “Ah, you’re getting an eyefull of the Eiffel Tower, Mr Beckett.”
Nora speaks in a strange idiom that is hardly justified by her Galway background. Giorgio Joyce in his later life (as in his attendance at the first Dublin Symposium in 1967) was known, and not only by myself, for his terse and gruff manner of speaking. It cannot be proved that in his youth he was not able to launch into long harangues with remarks on, say, Picasso or Gertrude Stein; they just don’t sound very convincing. That is even more true of Beckett, whose characteristic concision had apparently not yet been developed in his Paris days.
Lucia’s speech is generally nondescript but occasionally interspersed with quotations. She obviously has read her Ulysses thoroughly, for otherwise she could not have thought of “composing a ballet in which I would perform a drowning sailor saved by white-maned seahorses”. There is of course no reason why the daughter of James Joyce, who delighted in Protean changes, should not have turned his “whitemaned seahorses” in Ulysses, a mythological term for the crests of waves, into actual horses capable of saving sailors.
Then there is Carl Gustav Jung, who is conducting his analysis with untypical aggression. He opens it with a blunt question: “You shared a bedroom with your father until you were eighteen. How did you change your clothes?”, which appears a gambit unlikely to gain any delicate patient’s confidence. Psychoanalysts tend to listen rather than utter provocations like “Your father didn’t let the lack of money stop him, did he?” It is even less plausible that a staid, respectable Swiss doctor would come out with “Stop buggering around and blaming other things”, even assuming he would have been familiar with the idiom at the time.
The novel is mistaken in claiming that in July 1929 “Ulysses sat proudly in all of the best bookshops, making Mama glow with pleasure.” In fact the book could only be bought in Sylvia Beach’s shop in Paris. But such pedantry and subjective quibbling are beside the point in a novel. For all the factual implausibilities listed above, The Joyce Girl could be a fascinating story. In her acknowledgment, the author emphasises that she has “imagined Lucia’s thoughts and feelings throughout. Hence this is a novel of the imagination not a work of fact.” Artists are free to take liberties and twist facts, as Joyce himself did without qualms, and a novel is to be judged on its own artistic value. Even so, when the subject of a work of art includes James Joyce it may not be too exorbitant to expect a modicum of competence and skill. It is on this count that the novel falls short as a piece of writing. What is factually questionable is not made up by imaginative radiance, especially if the subject is a woman of exceptional talents.
Some genuine empathy with Joyce’s unfortunate daughter no doubt shines through, and her disappointments and frustrations are a tragic story to read, but the story as we have it does not vibrate and is not the “compelling and moving” account that one blurb on the back cover claims. Though sprinkled with sprightly quotes and echoes, the tale remains unexciting, drab and monotonous, devoid of tension in spite of disasters and setbacks. Judging from the prose, dragging and often nondescript, it is hard to see how a Lucia of such a limp style without rhythm could have been a gifted and nimble dancer. In an erotic scene with Beckett ‑ “His warmth spread into me like a hot water bottle. I moved closer to him until it felt as though our bodies were melting into each other” ‑ the humour does not look intentional. Some articulations are unfortunate ‑ “Beckett moved towards the door, blushing ferociously” ‑ and many passages read as though they were meant as parody: “I ground my teeth with exasperation” or “I said through gritted teeth”. Lucia has a dominant awareness of her own body. “A small sob rose in my throat” in a self-description may be meant seriously, but the phrase recalls a cliché in the depiction of Gerty MacDowell in Ulysses, who “ … fought back the sob that rose in her throat”. That sobs have a way of rising in throats does not make them more striking.
A persistent confusion between outside and inside may grate on some susceptibilities. It is appropriate when “Doctor Jung nods and chews thoughtfully on his thumb”, for that is how he might appear to his patient, but the perspective is awkward when Lucia writes about herself “I gave another pensive sigh”. To give a pensive sigh is to set up a pose, as it is intended in “I was about to give a nonchalant shrug”, and Lucia is indeed quite a poser throughout. “I chewed absently on my thumbnail” is either a studied attitude or a sketch gone askew, for someone really chewing “absently” is hardly aware of it.
It would have been a real challenge for a writer to evoke the growing awareness and the constricting horror of a mind becoming disturbed, but to designate the looming madness and disintegration as a “monster” or “beast” will hardly make it a vibrant experience, as in a scene that may have been intended as a shattering climax.
My breath was coming in stabs now, making rasping noises from deep within my throat. And suddenly the she-beast burst from her cage and I started howling like a wild animal. I threw my head back and howled so loudly people everywhere stopped and stared. I felt my eyes rolling in their sockets like the eyes of a startled horse, white and panicked.
A Joyce girl, of all possible authoresses, immensely tragic as her life was, might be more careful with words that her father handled so well.
Fritz Senn is director of the Zurich James Joyce Foundation.