A portrait of James Joyce as an artist

The Irish writer derived from the past to illuminate the present.

 |  9-minute read |   02-02-2018
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James Joyce was born in Dublin on this day in 1882.

When an Oxford man told Henry James that he eagerly wanted to do the best he could with his pen, James quipped, if his intentions are serious then "there is one word — let me impress upon you — which you must inscribe upon your banner, and that word is loneliness".

In case of Irish novelist, poet and dramatist James Joyce (1882-1941), loneliness (he worked sixteen hours a day on Ulysses) that came along with his choice of profession bore little monetary fruits, not at least in his lifetime — his royalties were meagre and his struggle for recognition was long. Joyce was no Flaubert, Tolstoy or Toulouse-Lautrec with aristocratic background that he would have continued with his artistic occupation without worrying about the returns. For he relied on his writing to support his family. His letters suggest that he was struggling to make ends meet throughout his life, and often wrote to his brother and others for loans.

james-jo-690_020218034952.jpgJames Joyce was widely misunderstood by readers. Photo: DailyO

Despite this lack of financial stability, he managed to establish his reputation as the most influential writer during the first half of the 20th century. But his career was marred by censorship, rejections from publishers, attacks by carping critics who made a scapegoat out of him because they could not understand his material. And if that was not enough, he was widely misunderstood by readers.

Irishness and Parnell

To understand Joyce and his works (particularly A Portrait), it is imperative to acquaint oneself with the Irish psyche of those days. Ireland, which is still a predominantly Catholic country, was witnessing the enigmatic rise of politician Charles Steward Parnell, who was a Protestant landlord. Parnell was the leading politician working for the Irish Nationalist cause in the British Parliament.

A revolution in land ownership took place in the country during this period, around the same time she also took upon herself to revive its lost language and culture. Parnell was being seen as the saviour on a white horse, who would lead Ireland to the right path. Surprisingly, Parnell and Catholic hierarchy were working in tandem, which strengthened the development of Irish nationalism. There was a new hope among the young of Ireland and Joyce too, adored this inspiring leadership of Parnell. But due to a private scandal involving Parnell and wife of one of the members of his party, all these hopes and Parnell's prestige came crashing down.

One of the short stories in Dubliners (1914), titled "Ivy Day in the Committee Room", features an adroitly written poem on the occasion of Parnell's death, with which the story culminates. Joyce seems to have taken out his angst for those who betrayed Parnell including Roman Catholic Church with this literary effort — which also happens to be Joyce's favourite story among his own.

irish_020218034817.jpgThe Death Of Parnell

The Portrait too, shows the influence Parnell and the Irish situation had on Joyce. The first chapter, where Stephen protests against injustice he is subjected to at school, suggests Joyce had Parnell on mind. The dramatic Christmas dinner scene in the novel involving a vivid argument too suggests how the long-awaited hope for Ireland's independence took a blow with the downfall of Parnell. Towards the end of the novel, an angry Stephen says to Davin: "Do you know what Ireland is? ...Ireland is the old saw that eats her farrow."

Making of an artist

Joyce was the eldest son among the ten children of a Catholic Irish family, which was constantly on the move due their alcoholic father's habit of taking credit and not returning it. Between 1888 and 1902, Joyce, who was interested in poetry, Latin and other languages, attended two schools and later received his bachelor's degree from the Dublin College of the Royal University, where he studied philosophy and languages.

He then lived in Paris, where he had wished to study medicine but could not do so because they wanted fees to be paid in advance. Small remittances from his family and remunerations that he received for reviewing books allowed Joyce to stay in Paris, where he spent his time mostly reading in public libraries. He had to return home in 1903 when his mother was on her deathbed. But he stayed in Dublin for less than a year.

Aged 22, he again set out for Paris in 1904, this time with his lover Nora Barnacle whom he married only in 1931 for "testamentary reasons". One can find such fragments of his life directly and indirectly weaved in his first novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). All his life, Joyce lived in self-imposed exile from Ireland and Catholic faith: from France, he went to Italy, then lived in Zurich, Switzerland during the two world wars.

A Portrait is not a straight autobiography. The original version of the novel is Stephen Hero (posthumously published in 1944), which Joyce had rejected. Joyce had made significant changes in the character of Stephen Dedalus in his revised version. A Portrait takes us through Stephen's development as a child, which grows into isolation of adolescence and later recognition of true vocation, and then comes finally his declaration of creed of freedom.

Dublin: the muse

All his life Joyce tried to escape Dublin, yet he wrote only about it. Joyce has depicted the Dublin life in Dubliners with great adroitness, understanding and wit. The remarkable quality about these short stories is the simplicity with which Joyce has described the cultural life of his native city. The reader would find this simplicity missing in his later works. The reason for this transition is the complex nature of his later works, particularly Finnegans Wake (1939) and Ulyssess (1922). His pared-down style, short sentences and simple forthcomings in Dubliners are enjoyable. Also, the way he managed to capture the complexity of experience and sensations offered by city-life of Dublin is admirable.

james-joyce-dss_020218035222.jpgJames Joyce's portrait as graffiti in Italy, by pupetgram and o_taxis/Instagram. 

Interestingly, Joyce's insistence on calling Dublin's residents by their name and using local landmarks in the collection, delayed the publication of Dubliners. The theme of entrapment -bondage in marriage, a father making his son the victim of his frustrations — that he had employed in some of the stories in this collection, has been more broadly explored by him in his play Exiles (1918).

Setting again is Dublin. Exiles is seen as continuation of the artistic genius of Joyce - it falls under the period when he was beginning with Ulysses and had already completed A Portrait. The play lacks exuberance of the Joycean world that is quite evident throughout Joyce's fiction writing, barring Finnegans Wake. The play is considered important because it was his "last portrait of the artist as a man". Through the central character of Richard Rowan (an Irish writer), Joyce again explores the conscience of the artist. And we are told that Richard depends solely on his intellectual and emotional values. He pursues his art with single-heartedness and integrity. He has returned from Italy to Dublin with his family. He is admired by both Robert (newspaper editor) and Beatrice (Robert's cousin and music teacher) who are seeking self-fulfilment. Both have somewhat compromised within themselves and with the world. So, they cling together. Bertha (Richard's wife) is devoted to her husband but she doesn't understand his aesthetic standards and his ethics. Richard feels that Beatrice understands his work and ideas, thus, develops an interest in her.

He feels that he can even use her character in his current novel. Meanwhile, Bertha is living a trapped life with Richard, who cares for his work alone. Her frustration leads her to give baffled acceptance to Robert's gesture of courtship. And she even answers Richard truthfully, when he questions her about Robert. Towards the end, Richard, Bertha and Robert confront each other. Joyce has given this play a negative conclusion.

Joyce, the obscure

Joyce called Ulysses "a modern Odyssey". The book is set on Joyce's first date with Nora on June 16, 1904, which is now celebrated as Bloomsday by his fans. The novel is all about exploration of the thoughts and capturing of multitude impressions of the waking mind during the course of a day in Dublin. According to Richard Ellmann's biography of Joyce, "Ulysses can be approached from a whole number of directions. One of the best is through an awareness about Joyce's life."

The Homeric parallels cannot be ignored though. One critic called the novel "a comic epic poem in prose", other called it "a triumphant piece of "realism" — a book convincingly about "real" people in an actual city, presented with such a regard for detail that would have made a French naturalist envious." The book remained suppressed for a considerable period of time due to censorship for its "pornographic" nature.

In pursuit of Impressionism, Joyce pioneered "stream of consciousness" technique, which he used in a limited capacity in A Portrait. Later, in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, he used this technique extensively. According to psychological principle of association, "This technique is a process, in which, a series of thoughts or images, one leading to the next, are joined in what may, in simpler terms, be called a 'train of thought'". Virginia Woolf used this technique later in novels like Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). Joyce's friend Samuel Beckett, who like him left Dublin for Paris, used the technique in all his novel.

Joyce arrived at Finnegans Wake in pursuit of his own course of art. He began exploiting a dream-like language for this novel. The novel, which took him 16 years to complete, attempts to create "a total world of nightmare fantasies and half-conscious dream sensations experienced in the sleeping mind during an interval which stretches out to enclose all spheres of space and time."

Success is counted sweetest to…

Joyce did write some poems and his lyrics were such that they could be sung. But poetry clearly was not his forte.

Joyce was a modernist with a sensibility which was largely European than Irish. He had a deep interest in European literature. He had preoccupied himself with the general intellectual climate created by the like of TS Eliot, Ezra Pound and others that called for experimentation, stylistic innovation, creation of new and meaningful form of expression. Joyce owes to Ibsen, partly to Zola and Flaubert for shaping his literary course. He adopted French Symbolism, but he established his moorings in realist tradition, in an island which he had thoroughly explored. He also kept experimenting with impressionism and naturalism.

The remarkable quality about Joyce is that he derived from the past to illuminate the present. Ulysses is a great example of how he used an ancient epic to great effect to describe the contemporary reality of his time. It was due to his single-mindedness dedication towards his writing that he succeeded as an artist. Joyce had set out to create a conscience, and he succeeded in creating one. He passed away in January 1941 in Zurich. His family had to borrow money to bury him.

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M Saad

Delhi-based freelance journalist.

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