Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

Joyce was a giant of letters, but no man of the people

So, did you have a jolly Bloomsday on Sunday? Or did you just read aloud some of the more sexually explicit passages from Ulysses? Writers are keen to turn Bloomsday into a holiday at home and abroad. And writers are exactly the people to celebrate James Joyce and his masterpiece.

Because Joyce was, as a writer, a giant among men. But Joyce shares with Richard Wagner the honour of being a great genius in his work, but, in person, a selfish and not very nice man.

The recent appropriation of Joyce as an Irish icon is particularly off the mark. He drew on Ireland as a source of his creativity, but had scant regard for it.

A recent advertising campaign, suggesting that Joyce's heart had Dublin written on it, is at odds with Joyce's dismissal of Dublin as "the centre of paralysis".

When he was dying in Switzerland in 1941, his wife Nora Barnacle appealed to the Irish envoy in Berne for funds, only to be informed that, unfortunately, Mr Joyce was not a citizen of the Irish state; he had retained his British passport and, thus, it would fall to the Foreign Office to consider the matter of financial assistance.

Joyce often disparaged Ireland and, as one of his biographers notes, he never took the side of nationalism against unionism.

His disdain for the Irish literary revival of the 1900s led him to bite the hand that fed. Lady Gregory helped him out in his young days, but when asked to review one of her books, he slated it.

Joyce fell in love with Galway chambermaid Nora Barnacle and they went off to Paris together, but he always said he loved her for her "untrained" mind.

He benefited from the patronage of women, who unfailingly championed him. He foretold that the liberation of women would be a major 20th-century cause.

Yet he saw women as creatures of "nature", not of "intellect" and discouraged daughter Lucia, admittedly mentally afflicted, from taking up a career as a dancer.

The Joyces were nearly always poor and Joyce could not provide for his family, though he did try madcap schemes, involving cinemas, theatre productions and even a musical career.

Sometimes, Nora would take in washing to keep food on the table. They moved between Trieste, Zurich and Paris and their two children went to 19 different schools. He drank heavily.

So much for James Joyce the family man and the famous Irishman.

It would be hard to say he was, personally, an icon to admire, or to advance as a great example of the Irish character.

(Even iconising him as an emigrant has its problems: you don't want emigrants who write begging letters home.)

But Joyce the writer and the artist: oh, yes, there was something absolutely remarkable. Not only did he produce a string of masterpieces (even if the interpreter who had to translate Finnegan's Wake into German went mad), but he showed that, for the true writer, the only way to live life is with total selfishness.

The work comes first. The family doesn't really matter. Kindness – such as being nice to your dying mother – doesn't matter.

Money doesn't matter: borrow it, cadge it, get others to support you. Drunk or sober doesn't matter.

Politics doesn't matter. Joyce refused to denounce the Nazi invasion of France with the words: "Don't talk to me about politics – all I am interested in is style."

Joyce put his writing above all other considerations. And that is what helped to make him great. Bloomsday, June 16, celebrates that – for writers and artists.

But a world run on James Joyce's values would not be a kind one.

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