Feb. 2, 2012
Autopsy in the Form of an Elegy
In the chest
in the heart
was a vessel
was the pulse
was the art
was the love
was the clot
small and slow
and the scar
that could not know
the rest of you
was very nearly perfect.
It's the birthday of James Joyce (books by this author), born in Dublin (1882), who said, "The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works." Joyce wrote Ulysses (1922) and Finnegan's Wake (1939); an autobiographical novel, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (1916); and a short-story collection, Dubliners (1914), among other works.
He was educated by Jesuits, first visited a prostitute at the age of 14, dropped out of medical school and aspired to be an opera star. He met and fell in love with a Galway hotel maid named Nora Barnacle when he was 22 years old, and he set the action of Ulysses on the day he had his first date with Nora, June 16, 1904. It's now commemorated all over the world each year as Bloomsday, after the novel's protagonist, Leopold Bloom.
Shortly after meeting Nora, he convinced her to leave Ireland with him and elope to continental Europe. He thought he'd lined up a teaching job as a language instructor, but that fell through, and he ended up working at a bank in Rome for a while. They were forever impoverished and constantly relying on Joyce's brother Stanislaus for money.
They had a son, Giorgio, and after that James and Nora slept head to foot, an attempt at birth control. It didn't seem to be an effective form, though, and Nora became pregnant with Lucia about a year after giving birth to Giorgio. Joyce was a doting father, liked to spoil his kids, never punished either one and once told an interviewer, "Children must be educated by love, not punishment."
Nora was famously apathetic toward her husband's writing. Joyce worked at night and laughed so loudly at his own words that Nora would get up and tell him to stop writing and stop laughing so that she could get a bit of sleep. Shortly after Ulysses (Joyce pronounced it "Oolissays") was published, she remarked to a fan of his: "I've always told him he should give up writing and take up singing." Ulysses took seven years of unbroken labor, which translated into 20,000 hours of work.
Joyce was afraid of thunder and lightning — during electrical storms, he would hide under bedcovers — and he was also afraid of dogs, and walked around town with rocks in his pockets in case he encountered any roaming mutts. He didn't care for the arts other than music and literature, and he especially had no patience for art like painting. Over his desk he kept a photograph of a statue of Penelope (from Greek mythology, the wife of Odysseus/Ulysses) and a photograph of a man from Trieste, whom Joyce wouldn't name but said was the model for Leopold Bloom. On his desk he had a tiny bronze statue of a woman lying back in a chair with a cat draped over her shoulders. All of his friends told him it was ugly, but he kept it on his desk anyway. One of his Parisian friends remarked, "He had not taste, only genius."
Joyce liked to drink and he liked to dance; his daughter-in-law said that "liquor went to his feet, not head." He usually sat with his legs crossed with the toe of one crossed again under the calf of the other. He was kind and generous to strangers, and he was known to invite waiters to join him at his table for food and drink. His friend, Sylvia Beach, proprietor of Shakespeare and Co., said that Joyce "treated people invariably as his equals, whether they were writers, children, waiters, princesses, or charladies. What anybody had to say interested him; he told me that he had never met a bore. ... If he arrived in a taxi, he wouldn't get out until the driver had finished what he was saying. Joyce himself fascinated everybody; no one could resist his charm."
James Joyce said, "The artist, like the God of the Creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®