Feb. 2, 2008

Strings in the earth and air
  Make music sweet;
Strings by the river where
  The willows meet.

There's music along the river
  For Love wanders there,
Pale flowers on his mantle,
  Dark leaves on his hair.

All softly playing,
  With head to the music bent,
And fingers straying
  Upon an instrument.

"I" by James Joyce, from Collected Poems. © Viking. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of James Joyce, (books by this author) born in Rathgar, a suburb of Dublin (1882). He only wrote four books of fiction in his life, but they're all considered masterpieces: Dubliners (1914), A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939).

He was born into a middle-class family, but his father was a heavy drinker and couldn't hold a job. They moved from house to house in Dublin, each one smaller and cheaper than the last, until by the time James was a teenager they were almost living in poverty. He went to Catholic schools, and he considered becoming a priest, but decided instead to go to college to study languages and literature.

Joyce almost became a professional singer. He came from a musical family and learned piano as a child. Whenever he went to social gatherings in Dublin, he would entertain the guests by singing traditional Irish ballads, and he even sang in a few local concerts. When he was 21 years old, he still wasn't sure what to do with his life, and he entered a national tenor competition in Dublin. He pawned some books so he could pay the entrance fee, and then spent weeks taking voice lessons and learning songs. He ended up getting third place in the competition, and the judge recommended that he study music seriously. Joyce considered taking lessons from the best teacher in Dublin, but he finally decided that if he was going to be spending most of his time alone in a room, he would rather be writing stories than doing voice exercises.

Joyce thought that to become a truly great writer he would have to escape Ireland, which was still under British control at the time. He went to live on the Continent, first in Paris and then in Trieste. He wrote: "I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, 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. ... I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too."

His first work of fiction was the book of short stories Dubliners (1914). After he finished that he started writing the autobiographical novel that would become A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). The process took 10 years, but the novel established Joyce as one of the best writers of his generation. It tells the story of the childhood and adolescence of Stephen Dedalus, who rejects an offer to become a priest so that he can try to become a writer. The book was revolutionary for its style: When Stephen is a small child, Joyce uses short simple sentences, and as Stephen grows older the language becomes more complex to reflect his growing maturity.

Joyce spent seven years writing his next novel, Ulysses, which many people consider to be his greatest work. He wrote most of it in Zurich during World War I. He would stay out late at night at cafés and bars, sleep late into the morning, and then spend the day writing and giving English lessons. He gathered the material for Ulysses from his own life. He based most of his characters on his friends and family members, and the story's action takes place in real places in Dublin. During the years he was writing Ulysses, friends would get angry with him because he always directed conversations toward the topic he happened to be writing about that day, hoping to steal their ideas. He carried around dozens of small slips of paper in his wallet, and he would make tiny notes on them throughout the day. The next morning, he would decipher his notes with a magnifying glass, and then decide where to include them in the novel.

Ulysses is about a day in the life of two Dublin men - Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, a middle-aged Jewish man whose wife is cheating on him. The two men go about their daily business and finally meet each other at the end of the day. One of the climactic moments comes when Bloom and Dedalus urinate together in Bloom's backyard. Joyce used Homer's Odyssey to come up with the elaborate structure for the novel, and he envisioned Bloom as a modern-day Odysseus - but instead of being lost at sea for 10 years and returning home to a faithful wife, Bloom wanders around Dublin for a day and returns home to an unfaithful wife.

Ulysses is famous for being one of the first works of fiction to make extensive use of internal monologue. Many chapters consist almost entirely of a character's thoughts, with no narrator to help the reader make sense of them. At one point, Bloom is sitting drinking wine in a restaurant and remembers one of the first times he kissed his wife, who he knows is now having an affair with another man:

"Ravished over her I lay, full lips full open, kissed her mouth. Yum. ... Young life, her lips that gave me pouting. Soft, warm, sticky gumjelly lips. Flowers her eyes were, take me, willing eyes. Pebbles fell. She lay still. ...Screened under ferns she laughed warmfolded. Wildly I lay on her, kissed her; eyes, her lips, her stretched neck, beating, woman's breasts full in her blouse of nun's veiling. ...She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed my hair. Kissed, she kissed me. Me. And me now."

Joyce set the action of Ulysses on June 16, 1904 as a tribute to the love of his life, Nora Barnacle, since it was on that day that they had their first date. Joyce had first seen Nora 10 days earlier, walking down a Dublin street. She was tall and beautiful, and Joyce approached her and asked her out on a date. They were supposed to meet on June 14, but she stood him up. Joyce wrote her a note that said, "I may be blind. I looked for a long time at a head of reddish-brown hair and decided it was not yours. I went home quite dejected." She agreed to go on a walk with him two days later, on June 16, 1904. Today, June 16 is known in Ireland as Bloomsday, and thousands of people come to Dublin every year to celebrate Joyce and visit the sites mentioned in Ulysses.

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  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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