James Joyce is one of the greatest writers who ever lived. His novels and short stories, as well as his life, continue to fascinate more than 70 years after his death. Like all good Irishmen the tales of his life are clouded by legend.
The groundbreaking psychologist Carl Jung, who was treating Joyce’s daughter Lucia for schizophrenia, said that father and daughter were both heading to the bottom of a river, except that James was diving and Lucia was sinking.
His wife Nora told this story:
“I go to bed and then that man sits in the next room and continues laughing about his own writing. And then I knock at the door, and I say, now Jim, stop writing or stop laughing.”
My favorite story about Joyce concerns his legendary struggles in producing his astounding art. From Stephen King’s highly recommended book On Writing:
According to the story, a friend came to visit him one day and found the great man sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of utter despair.
“James, what’s wrong? The friend asked. “Is it the work?”
Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at the friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?
“How many words did you get today?” the friend pursued.
Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk): “Seven.”
“Seven? But James…that’s good, at least for you!”
“Yes,” Joyce said, finally looking up. “I suppose it is…but I don’t know what orderthey go in!”
Joyce’s first novel was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and contains glorious prose like this, from one of the young man’s memories:
Eileen had long thin cool white hands too because she was a girl. They were like ivory; only soft. That was the meaning of Tower of Ivory but protestants could not understand it and made fun of it. One day he had stood beside her looking into the hotel grounds. A waiter was running up a trail of bunting on the flagstaff and a fox terrier was scampering to and fro on the sunny lawn. She had put her hand into his pocket where his hand was and he had felt how cool and thin and soft her hand was. She had said that pockets were funny things to have: and then all of a sudden she had broken away and had run laughing down the sloping curve of the path. Her fair hair had streamed out behind her like gold in the sun. Tower of Ivory. House of Gold. By thinking of things you could understand them.
One of the feats a great writer can perform is the shock of recognition, when a character reveals traits that readers thought was unique to them. This description of youthful anticipation about first love should be recognizable to anyone who cares to remember that tender time of life:
Sometimes a fever gathered within him and led him to rove alone in the evening along the quiet avenue. The peace of the gardens and the kindly lights in the windows poured a tender influence into his restless heart. The noise of children at play annoyed him and their silly voices made him feel, even more keenly than he had felt at Clongowes [his school], that he was different from others. He did not want to play. He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld. He did not know where to seek it or how, but a premonition which led him on told him that this image would, without any overt act of his, encounter him. They would meet quietly as if they had known each other and had made their tryst, perhaps at one of the gates or in some more secret place. They would be alone, surrounded by darkness and silence: and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured.
He would fade into something impalpable under her eyes and then in a moment he would be transfigured. Weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall from him in that magic moment.