By Francesca Panseri

Villerville, Normandy in the 1920s:

One day James Joyce and Nora (Barnacle) walked in. They were looking for their daughter who was in a boarding school somewhere on the coast.

Peggy Guggenheim, Out of This Century (London: Andre Deutsch, 1979), p. 41.

From that moment Peggy Guggenheim had the opportunity to spend time with the Joyce family on many occasions, as she wrote in her autobiography. “I took John [Holmes] to meet Helen Fleischman and Giorgio Joyce. We saw quite a lot of them and often with his parents, James Joyce and Nora. They lived an intense family life and it surprised John, who was so anti-family, that Giorgio should be so tied up with his parents. Lucia Joyce, Giorgio’s sister, was often with them too. She was a sweet girl who was studying dancing. Giorgio had a good bass voice and used to sing for us, frequently with his father, who was a tenor. John enjoyed talking to Joyce but, since he never could have been one of Joyce’s sycophants, the relationship was casual. They had both lived in Trieste, and I remember their reminiscing about the Bora wind, Trieste’s worst evil.” (Out of This Century, p. 99). She also wrote, “That evening we dined at Fouquet’s, where James Joyce gave us an excellent dinner. Joyce inquired a lot about my gallery in London, and as usual was charming and very attractive. He wore a beautiful Irish waistcoat which had belonged to his grandfather.” (Out of This Century, p. 163).

James Joyce. Photo by C. Ruf, Zurich, ca. 1918

Who is James Joyce?
James Joyce (1882–1941) was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, author of an epic two-part linguistically impenetrable landmark work, Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939).

Joyce was born into a large family in 1882 in a suburb of Dublin. The family's precarious finacial situation forced them to move frequently throughout Ireland. He attended a Jesuit college where he had the opportunity to study the Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas, which had a strong influence on him for most of his life. Between 1900 and 1903 he ventured into writing poems and short stories, later included in Chamber Music (1907) and Dubliners (1914). Short stories were his first exercises in modernist experimentalism, which developed above all in the fragmentation of the character’s status. Characters were no longer the unique and resolved beings of nineteenth-century Naturalism, but fluid entities modeled by a plurality of voices and points of view, including that of the reader himself. Moreover, Ireland became the indispensable external and internal territory of Joyce’s poetic exploration. In 1904 he began working on “Stephen Hero” which was later reworked and published with the title A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). In the same year he met his life partner, Nora Barnacle. Together they left Ireland for the continent and from then on mainly lived between Zurich, Paris, and Trieste, where their two children, Giorgio and Lucia, were born.

In 1914, returning to an earlier intuition, Joyce began writing Ulysses. As the title suggests, the work is ambitious. Joyce draws inspiration from Homer, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, and Giambattista Vico to create a gargantuan and cyclical work about a journey into the ordinariness and extraordinariness of everyday life, through the time and space of twentieth-century Ireland. The characters consist of an ordinary man, Leopold Bloom, a Jewish advertising canvasser, his wife Molly, and Stephen Dedalus, an intellectual that reflects Joyce himself. Everything takes place on an ordinary day in 1904, beginning around about 8 am. and ending sometime after 2 am. the following morning. Instead of witnessing the factual narrative of the unfolding of a day, or a description of a commonly perceived reality, the reader finds themself traveling through the organic, indefinite and changing dimensions of the human mind. The reader only sees reality through the character’s consciousness. In order to achieve this, Joyce not only employed a different narrative style for each chapter, but also used in a highly experimental and carefully structured stream-of-consciousness narrative mode. The result is a swirling of words, that merge and melt in the space of a page just as they merge and melt in the author’s mind. However, if the alert thoughts of a man and the reality reflected in them are such rich and unpredictable universes, what will happen during his dreams?

This aspect is explored in his final work, Finnegans Wake (1939), where Joyce narrates the experience of sleep and dreams of his character H. C. Earwicker. Joyce was able to capture sleep psychology as no one had ever done before. He managed to portray the different levels of consciousness of someone asleep through the narration of the events of the day having just ended, the nightmares, the slumber of midnight, and the beginning of awakening the next morning. (Edmund Wilson, The Wound and The Bow [Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1941].) In the dream, life is without form and free from conventions, so that the most elementary impulses are unleashed, revealing previously unexpressed or unutterable thoughts. Yet it does so cryptically, through images and not words. To transmit this dreamlike experience, Joyce abandoned all narrative conventions and elaborated an idiosyncratic, experimental language that transformorms, leading to infinite new meanings and understanding. This forest of words can only be read with the spirit of an explorer, abandoning belief in a single way of reading it, and embracing the idea that the primary task of literature is to ensure that everyone understands it in their own way.

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