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).
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. Due to economic problems, his family was forced 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) respectively. 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 would mainly live between Zurich, Paris and Trieste, where their two children, Giorgio and Lucia, were born.
In 1914, returning to an intuition from a few years earlier, Joyce began writing Ulysses. As the title suggests, the work is ambitious. Joyce looks at Homer, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, and Giambattista Vico to create a gargantuan and cyclical work about the journey into the ordinary and extraordinariness of everyday life, a wandering in the time and space of the twentieth century. The characters consist of an ordinary man, Leopold Bloom, a Jewish advertising canvasser, his wife Molly, and an intellectual, Stephen Dedalus, in which Joyce is reflected. Everything takes place on an ordinary day in 1904, beginning around about 8 a.m. and ending sometime after 2 a.m. the following morning. Instead of witnessing the factual narrative of the unfolding of a day, of the telling of a commonly understood reality, the reader finds himself going through the organic, indefinite and changing dimension within the human mind. The reader looks at reality through the character’s consciousness. In order to bring thought into it, Joyce not only employs a different narrative style for each chapter, but he writes in a stream-of-consciousness technique with careful structuring and experimental prose. The result is a swirling of words that mix and melt in the space of the page just as they mix and melt in the author’s mind. Yet if the alert thoughts of a man and the reality reflected in them are such rich and unpredictable universes, what will happen during a dream?
In his final work, Finnegans Wake (1939), Joyce narrates the experience of sleep and dreams of the character H. C. Earwicker, or rather the night of Ulysses. Joyce managed 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 material, Joyce abandons all narrative conventions and elaborates an idiosyncratic, experimental language with a tendency to transformation that leads to infinite new meanings and understanding. This forest of words can only be read with the spirit of an explorer, abandoning the belief in a single way to read it, and embracing the idea that the primary task of literature is to ensure that everyone understands it in their own way.