Breaking Up with James Joyce
‘The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole Life to reading my works.’
I never thought I’d say it.
After more than forty years.
I mean, what’s in it for me?
You get all the attention.
I’ll keep the academics guessing for the next hundred years, you said.
And you were right.
In the meantime, I am left behind, having misspent my youth lost in your labyrinth, my looks squandered, alone with a pile of indecipherable books. Abandoned, just as you abandoned Nora in a park in Paris after your elopement from Ireland.
I wonder now why I ever wanted to be your friend in the first place. Reflected glory, no doubt. The need to be seen hanging around with an Important Man. A Literary Giant.
You always believed that thirteen was an unlucky number. Typical superstitious Irishman. Perhaps you were right. Thirteen is the number of years I’ve spent reading your final work. And I’m still only up to page 203.
You were right again when you suggested one of the alternative titles for Finnegans Wake:
How a Guy Finks and Fawkes When He Is Going Batty.
Maybe you were going batty.
Maybe you always were batty.
And maybe you’ve sent me batty along the way.
When you left Ireland you said you wanted to fly the nets, free yourself, non serviam, you said. I will not serve.
And yet as you flew free, you left in your wake a gigantic net that thousands upon thousands have got caught up in. All of whom serve you. Networks, newsletters, conferences, symposiums, theses, dissertations, papers, institutes, foundations, centres, theatre pieces, adaptations, musicals, chapters, articles, essays, films, online elucidations, and hundreds upon hundreds of books. To which I vowed I would never add a word.
I offer you now, my broken vow.
Your (Once) Devoted Reader.
My son was nine when a professional man in a suit asked: ‘And what does your mother do?’
Without hesitation, he answered: ‘She works for James Joyce.’
Over the years, my son has heard a lot from his mother’s overbearing boss. On the way home from school he heard readings of Ulysses on the car cassette deck, around the kitchen table he heard discussions of Finnegans Wake, and in the lounge room he heard rehearsals for Bloomsday.
So it was absolutely true that his mother has been in the employ of James Joyce for as long as he could remember. The author has determined my daily work of writing and teaching; he has also provided friends, colleagues, lovers, and once, a husband. Even my social life is arranged around Joyce, anchored each month by a meeting of the Wakers, also known as the Wankers, or, as my daughter refers to them, ‘your boring nerd friends.’ (Or, as the Sydney Morning Herald once accused, ‘the most pretentious book club in Sydney’.)
In many ways, Joyce has been my longest long-term relationship. We met when I was sixteen and have been sweethearts ever since. I would have liked to say that about a living man, the way famous writers do in their acknowledgements of their latest novel, thanking their ‘loving husband, without whose unceasing patience and support etc,etc’. For years I thought it was their fault – the blokes. Until I realised how annoying it must be to live in the shadow of another man, and a dead one at that.
‘Writers are a scourge for those they cohabit with,’ says Edna O’Brien in her book on James Joyce. In public, Joyce’s manners were impeccable and his letters demonstrate a remarkable courteousness but at home, it was very different. Quite apart from the regular drinking binges, his life was driven by his one-eyed obsession to fulfil his destiny and there was perhaps only one woman in the world who could have put up with the selfishness that such a vocation entailed. Joyce had a knack for picking up just what he needed. ‘Chance furnishes me with what I need,’ he wrote, ‘I’m like a man who stumbles; my foot strikes something, I look down, and there is exactly what I need.’ Nora Barnacle was the most important chance stumble of his life.
The truth is that there would be no Joyce without the three women who supported him: Nora, his life-long partner, Sylvia Beach, the first publisher of Ulysses, and Harriet Shaw Weaver, his benefactor. Lover, publisher and salary provider. Chance indeed furnished him with exactly what he needed. So he certainly doesn’t need another handmaiden in the form of a small-time Australian essayist. But for some reason, I need him.
‘Is Finnegans Wake really important?’ my student asked me a few years ago. He was from India, sent to Australia for his education at great expense by his parents. I felt sorry for him so I had invented some cash-in-hand filing work, much of which involved compiling notes, essays, articles, emails and letters in relation to Finnegans Wake. Now he was daring to ask whether the book I’d spent much of my adult life devoted to was really of any importance.
‘Yes!’ I snapped back immediately, appalled that he dared to doubt my enterprise. But then I realised I couldn’t really explain why. And perhaps that’s where my doubts began. More than doubts. Like so many before me, I have come to realise that there is a reason why Joyce’s nickname is Mr Difficulty.
Novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder was a serious Wake enthusiast and for years corresponded with Adaline Glasheen, a housewife turned Wakean scholar, until finally, in October of 1959, he confessed:.
I’m writing you with a mixture of sorrow and relief. I’m giving up Finnegans Wake… The straws that have been breaking this camel’s back are the increasing realisation that it’s TOO DIFFICULT.
One of the first and most important Wakean scholars was an Australian named Clive Hart. Like my family, he was from Western Australia. I tracked him down when he was well into retirement, hoping he might provide a clue, given he had written one of the definitive texts: Structures and Motifs in Finnegans Wake. Instead, he too had joined the army of defeated.
‘After forty years of reading the Wake I felt like I wasn’t really getting anywhere,’ he emailed me. A year later he died.
Is there something about the Wake, I wondered, that drives people to their graves? Edmund Lloyd Epstein, who spent his life reading Joyce and produced A Guide Through Finnegans Wake, the most comprehensive handbook to date, died three years after its publication. Joyce died just two years after the first edition of Finnegans Wake was published in 1939. Perhaps there is a message in that. Beware of finishing Finnegans Wake. It may well finish you.
The fact is that, for most people, finishing Finnegans Wake is not an eventuality they need fear. Few who are adventurous enough to open the book actually make it through to the end because, as Seamus Deane says, ‘The first thing to say about Finnegans Wake is that it is, in an important sense, unreadable.’ And in any case, the end isn’t really the end. The final sentence reads: ‘A way a lone a last a loved a long the’
Who ever ended a book with the word ‘the’?
This is not the first time I’ve broken up with Joyce. A couple of years ago I decided we were in a co-dependent relationship. Except how could that be true if I was the only dependent one? So perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I’ve tried to give up the dependency. I used to call myself a Joycean. Now I realise I’m more of a Joyceaholic.
This time I have decided to go cold turkey. Some might think that travelling to Ireland in order to give up an Irishman is just asking for trouble. But I see it as similar to the alcoholic who has to be comfortable at a table full of rollicking drinkers. The only way I can really give up is by putting myself in the thick of it. So I have taken up a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie House in Country Monaghan to write, ostensibly, the first draft of a manuscript that, for the first time in decades, has nothing to do with James Joyce. I have committed to complete abstinence. I have brought no Joyce books or copies of the James Joyce Quarterly to catch up on. Nor will I engage in any online Finnegans Wake chat groups. I am going get clean.
On my first evening at Tyrone Guthrie House on the Annaghmakerrig estate in Ireland, I sat down at the long table for the communal meal and was immediately introduced to a crime novelist whose name I assumed I had misheard.
‘I beg your pardon?’ I said to the screenwriter from Galway, who was gesturing to the balding, middle-aged man sitting next to me.
‘I said, this is James Joyce’.
I moved my chair closer. It must be a misunderstanding, I thought, or as Joyce puts it, a ‘missed understanding’. Getting things right is something I had learnt not to expect; getting things wrong, Joyce has taught me, is the more natural, more human, and often, more comical way. I should know. I have spent my entire life getting things wrong.
But I hadn’t misheard. The middle-aged gentleman showed me his blue Visa card to prove it: James Joyce.
‘I use a pen name instead,’ he said. He paused. ‘Until recently.’ Just a few months ago, he confessed, he finally came out and wrote an essay about the curse of being a contemporary writer named James Joyce.
Already, I am faced with temptation. Do I break my commitment to abstain from reading, thinking or talking about Joyce? Or do I admit to my table companion that I too feel cursed, but for other reasons. I opened my mouth.
‘Well,’ I said, reaching for the wine and offering to fill his glass, hoping that some bolt of inspiration might rescue me from relapse. My companion waved the bottle away and then cocked his head to one side, asking me to speak up, explaining he had recently suffered sudden and complete hearing loss in one ear.
Immediately I was reminded of the central male character in Finnegans Wake, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, who, like all Wakean characters, has multiple names and identities. Sometimes he is the mythical Irish hero Finn McCool. Sometimes he is an innkeeper. And sometimes he is a lowly insect called an earwig.
Beckett wrote that Joyce believed fervently in the significance of chance events and of random connections. ‘To Joyce reality was a paradigm, an illustration of a possibly unstateable rule… According to this rule, reality, no matter how much we try to manipulate it, can only shift about in continual movement, yet movement limited in its possibilities…’ giving rise to ‘the notion of the world where unexpected simultaneities are the rule.’ In other words, a coincidence such as sitting down to dinner with James Joyce is actually just part of a continually moving pattern, like a kaleidoscope. Or Joyce likes to put it, a ‘collideorscape’.
My house companion is not the only contemporary writer to feel that Joyce’s legacy is a curse. The great man’s shadow falls far and wide and writers, especially Irish ones, continually complain about the effort to crawl out from under it. I am just one of many cowering under his monumental weight. Which was why I realised that adding my own unsophisticated southern-hemisphere thoughts to the gazillion books and articles already written about Joyce was a complete waste of effort. I mean, what more could be said?
And yet here I am, having finally given up on the enterprise altogether, only to find myself seated at a long table with thirteen artists from all over the world – and James Joyce at my side. Surely this has to be a sign. Or at the very least, an ‘unexpected simultaneity’.
I have been allocated the Butler room, named after Hubert Butler, Tyrone Guthrie’s brother-in-law, and the most coveted room in the entire estate. It is actually a number of adjoining rooms; a spacious study with wide bay windows allowing for the best view of the lake, a bedroom closed off with folding doors and a bathroom. Big enough to hold a party.
Despite the jetlag and the wine, I can’t sleep, so some time after midnight I give up and go outside to look up at the northern hemisphere constellation. In rural Monaghan the night sky is clear and I can immediately pick out the starry plough. Even the stars in Ireland have literary connotations. I stared up hoping to see a comet or a shooting star, a sign of some sort, something special I could make a wish on.
For as long as I can remember, I have looked for signs and patterns; anything to help me navigate the impossible map that is the business of living. And I have realised that my attempt to craft a narrative is little more than an attempt to discern patterns. Facing up to the possibility that there is no pattern– no inherent meaning in Joyce’s work or my own – (or at least, only that which, Daedalus-like, we invent) – is deeply disturbing. For thirteen years I’ve been studying, making notes, writing essays, subscribing to James Joyce newsletters, attending symposiums, presenting papers. And suddenly it all seems to no avail. I’ve begun to feel that this belief in signs has led me into a kind of madness and I can’t help wondering whether Joyce’s genius, upon which I have depended for direction, has only encouraged this form of lunacy. Joyce was notorious for his faith in portents, coincidences and numerology, as vulnerable to hocus-pocus as his fairy-watching compatriot Yeats. But maybe there are no patterns in the stars or in life or in literature. And maybe I am just another one of Joyce’s victims left drowning in his mad yet utterly seductive wake.
The next morning, I open my notes with fresh determination. I am going to make a start on the work that I proposed in the residency application – to research and write about the Irish ancestry of satirist John Clarke, including his peculiar connection with W.B. Yeats. Of course, I hadn’t mentioned anything to the Tyrone Guthrie committee about my chronic Joyceaholism. And I never countenanced the idea of revealing to anyone – on the committee or in the house – the real reason for my urgent need to hide away in this remote corner of rural county Monaghan.
All my life I’ve been a bolter. I’ve run away from family, from children, but mostly from men. This time I’ve run away from my Irish boyfriend, the living one, from his alcoholic rages, from his mad possessiveness and jealousy, but mostly from his magnetic attraction. No matter how bad his behaviour, I still desired him, and he desired me, and that was something I couldn’t give up without putting ten thousand miles between us. So Annahmakerrig is also, in a sense, my rehab. From my living Irish lover as well as the dead one.
The next morning I went down to the kitchen to find that Oona had left freshly-baked treacle scones on the breakfast table. The conversation between the viola player from Leipzig and the former Jesuit from Dublin was about Clara Schumann. They were discussing the letters that Robert Schumann wrote from the asylum to his wife. The records from his final years in the psychiatric ward, the viola player reports, had recently been released. She was explaining that Clara had been disowned by her family for marrying Robert, the great love of her life. And that when he died at the age of thirty-two, she was left disinherited with six children to support.
The mention of Schumann triggered the memory of where my Joyce obsession started. In 1977, in the culturally arid climate of the Sutherland shire, my mother managed to find me a gifted piano teacher by the name of Mr Elliott. As we became closer, weekly lessons extending to thrice-weekly, morning teas expanded to lunch, and Mr Elliott became the centre of my intellectual, emotional and creative life.
Then one afternoon, when I opened my piano teacher’s ‘Schumann for the Young’ album, a single sheet of paper slipped into my hands, as if pre-destined. It was the last page of Ulysses:
the day I got him to propose to me . . . first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth… he said I was a flower of the mountain… yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldn’t answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky. . .
The rhapsodic final passage of Joyce’s most famous novel, known as Molly Bloom’s monologue, was my first introduction to the man who was going to accompany me for the next four decades. At the time I was a school drop-out, living between the rumpus room of my mother’s split-level in Sylvania and my piano teacher’s studio. How this extract from Ulysses had travelled to me, like a message in a bottle from 1920s Paris, where Joyce composed his magisterial ending, all the way to a fibro cottage in Caringbah, remains a mystery. There was no book attached; just a scrap of unpunctuated text on a single sheet of paper. My piano teacher set it to music and I sang the words. And therein began my longest literary love affair.
The last page of Ulysses confirmed my youthful idea that there was such a thing as star-crossed lovers. Molly and Leopold were clearly meant for each other. As a young woman I had always imagined I would also find my perfect match, my other half, my ideal partner. And it was this fairy-tale fatalism, this belief in an ideal, that was to lead me down so many ill-fated paths. Boyfriends, lovers and husbands. Too many to count. Each one won and then lost, as I kept blindly searching, convinced that somewhere out there was my perfect fit.
In the final passages of Ulysses the word yes is repeated seventeen times. The ending of the book on the word ‘yes’ also confirmed my belief in the virtue of being open to everything and totally embrace all that was presented to me in life. My mistake, at sixteen, was to take Joyce’s words literally.
May I touch you there?
Can I stay the night?
Will you always love me?
In my enthusiasm to embrace life with Joycean affirmation, I completely forgot how to say no.
Years later I realised how wrong my interpretation of the final page of Ulysses was. While in Dublin for 2004 for the centenary of the original Bloomsday in 1904, I visited the exhibition of Joyce manuscripts in the National Library, peering closely at the last drafts of the final page of Ulysses, with its scribbled insertions, corrections and additions. It was only then, almost thirty years after reading Joyce for the first time, that I noticed a tiny revision to the final paragraph. Seven lines from the very end of the book, Joyce inserts a phrase relatively late in the drafting process. On the handwritten manuscript draft there is a little carrot ∆ and the additional phrase to Molly’s monologue is written in the margin:
and I thought well as well him as another
This is Molly’s deciding moment. After spending the previous page reminiscing about her former lovers and suitors, she finally concludes that Leopold Bloom, the man she is picnicking with on Howth Head, will do as well as any other. And she sets out to make him propose to her. Not because it’s meant to be, or that they were destined for each other, or because he’s her perfect match. Just because they are there under the sun in the late afternoon surrounded by rhododendrons and she might as well marry him as marry anyone else.
Friends have always told me that my problem with men was a problem with choice. I had chosen unwisely. This is undoubtedly true. But here was Molly, the woman I had chosen (also unwisely) as my literary role model, and instead of seriously considering her choice of life partner, she thinks, recklessly, well as well him as another.
Despite finding his own life partner at the tender age of eighteen, Joyce disavowed the romantic ideal of the perfectly matched couple bound by everlasting love. ‘It seems to me,’ he wrote, ‘that a lot of this talk about love is nonsense… the lying drivel about pure men and pure women and spiritual love and love forever… blatant lying in the face of truth.’
His friend Arthur Power described Joyce as an anti-romantic, a realist, determined to see, accept and write about things exactly as they are. His work is based on memory, rather than imagination. ‘We are gradually becoming aware that every situation, description, and scrap of dialogue in his works was remembered, rather than imaginatively ‘created’, wrote Clive Hart. In fact, as a writer he was more of an arranger than an inventor. ‘His method of composition,’ says his biographer Richard Ellman, involved ‘the imaginative absorption of stray material. The method did not please Joyce very much because he considered it not imaginative enough, but it was the only way he could work.’
The real world provided Joyce with all the material that he needed. Characters were almost always based on someone he’d met, knew or heard about. The Real People of Joyce’s Ulysses: A Biographical Guide, a meticulously researched 2016 publication has 600 entries. ‘This compendium of biographies,’ wrote the author Vivien Igoe, ‘reinforces the perception of Joyce as a historian and faithful chronicler of his native city.’ Although Ulysses may be a tremendous work of imagination, it is also a novel that is utterly committed to reality.
Over the last couple of years, for reasons I’d rather not disclose, I have learnt a thing or two about how rehabs work. An alcoholic or an ice-user, for example, will be asked to examine what it was that first got her hooked. In my case it was Molly’s monologue, the music of it, but I’ve since realised that there was something else in that passage, implied in Molly’s words, that I found deeply attractive. And that was Joyce’s attitude towards sin.
According to Ellman, Joyce’s view of sin was influenced by Hermann Suderman’s play Magda: ‘Magda’s philosophy of life may well have helped to shape Joyce’s. As she says, “And one thing more, my friend – sin! We must sin if we wish to grow. To become greater than our sins is worth more than all the purity you preach.”’
I grew up in a profoundly atheist household and for that reason some might assume I was immune to the concept of contravening God’s laws. But Christians of any kind, even apostates, are never free of the spectre of sin. And growing up with my father, a political activist, was not unlike growing up with a preacher. He lectured so incessantly about corruption and global inequality that it was impossible not to end up feeling somehow complicit. And although my father lived his life as a libertine, a free spirit and an advocate of ‘free love’, in the end it was his sense of guilt and shame that killed him. His suicide note was clear; the weight of his sins was simply too much to bear.
So when I discovered Joyce I found his attitude towards guilt liberating. Sin was an integral part of being human, not something to be excised. We must sin if we wish to grow. And certainly Joyce set forth boldly to sin from an early age, visiting his first brothel at the age of fourteen, an experience that was fictionalised in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. At the end of that book’s second chapter, Stephen describes the ‘swoon of sin’ he experiences with a prostitute, ‘surrendering himself to her, body and mind, conscious of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of her softly parting lips.’
After my father died I wrote a book about him to console myself. But it didn’t console my sister. She never spoke to me again. What I wrote wasn’t her version of him, her experience, her reality. By writing my version I had owned our father. He belonged to me. And she never forgave me. Do women really spend their lives fighting for male attention? All I know is that grief can bring out the worst in families.
The song Finnegan’s Wake from which Joyce borrowed the title for his final work tells the story of Tim Finnegan, a labourer who gets drunk, falls off a ladder, hits his head and dies. At his wake, Tim’s friends and family start quarrelling, a fight breaks out and whiskey is spilt, accidentally splashing onto the corpse. This creates a kind of reverse baptism and immediately brings the dead man back to life.
In this simple story lies the Wake’ s most important theme – the fall of humankind. Tim’s fall from the ladder symbolises all falls: Adam’s fall, Lucifer’s fall, the fall of Rome, Humpty-Dumpty’s fall, the Wall Street crash, as well as every person’s daily falls from grace, be they small embarrassments or major humiliations.
For many years I failed to understand why Joyce’s concept of the fall was so meaningful to me. Now I realise that Tim Finnegan was almost a cartoon version of my own father who had also climbed a ladder and fallen to his death, after stringing a rope to a roof beam. A fall, the Black Tuesday stock market crash of 1987, had also caused my father’s demise. But in failing to forgive himself, he had also failed to understand the essential human condition. Because, as Joyce points out, fall and failure are intimately connected, etymologically, as well as existentially.
The next morning, I promised myself that if I worked for three hours I could reward myself with a long walk into Newbliss, the nearby village, and buy myself a Guinness. Throughout my career, if you could call it that, I have often practised bribery as a form of self-discipline and it usually worked. I managed to avoid checking my watch until late morning but then caught myself stealing a glimpse of the clock on my MacBookAir: 11.32.
Help! Is there nowhere I can look that doesn’t reflect back some aspect of Joyce?
The numbers 1132 or 3211 recur in Finnegans Wake in reference to the science of falling objects. Thirty-two feet per second per second (32/1/1) is the rate at which objects accelerate while falling. Here is how it works: when you throw something out of a window, it begins by falling at a certain speed but as the fall continues, the speed increases. Which is why you can’t commit suicide by throwing yourself out of a one-storey window but why you will if you throw yourself out of a thirty-storey window. Because as you fall, your rate of falling increases. After the first second your speed will be 32 feet per second, at the end of the second second it will be 64 feet per second, with the velocity changing continuously over those seconds. The further you fall, the faster you fall, until the second you hit the ground: splat.
Perhaps like my father, I hadn’t realised how fast I was falling. Even after all these years of reading the Wake, I still hadn’t learned the basic equation: to be human is to be fallen.
‘First you feel,’ says Joyce, ‘and then you fall.’
[This is an excerpt from Breaking Up with James Joyce, a work in progress.]
A Tour of the Darkling Plain: The ‘Finnegans Wake’ Letters of Thornton Wilder and Adaline Glasheen, ed. Edward M. Burns with Joshua Gaylord, 2001
Richard Ellman, James Joyce, 1982
Selected Letters of James Joyce, ed. Richard Ellman
Clive Hart, email to author, 2015
Vivien Igoe, The Real People of Ulyess: A Biographical Guide, 2016
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1922
James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922
James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, 1939 (1992 Penguin edition with introduction by Seamus Deane)
Edna O’Brien, James Joyce, 1996
Arthur Power, Conversations with James Joyce, 1999