“O pa!” he cried. “Don't beat me, pa! And I'll… I’ll say a Hail Mary for you... I'll say a Hail Mary for you, pa, if you don't beat me… I'll say a Hail Mary....”
~ from Dubliners by James Joyce
James Joyce was born on a Thursday - the second of February in 1882 –in Brighton Square, Rathgar, Dublin. His parents, John and May, were a middle-class Irish Catholic couple, were reportedly bad with money and unhappy. James was the first of their ten surviving children, and his childhood was filled with painful memories. A brilliant student, he excelled at Jesuit schools, despite his father's alcoholism and his family’s unpredictable finances. He went on to attend University in Dublin and later began writing and teaching. Joyce bleeds green, and his Irish experiences are at the core of his writings, providing the settings for his fiction. He is best known for writing Ulysses, the massive novel that no publisher would touch and Joyce self-published –it is now considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. Joyce is also known for his heart-wrenching poetry, short-stories and his published letters.
When We Met: I grew up with an Irish Catholic father who loved Joyce and had many of his works in his extensive library. One night, when I was about sixteen, I decided to read from my father’s bookshelf instead of the pulp well from which I usually drew. I borrowed a copy of Joyce’s Dubliners, a book that appeared to be a collection of short stories. I read a story called “Counterparts,” a haunting masterpiece that I still consider one of the best stories I have ever read. It seems simple in plot—one day in the life of a man in the throes of alcoholism—but it injects the terrible emotion that accompanies abuse. I didn’t sleep much that night, but I never forgot the way the story affected me.
Why He’s Good: Joyce is seen as a “writer’s writer” constructing both the long and short story with personal tension and human idiosyncrasies. He speaks the Irish Catholic dialect of the English language so well that the reader can hear his heart beat while reading. Joyce describes the inexplicable guilt that permeates our DNA. He shows unattainability in love and life. He juxtaposes unsinkable hope and a dismal future. He introduces us to the priest who says mass, the barmaids pouring drinks, the children with one coin to spend, the fathers who cannot remember their children's’ names. Everything he wrote seems as if it is sealed in his blood.
Plot Variations: A Dublin resident wanders through one day, his appointments and relationships changing through the massive, ever-shifting sea of prose, directing his world and future. A particularly offensive young man uses women as sexual objects and then cons them into giving him money. An author details his own Dublin upbringing, his family relationships, and his eventual questioning of all things conventional.
Buy One: A summer read is Dubliners, the book that made me a Joyce fan. It also is the easiest of Joyce’s to read, since it is a collection of his short stories. It’s rewarding and rich and beautiful, and pretty cheap here.
If you really want to get a sampling of Joyce, pick up The Portable James Joyce, which includes four of the six books on which Joyce's astonishing reputation is founded: A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, his Collected Poems ; Exiles, Joyce's only drama; and his volume of short stories, Dubliners. There is also a bit of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. How’s that for a cheater recommendation? Available here.
Favorite Quote: It’s deceptively easy and Irish; also filled with pain and longing, like all of Joyce’s work: “When I die, Dublin will be written in my heart.”
Trivia: Joyce was born in the same year as Virginia Woolf, a fellow modernist writer! Both were born in 1882, and both writers also died in the same year, 1941. Both wrote landmark modernist novels, published in the 1920s, whose principal action takes place over just one day in mid-June (Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway). Both pioneered “stream of consciousness” – a technique associated with modernist writing.
Poetic License: Joyce was a poet first and foremost. It is poetry that shaped his beautiful, flowing, liquidy prose. James was an outspoken opponent of the Catholic church, but his writing betrays his own heart’s quest to find God. I leave you with a one of his poems, simply entitled “A Prayer”:
Come, give, yield all your strength to me!
From far a low word breathes on the breaking brain
Its cruel calm, submission's misery,
Gentling her awe as to a soul predestined.
Cease, silent love! My doom!
Blind me with your dark nearness, O have mercy, beloved enemy of my will!
I dare not withstand the cold touch that I dread.
Draw from me still
My slow life! Bend deeper on me, threatening head,
Proud by my downfall, remembering, pitying
Him who is, him who was!
Together, folded by the night, they lay on earth. I hear
From far her low word breathe on my breaking brain.
Come! I yield. Bend deeper upon me! I am here.
Subduer, do not leave me! Only joy, only anguish,
Take me, save me, soothe me, O spare me!