"I am trying…to give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own…for their mental, moral and spiritual uplift."130 years ago today, James Joyce was born. He was the first of many children in a family that grew too large for his parents to support and they slowly descended into poverty. His father had a knack for not holding on to money and so, unable to meet the rent, his family moved from one domicile to the next throughout most of his upbringing. Joyce inherited this itinerant habit into his adulthood as he lugged his belongings and family (wife, son, and daughter) to multiple homes throughout Rome, Trieste, Zurich, and Paris. While all this was going on, he somehow managed to find the time to put together arguably the greatest literary contribution in human history.
- James Joyce, in a letter to his brother Stanislaus
From 1914 until 1922 he labored on Ulysses, an experimental, encyclopedic epic that was unlike anything anyone had ever written. During the seven-year writing process, excerpts of the book were being published serially in a literary magazine called The Little Review. After the appearance of the "Nausicaa" episode, which features a very creatively written and partially concealed masturbation scene, a storm of controversy erupted around the book and Joyce's unfinished novel suddenly came under fire in the English-speaking world. Because of this, when the novel was near completion he was unable to find a publisher for it despite it being perhaps the most highly anticipated book in the world. Sylvia Beach, an American expatriate who owned a little bookshop in Paris called Shakespeare and Company, offered to publish it.
Ulysses was first published on Joyce's fortieth birthday, February 2nd, 1922 (2/2/22 that is, and the book has a recurrence of 22's). It was banned in the United States and England for more than a decade because of charges that it was too obscene. Nowadays there's far worse obscenity appearing on primetime television every night. The novel was hugely popular at the time despite its complexities (which continue to repel readers to this day), while it remained banned in America it was frequently smuggled past the borders, oftentimes people would chop the 700-page book into sections and tape it to their bodies. I recently came across a great video interview with Sylvia Beach from the 1960s in which she portrays the atmosphere at the time Ulysses was published, you can view that here.
Shortly after Ulysses was published, Joyce began working with the leftover notes he had (his stacks of notes were once weighed at something like 15 pounds---15 pounds of little pieces of paper, that is) and developed the material for his next book. Whereas Ulysses was the story of the day, detailing the journeying of two characters through one single day in Dublin, his next book was to be a book of the night, delving deeply into the collective unconscious. Once again, his new book was released in serial form through literary magazines but now the public was almost completely baffled. The new work seemed like gibberish. Many of his most ardent supporters (Ezra Pound, Sylvia Beach, his brother Stanislaus) began to question his sanity or accuse him of wasting his talents.
For the next 17 years, Joyce became deeply absorbed in composing this strange book, the title of which remained a secret the entire time (it was referred to only as Work in Progress). Whereas previously he had to deal with difficulties in finding a publisher for his first epic, now most of his supporters were questioning his approach while he put his entire soul into this, his magnum opus. In response to all of the mass confusion and complaints the book excerpts were receiving, Joyce gathered a group of 12 supporters who each wrote an essay helping to explain the nature of the book's weird and difficult prose. This was released in a collection entitled Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress in 1929, still ten years before Joyce's completed book was to be published.
As Nino Frank described this period:
"Penetrating year by year more deeply more deeply into this work, advancing with slow, groping pace in his mine tunnels, perceiving ever more clearly that he no longer knew exactly where he was going, Joyce was giving the slip to a distinguished intellectual world, which had at first found the experiment amusing (thus the praise and glosses) but had dropped out as soon as the game proved to consist of an obscure, stubborn, and interminable undermining ... In the name of Ulysses, a work of sure merit, people shook their heads at the great man inexorably leaping into the unknown. By ridding himself of the dead weights with which life had loaded him, he sought to attain the utmost velocity of thought, a velocity of lightninglike immobility---the tragic surplace of bicycle racers and perhaps the measure of the eternal."The book finally saw the light of day in 1939, bearing the title Finnegans Wake, but by that time the world was preparing for World War II and Joyce's masterwork didn't receive the attention he'd hoped. Those who did read and review it were, for the most part, perplexed. Less than two years later, Joyce died from a failed operation for a stomach ulcer, and the world was left to discover the depths of this massive dreambook on its own. A few years later, Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson published the first exegesis of Finnegans Wake and, while now considered to be a very surface-level study, it clearly laid out the approach Joyce had taken. Finnegans Wake is a book entirely written in the language of dreams, they explained, and this language is densely packed with tons of references to mythologies from around the world as well as the entirety of human history, science, and knowledge. The key to it all is a connection between sleep and death in which Joyce poeticizes reincarnation and eternal return, thus the book begins in the middle of a sentence, the same sentence that abruptly cuts off at the end of the book.
"A way a lone a last a loved a long the ... riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs."(FW pg 628-1)To conclude, here is a list I put together of 16 reasons why James Joyce is the greatest writer ever.
And here is Joyce himself reciting a chapter from Finnegans Wake. Notice the musical sound of it all, the Wake is a book written for the ear (and Joyce had a beautiful voice, had he not been a writer he certainly could've had a career as a tenor).