The Europeans, no 18: James Joyce

James Joyce is part of a long line of Irish writers-in-exile

 James Joyce (1882-1941) in Zurich. Photograph:  Hulton Archive/Getty Images

James Joyce (1882-1941) in Zurich. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images


James Joyce was born in 1882 into a Dublin middle-class family on its way down. His father, John Stanislaus, a rate collector who had dissipated a substantial inheritance, was not able to provide a financially secure home for his family but he did imprint on his son the memory of a particular evasive and playful Irish mode of speech that he would immortalise in his masterpiece, Ulysses .

John Joyce’s fictional counterpart, Simon Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man , is pitilessly described by his son as “a medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a drinker, a good fellow, a storyteller, somebody’s secretary, something in a distillery, a taxgatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past”.

It was this rackety and very male Dublin world of shiftlessness, pretence, of playing the “good fellow” and disguising pain or penury with a pungent veneer of ribaldry and sarcasm that Joyce walked out on in 1902 after completing his arts degree (English, French, Italian) at University College. Yet if he chose to no longer live in the city, he certainly did not turn his back on it.

Joyce’s first venture abroad was to Paris, where he was briefly and unsuccessfully a medical student.

He soon returned to Dublin, where his mother was dying, but left again in 1904 with Nora Barnacle, the young Galway woman he had met on June 16th of that year, who was to become his lifelong companion.

After a brief spell in Pola on the Adriatic (today Pula in Croatia), Joyce and Nora established themselves in the bustling port of Trieste, the Austro-Hungarian empire’s chief point of access to the sea. Joyce went back to Dublin in 1909/10 and again in 1912, his last visit to Ireland.

Although he was greatly stimulated by Trieste’s cosmopolitan atmosphere – in addition to its two main communities, Italian and Slovene, there were Croats, Serbs, Austrians, Jews, Greeks, Armenians – the outbreak of war led Joyce to move to Zurich in 1915.

‘Ulysses’ emerges
During his stay in the Swiss city he began work on Ulysses , freed from the necessity of teaching for a living by the financial patronage of the publisher Harriet Shaw Weaver. In 1920 he decamped to Paris, where he was to spend the next 20 years until war again forced him to return to neutral Switzerland and Zurich, where he died in 1941. He is buried in Fluntern Cemetery.

Ulysses , published in 1922, made Joyce’s reputation among the literary avant garde, and perhaps beyond: he was well enough known for the British customs to destroy 500 copies of the book in the following year.

Also in 1923 he began the hugely ambitious book that was first called Work in Progress and then Finnegans Wake . The Wake – which for some brought the novel as far as it could conceivably go, and for others was just “erudite gibberish” – was published 16 years later in 1939.

In his native country, Joyce is often seen as just another literary genius who was forced out, like his peers Wilde, Shaw, O’Casey and Beckett, by the provincialism and narrow-mindedness of his compatriots.

Exile and displacement were, however, becoming common conditions in 19th- and 20th-century Europe. While Joyce was sheltering in wartime Zurich so too were Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Dada poet Tristan Tzara, while Paris, which Walter Benjamin called the capital of the 19th century, at one time or another hosted most of Europe’s great modern painters.

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