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James Joyce

Nearly as popular as St. Patrick's Day itself, Bloomsday, June 16, celebrates the import of James Joyce's novel, Ulysses, which takes place on June 16, 1904.  On Bloomsday, people throughout Ireland read aloud from the book and eat the favorite foods of its main character, Leopold Bloom, including kidneys and other innards of various beasts. 

Born in Dublin on February 2, 1882, Joyce was the son of John Stanislaus Joyce, an impoverished gentleman who had failed in a distillery business and tried his hand at a host of other professions, including politics and tax collecting.  Joyce's mother, Mary Jane Murray, was ten years younger than her husband.  She was an accomplished pianist whose life was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church.  Despite their poverty, the family struggled to maintain a solid middle-class facade.

From the age of six, Joyce was educated by Jesuit priests at Clongowes Wood College at Clane and then at Belvedere College in Dublin (1893-97).  Later, he thanked the Jesuits for teaching him to think straight, although he rejected their religious instructions. 

At school, he once broke his glasses and was unable to do his lessons.  This episode was recounted in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).  In 1898, he entered the University College, Dublin, where he found his early inspirations from the works of Henrik Ibsen, St.Thomas Aquinas, and W.B. Yeats.  Joyce's first publication was an essay on Ibsen's play, When We Dead Awaken.  It appeared in Fortnightly Review in 1900. 

After graduation in 1902, a 20-year-old Joyce traveled to Paris, where he worked as a journalist, teacher, and other occupations during difficult economic times.  He spent a year in France, returning when a telegram advised him that his mother was dying.  Not long after her death, he met the love of his life.

Nora Barnacle entered the writer's life on June 16, 1904.  A few days earlier, he had seen a tall beautiful woman with long red hair walking on Nassau Street.  He stopped to talk to her, and they got together that same evening.  They walked out on the wide fields by the banks of the River Dodder as the sun was setting.  They smelled the sweet air, and Joyce spoke of sweet things and fell in love.  The following October, just a few months after they'd met, they left Ireland together. 

Barnacle came from western Ireland, which most Dubliners considered the backward part of the country.  Some people thought she wasn't smart enough for him, but Joyce loved her unpretentious ways.  He often wrote down things that she said.  She once declared of a rundown apartment, "That place wasn't fit to wash a rat in."  The couple lived like nomads in Rome, Zurich, Trieste, and Paris.

Joyce began writing Ulysses--which he set on June 16, 1904, in honor of his first date with Nora-- when he was thirty-six years old.  The book took seven years to complete.  He wanted to describe Dublin as accurately as he could.  He wrote letters to friends asking for a list of shop names, street awnings, the number of steps leading down to 7 Eccles Street, and how long it took to walk from one part of the city to
another.  He used rhyming dictionaries, maps of Dublin, street directories, and Golbert's Historic and Municipal Documents of Ireland.  For the final "Molly Bloom" section of the book, he borrowed Nora's unpunctuated writing style and quoted from many of her letters.

By the time he had completed it, his eyesight was so poor that he had to write in different colored inks just to see what he had written.  The book ends with Molly's soliloquy: 

"O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the fig trees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rose gardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."

But the book was not always considered great literature.  When in 1920 a literary magazine named The Little Review published an episode of Ulysses in which Leopold Bloom masturbates while getting a glimpse of a young woman's undergarment as fireworks go off over a beach, it was called obscene.  It was not difficult for a person to find real pornography in 1920, but Ulysses stood out to officials for its highbrow aura and the publicity it attracted as the newest, most advanced thing in literature.

The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice brought The Little Review to trial under the state's obscenity law.  The episode was ruled obscene, and Ulysses was banned in the United States.

In 1933, Random House decided to import a single version of the French edition of Ulysses, and the company had people wait at the New York docks for the book's arrival.  Random House made sure that one book was seized, and a second trial, United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, was held over the fate of that single copy.

Judge John Woolsey ruled that the book had no "dirt for dirt's sake" and was not, in fact, pornographic.  His ruling changed the standards for literary obscenity.  He disregarded the traditional standard for obscenity -- whether or not the work would "deprave and corrupt" a vulnerable young reader -- and said that the proper test is whether it would "lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts" in the average adult. Woolsey pointed out that the book was so difficult to understand that people would be unlikely to read it for titillation.  The Court of Appeals agreed and called Ulysses "a sincere portrayal" and "executed with real art."  After that, the novel was finally available for sale in the states.

In March 1923, Joyce began his second major work, Finnegans Wake, in Paris.  His eyesight was failing as a result of glaucoma.  Still, he introduced the first segment of the novel in Ford Madox Ford's Transatlantic Review in April 1924.  The author's work on the novel occupied his time for the next sixteen years.  The final version of the book was completed late in 1938, and a copy of the novel was present at Joyce's birthday celebration in February of the following year.

Joyce's daughter, Lucia, was born in Trieste in 1907.  In her teens, she studied dance, and later The Paris Times praised her skills as choreocrapher, linguist, and performer. With her father, she collaborated in Pomes Penyeach (1927), for which she did some illustrations.  Lucia's great love was Samuel Beckett, who was not interested in her.  In the 1930s, she started to behave erratically.  At the Burghölz psychiatric clinic in Zurich, where Carl Jung worked, she was diagnosed schizophrenic.  Joyce was left bitter at Jung's analysis of his daughter.  For revenge, the author mocked Jung'e concepts of Animus and Anima in Finnegans Wake.  Lucia died in a mental hospital in Northampton, England, in 1982.

After the fall of France in WWII, Joyce returned to Zürich, bitterly disappointed with the poor reception of Finnegans Wake.  The book was partly based on Freud's dream psychology, Bruno's theory of the complementary but conflicting nature of opposites, and the cyclic theory of the history of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744).

It was the last and most revolutionary of the author's works.  It has little plot and few characters to speak of...the life of all human experience is viewed as fragmentary. Some critics considered the work a masterpiece while others found it incomprehensible. 

When American writer Max Eastman asked Joyce why the book was written in such a difficult literary style, Joyce replied: "To keep the critics busy for three hundred years."

James Joyce died in Zurich on January 13, 1941.

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