James Joyce: ‘We must write dangerously’

On Bloomsday last year I wrote about Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s last and least-read book. This year, being less blessed with free time, I’ll share some lines from Arthur Power’s book Conversations with James Joyce (Barnes & Noble, 1974), which I’ve been thumbing through again.

The first excerpt offers a glimpse of domestic life chez Joyce in Paris, where Power and Joyce first met.

Joyce, a restless man, was continually changing his abode, partly through circumstances no doubt, but also on account of his nature, and shortly afterwards he moved to a pleasant, airy apartment opposite the Eiffel Tower, where I used to visit him frequently.

I always took care not to call at his flat until the late afternoon, when he used to come into the room from his study wearing that short white working-coat of his, not unlike a dentist’s, and collapse into the armchair with his usual long, heart-felt sigh. As often as not Mrs Joyce would say to him,
—For God’s sake, Jim, take that coat off you!

But the only answer she got was his Gioconda smile, and he would gaze back humorously at me through his thick glasses.

Nora’s line always makes me laugh.

On Tumblr I posted a few thoughts from Joyce, courtesy of Arthur Power, on his efforts to convey Dublin through the texture of his words, and his belief in the primacy of emotion in art.

Here he elaborates on the latter idea in relation to Ulysses and writing in general:

Emotion has dictated the course and detail of my book, and in emotional writing one arrives at the unpredictable which can be of more value, since its sources are deeper, than the products of the intellectual method. In the intellectual method you plan everything beforehand. When you arrive at the description, say, of a house you try and remember that house exactly, which after all is journalism. But the emotionally creative writer refashions that house and creates a significant image in the only significant world, the world of our emotions. The more we are tied to fact and try to give a correct impression, the further we are from what is significant. In writing one must create an endlessly changing surface, dictated by the mood and current impulse in contrast to the fixed mood of the classical style. This is ‘Work in Progress’. The important thing is not what we write, but how we write, and in my opinion the modern writer must be an adventurer above all, willing to take every risk, and be prepared to founder in his effort if need be. In other words we must write dangerously: everything is inclined to flux and change nowadays and modern literature, to be valid, must express that flux. . . . A book, in my opinion, should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself, subject, as I say, to the constant emotional promptings of one’s personality.

Conversations with James Joyce is a short (111 pp.), appealing read, with enough contextual detail to enliven Power’s reports but with the pair’s ideas, dialogues and debates very much to the fore. Joyce expounds on his influences, reviews his own work, and muses on his tastes and preferences in literary and other matters.


7 Responses to James Joyce: ‘We must write dangerously’

  1. Marc Leavitt says:

    I couldn’t agree more with Joyce. When I was a working journalist I fit his description of journalism; in recently writing a novel, I’ve followed his emotional paradigm: Whether what I’ve written is worthwhile is beside the point; the process is what counts. Character development and narrative should surprise us.

  2. Stan says:

    Just so, Marc. It’s usually a good sign when our stories and characters surprise us, since it means we’ve succeeded in getting out of their way and letting them assert themselves for a while.

  3. wisewebwoman says:

    I’m reading “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” at the moment where Joyce’s opinions on emotional writing are evident. Particularly about the childhood home which was a horror to the children raised in it and an absolute comfort to the grandchildren who visit even though not even the wallpaper has changed. A gem of a writer to capture this so vividly. As did Joyce, of course.

  4. Claude says:

    As always, around Bloomsday, I pick up my copy of Ulysses, and plunge into it with “bravoure”…Whatever I get always leaves me joyfully drunk, tragically happy, exuberantly lost, eternally confused and vibrantly alive. The splendour of the language just tugs at my heart. And I answer, “YES, YES JOYCE. Forever and ever yours.”

    Thank you for the post.

  5. Stan says:

    WWW: This is why Joyce’s example of a house is instructive: if we’re reading about one in a book, chances are it is or was someone’s home, or at least place of work or somewhere they spent significant time. So there’s an emotional relationship with it, good and bad, that’s more relevant to readers than the physical facts, though these may supplement it.

    Claude: That’s lovely to hear, and I do the same. Ulysses is an ideal book to just open at random and read: there is life and love and energy and exuberance on every page, transmuted into a richness of right words.

  6. […] big thanks to Sentence First for recently introducing me to Joyce’s words above… Like this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  7. […] conclusions drawn from this incident with Arthur Power ring true: […]

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