Nora and James Joyce: making women’s speech the universal tongue

July 2, 2017

Maybe writing about typos in Ulysses triggered it, but I finally took Brenda Maddox’s book Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce off the shelf. It’s an exceptional study, rich in insight and research: highly recommended to anyone interested in her life, personality, and relationships, and in the author himself.

Maddox defends Nora soundly against a tendency in some Joyce scholarship to caricature her as ignorant or even illiterate. The scarcity of Nora’s own letters for some decades didn’t help this perception, nor did her famous dislike of Ulysses. She appreciated its value, but ‘her acceptance was always tempered by her dismay at its obscenity’, Maddox writes. When Joyce complained that Wagner, whom Nora loved, was obscene, Nora pointed irrefutably at Ulysses.

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When is a typo not a typo? In the wor(l)d of Ulysses

June 6, 2017

Thus the unfacts, did we possess them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude —James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

As a copy-editor I try to abide by the typographic oath: First, do no harm. When you’re making changes to a writer’s text, whatever you do, don’t introduce an error. But at the risk of undermining that solid principle, there is an occasional exception.

Enter James Joyce.

Cover of OUP edition of "Ulysses", the 1922 text, with cover illustration by Richard Hamilton featuring black and white figures in quasi-Cubist styleThe length and complexity of Ulysses, and the difficulties of its publication, mean that many subtly different versions of the text exist. The first legal edition in the US, which became its standard edition for decades, was based on a pirated copy, for example.

Typographical errors arose inevitably from multiple sources; complicating things further is the fact that some ‘errors’ were deliberate but wrongly ‘corrected’ by printers or editors. And then there were all those rewrites and updates by the author while the thing was being serialised. And afterwards. Brenda Maddox, in Nora, notes that Joyce wrote ‘as much as one third of the final text of Ulysses in the form of corrections or additions in the margins of the proof sheets’.

So there is no ideal, ‘master’ text; in fact Joyce scholars fight over the best way to decide what this even means.

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Anthony Burgess on James Joyce and dream-literature

January 4, 2016

Fans of James Joyce’s writing who haven’t read Anthony Burgess’s Here Comes Everybody (1965) might want to add it to their list. Anyone who has dipped into Joyce and remains interested but perhaps daunted by his later prose is likely to find it especially helpful.

Here’s an excerpt from an early chapter, on the comic–cosmic nature of Ulysses and the difficulty of that book and its successor Finnegans Wake, in which Joyce set out to put language to sleep:

‘Comic’ is the key-word, for Ulysses is a great comic novel – though comic in a tradition that has been obscured by ‘popular’ conceptions of comedy – P. G. Wodehouse, Richard Gordon and the rest. The comedy of Joyce is an aspect of the heroic: it shows man in relation to the whole cosmos, and the whole cosmos appears in his work symbolised in the whole of language. . . .

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Flann O’Brien on translating Ulysses into Irish

August 8, 2015

I’ve been reading Flann O’Brien again, having picked up Hair of the Dogma (Paladin, 1989), a selection from his riotous Irish Times column ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’, which he wrote under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen. (Brian O’Nolan was the writer’s real name; he had many pseudonyms, of which Flann O’Brien is probably the best known.)

Because Myles excelled at satire and wore many masks, it is hard to tell sometimes just how serious or truthful he is being. But I believe this passage from his article ‘J.J. and Us’ (J.J. meaning James Joyce), about a plan to translate Ulysses into Irish, to be essentially on the level:

I suppose uncertainty is the handmaid of all grandiose literary projects. Many motives lay behind that 1951 decision of mine to translate Joyce’s Ulysses into Irish. If they won’t read it in English, I said to myself, bedamn but we’ll put them in the situation that they can boast they won’t read it in Irish aither.

It’s work, though. And black thoughts encloister me, like brooding buzzards. Is it worth being accurate if nobody will ever read the translation? What’s the Irish for Robert Emmet? And who will put Irish on this fearsome thing written by Joyce himself: Suil, suil, suil arun, suil go siocair agus, suil go cuin.

See the snares in this business, doom impending, heart-break?

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Words changing colour like crabs

February 25, 2013

From the Eumaeus episode of Ulysses by James Joyce:

Over his untasteable apology for a cup of coffee, listening to this synopsis of things in general, Stephen stared at nothing in particular. He could hear, of course, all kinds of words changing colour like those crabs about Ringsend in the morning, burrowing quickly into all colours of different sorts of the same sand where they had a home somewhere beneath or seemed to.

After the noncommittal vagueness of “things in general” and “nothing in particular”, I love how the image of local crabs, so suddenly specific, transports us (and Stephen) briefly out of the human domain across to the Dublin coast and the wordless creatures alive in the sand. It’s a strange and surprising analogy and one with a hint of synaesthesia.

James Joyce: ‘We must write dangerously’

June 16, 2012

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.

Joyce, Shaw, Pound and pence

June 16, 2010

In the early 1920s, when the soulful and fearless Sylvia Beach was preparing to publish Ulysses at Shakespeare and Company, she sought subscriptions from potential readers, and received among the replies a mighty refusal from George Bernard Shaw. Shaw had read part of Joyce’s book in serial form, and in his letter to Beach he described it memorably as “a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilisation; but . . . a truthful one”. His letter finished as follows:

I must add, as the prospectus implies an invitation to purchase, that I am an elderly Irish gentleman, and that if you imagine that any Irishman, much less an elderly one, would pay 150 francs for a book, you little know my countrymen.

Shaw said elsewhere that he wouldn’t pay three guineas for the book. Joyce, meanwhile, had a bet on with Sylvia Beach that Shaw would not subscribe. Losing the bet meant giving his patron a silk handkerchief; winning it meant receiving a box of Voltigeurs, his favourite cigars. He loved Shaw’s letter to Beach, and sent copies to several friends — including Ezra Pound, to whom he wrote:

if you imagine that the elderly Irish gentleman who wrote it (the letter not the book) has not subscribed anonymously for a copy of the revolting record through a bookseller you little know my countrymen.

Pound was far from satisfied, though, and exchanged about a dozen letters with Shaw on the matter. In March 1921 he grumbled to H. L. Mencken: “Shaw now writes to me twice a week complaining of the high price of Ulysses.” The correspondence ended with Shaw quipping: “I take care of the pence because the Pounds won’t take care of themselves” (also reported as: “I take care of the pence and let the Pounds take care of themselves”).

L–R: Ezra Pound, John Quinn, Ford Madox Ford, and James Joyce. In Pound's rooms in Paris, 1923. Photograph from Cornell University.


Last year I said I had never taken part in Bloomsday — not in any official events anyway. This year is no different, but like Leopold Bloom I’ll be walking around taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the city (Nora’s Galway, not James’s Dublin). I might bring a Joyce-related book. That will do. If you’re on Twitter, you’ll find me making occasional Joyce-related tweets.

In a tradition I beganagain last year, I’ll finish with a poem — this time a Limerick from the pen of Pound:

There was once a young writer named Joyce
Whose diction was ribidly choice,
And all his friends’ woes
Were deduced from his prose
Which never filled anyone’s purse.

(Pound told Joyce that choice and purse would rhyme perfectly in certain parts of New York.)