James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist, Sitting

For most of 1928, James Joyce’s attention was unequally divided among many projects and complications: He was keeping a wary watch over German and French translations of “Ulysses,” his 1922 novel; readying sections of his next novel, which was still officially titled “Work in Progress” (published as “Finnegan’s Wake” years later, in 1939); defending “Work in Progress” from negative reviews and letters from friends who were urging him to quit his experimental writing; explaining to his patrons when new sections of “Work in Progress” could be expected so that he could have an income; and losing his eyesight.

He was 46 years old, living in Paris with his partner, Nora, and their two children, and life was complicated. He was engaged in writing the novel that became “Finnegan’s Wake,” and his artistic ambition for it and its effect on him were both unsparing. “Ulysses” tells a story of a single day, June 16, 1904, in a particular place, Dublin, using as many types of storytelling and modes of rhetoric as he could use. Joyce intended “Work in Progress” to do the same thing but for the idea of nighttime; it is entirely inside the sleeping and dreaming mind of some unknown person, and it is written in a sort of pidgin English animated by puns.

His letters to his patrons tended to obscure matters even further and made it more challenging to continue funding his project. In one 1927 letter to his most important supporter, Harriet Shaw Weaver, he wrote something with “the intention of enlightenment,” as his biographer Richard Ellmann cheerfully puts it, but what he sent read:

I am making an engine with only one wheel. No spokes, of course. The wheel is a perfect square. You see what I’m driving at, don’t you? I am awfully solemn about it, mind you, so you must not think it is a silly story about the mooks and the grapes. No, it’s a wheel, I tell the world. And it’s all square. (Ellmann, 597)

Weaver tried to get in the spirit of his constant riddling and urged him to square the wheel, a suggestion for which he thanked her but further explained that he was doing something different than that. By 1928, financially and artistically discouraged, he declared to one friend

Critics who were most appreciative of “Ulysses” are complaining about my new work. They cannot understand it. Therefore they say it is meaningless. Now if it were meaningless it could be written quickly, without thought, without pains, without erudition; but I assure you that these twenty pages now before us cost me twelve hundred hours and an enormous expense of spirit.” (Ellmann, 598)

Thus, Weaver traveled from London to Paris in 1928 to see for herself how things were going, on the occasion of Joyce’s 46th birthday. The visit reassured both parties and later that year he received word of an advance payment from two American publishers.

This is the James Joyce captured in Berenice Abbott’s famous portrait of the artist: At rest and a bit more confident in his world. The left lens in his eyeglasses is shaded, evidence of the ongoing battle to save his sight. It is one of the two or three most famous photos of the author, the one fondly parodied on the album cover for “If I Should Fall From Grace with God”:

james-joyceAbbott was an American who became more famous in later years for her portraits of New York City during the Great Depression. She spent the decade of the 1920s learning her craft, working with the photographer Man Ray, and opened her own studio in 1927. She had photographed Joyce before, in 1926, and that photo session saw the author wearing an eye patch after surgery (and a soul patch under his lower lip):



joyce sans hatJoyce apparently liked sitting for Abbott, as there are several other photos from the 1928 session, without the stylish fedora and cane, but obviously from the same session, as he is wearing the same striped necktie. I think the one at left captures Joyce with more feeling; perhaps without the protection the hat and cane afforded him he let his guard down. The iconic photo of an iconic literary figure is followed by a photo of a weary, but not wary, momentarily confident, 46-year-old artist.

* * * *
James Joyce died 74 years ago today, January 13, 1941.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 13 asks, “Pick a random word and do Google image search on it. Check out the eleventh picture it brings up. Write about whatever that image brings to mind.” When one searches Google Images for images of the great author, the famous Berenice Abbott photo, the one at the top of this column, is number 11.

* * * *
Please subscribe to The Gad About Town on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/thegadabouttown


  1. livingonchi · January 13, 2015

    Fascinating! I have never read James Joyce, but everyone says he’s very difficult to read.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Priceless Joy · January 13, 2015

    Very interesting!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Martha Kennedy · January 13, 2015

    In 1997, winter, I was in Zürich with my “husband” (long story, not for this venue) and his friend, Nicky. Both of them were in their 20’s. I was 45. We walked into the Bodega Espagnola where Lenin often drank red wine, a basement in Zürich old town. It was like walking through the set of Woody Allen’s Paris at Midnight. I was obviously NOT local. Zürich is a town (then and probably now) given to dark and somber clothing (think Seattle). There was no where to sit, so we stood for a while, then some people left and we sat at a table. I sat between my husband and Nicky. Nicky looked like a Russian icon and my husband looked like an Italian actor. I looked like a goofy red-haired American woman. A tall, red-haired man sitting next to my husband leaned over and said, “What brings you to the cross-roads of Western Civilization; James Joyce’s grave?” My husband did a Beavis and Butthead imitation that the man (a professor at Uppsala University) couldn’t have gotten. He said, “Heh-heh-heh, I think he wants to score.” So, the next day we had to go see the Joyce museum. I will not go to the grave. Just a story to show that life is no more comprehensible than Finnegan’s Wake.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Martha Kennedy · January 13, 2015

      P.S. The next evening, the three of us went to see Alice Cooper in a hall that had hosted Hitler Youth rallies some fifty years earlier. I’d seen photos of that, just that very day. It was quite surreal to see virtually interchangeable young (and older) people stand up, raise their arm in the air and yell, “Alice! Alice! Alice!”

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Relax · January 14, 2015

    One either loves James Joyce or wrote him off long ago. I tried to write him off, but found I loved him. RIP, JJ — and thank you for this, TGAT. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Teresa Oh · January 14, 2015

    Wow! It just made me wonder about the intensity of it all. Amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. abodyofhope · January 15, 2015

    Eye patch + soul patch = too cool.

    Awesome post! James Joyce is awesome. I hadn’t thought that much about his eyesight. Thank you for including that.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. markjboulton · January 21, 2015

    Reblogged this on markjboulton.


  8. Pingback: James Joyce and His Birthday | The Gad About Town

Please comment here. Thank you, Mark.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.