James Joyce Celebrates His Birthday

February 2, 2017, is the 135th anniversary of the birth of James Joyce (above).

In his huge biography, Richard Ellmann notes in several places that Joyce found his own birthday to be a topic most fascinating (he made certain that his novel Ulysses was published on his 40th, in 1922) and he tells how this affected his relationship with another writer, James Stephens.
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James Joyce and His Birthday

February 2, 2016, is the 134th birthday of James Joyce. In his huge biography, Richard Ellmann notes in several places Joyce’s fascination with his own birthday (he made certain that his novel “Ulysses” was published on his 40th, in 1922) and tells how this affected his relationship with another writer, James Stephens. Ellmann quotes Joyce:

“The combination of his name from that of mine [James] and my hero in A.P.O.T.A.A.A.Y.M. [“A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”] is strange enough. [The hero of that novel is Stephen.] I discovered yesterday, through enquiries made in Paris, that he was born in Dublin on the 2 February 1882.” (Ellmann, 592)

Ellmann notes that Joyce also found it amazing that he and Stephens were both fathers of a boy and a girl. Either Stephens did not know or did not want to tell Joyce that they did indeed share a birthday but not a birth date, as Stephens was born February 2, 1880.
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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.

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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.

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Fact or Not-Fact

In the 1990s, one of my co-workers at a bookshop used to relocate the paperback sci-fi books inspired by “The X-Files” television series from the Fiction/Sci-Fi section to the Nonfiction/Science section. This was not something she did to be ironic or otherwise witty; she did not know that the books were “made-up” and thought the TV series was a documentary.

She told me one day in a flurry of words that people needed to know the truth about how the world is. I agreed, but I did not tell her what truth I thought “people” should “know”: What was true was I considered her nuts. When I pointed out that the publisher itself labeled the books as fiction, she replied that this was a sure sign of the cover-up, that the publishing house was doing its part to stay safe.

One day, I left the books in the non-fiction section and watched as a customer moved them back to Fiction/Sci-Fi. Another day, I watched as my genre-confused co-worker became an ex-employee of the bookstore.

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Alf Evers was the historian of the Catskills region in upstate New York. His long (so long it is almost cube-shaped) history, “The Catskills,” was the first definitive text about the area when it was published in 1972. The book is definitive but it is not the resource to turn to if one is searching for dollar figures or numbers of acres. Oh, those appear here and there, when needed, but they are not often needed. Instead, he is a grand storyteller. Here is his epic opening for the chapter entitled, “Made of Wood”:

When permanent settlers arrived in the Catskills, the mountains’ trees began to move out. Before human beings became part of the society of living things which surrounds and covers the Catskills, trees rarely left the mountains. Each tree struggled to live and reproduce on its birthplace and, if it escaped fire, wind, competition from its fellows, and insect and fungus attack, it lived out its destined span of life and died. Then its body would be taken apart by bacteria, fungi, and flying and wriggling things, and it would returned to the earth to become the building material of new bodies. Indians had carried away parts of trees: the gum of the balsam fir for medicine or to calk canoes, maple syrup to sweeten their diet; or bits of wood well adapted to one purpose or another. But this had caused no visible change in the Catskills’ forests. Nor had John Bartram‘s gathering of seeds and seedlings for his British landscape-gardening customers. But when the first settlers and their sawmills appeared, things began to change.

Scene: set. A history of Catskills lumbering follows, but as we read on we carry with us the reminder that each individual tree, cut down or left alone, had and has its own life story. Human beings, Native Americans and European settlers alike, are given much the same respect by Evers, and he reminds us often that there are many individual stories that make the numbers, the quotidian facts, the real part of “real life.”

(I had the honor of interviewing Mr. Evers once. He was in his 90s and hard of hearing and sight but lived on his own in a book-lined and -furnished cabin in Shady, New York. [Yes, that is a real place name.] He passed away in 2004, a few weeks shy of his 100th birthday. The magazine for which I was interviewing Mr. Evers folded before the interview was published and I wrote it many computers ago, so it is long lost.)

The facts, the numbers of life, the details that fill the ledgers in which we count our ups and downs, those can trap some historians. There are some who can make a reader feel like they are doing no better than reading someone’s checkbook for themselves, with no context supplied. Raw facts are not Evers’ concern; he had obviously studied the various deeds and checkbooks and then digested the information and knew a good story when he had one to tell.

A good story. That is the concern of any writer, whether he or she is engaged in fiction or non-fiction. James Joyce by Richard Ellmann is one of the great biographies. It is so detailed and crammed full with letters written by and to Joyce that one sometimes thinks that it might take one as long as Joyce’s 58 years alive to read it. It is often a fun and funny book, and Ellmann certainly knew he had a good life story to tell. (I do not know why there has not yet been a film biography of Joyce’s life; perhaps because it did not end with a sweet redemptive moment, Joyce winning an award, for instance.) Joyce’s novels (his fiction) are enhanced by the experience of reading the biography. And reading Ellmann’s biography is enhanced by reading and loving Joyce’s novels.

Some of the best non-fiction reads like fiction and some of the best fiction reads like non-fiction. That does not mean “The X-Files” books can go in the Science section.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 29 asks, “When reading for fun, do you usually choose fiction or non-fiction? Do you have an idea why you prefer one over the other?”