Stephen Spender, ‘All Life was Grist for the Artist’, in The New York Times (25 Oct. 1959) - Book Reviews.

[ Source: Available at The New York Times - online; accessed 20.11.2017. ]

Stanislaus Joyce, who bore throughout his life, like an enormous load, all the fame and most of the cares of his more famous brother, once made an entry in the diary he kept as a record of James Joyce’s unfolding genius: “Jim is thought to be very frank about himself but his style is such that it might be contended that he confesses in a foreign language - an easier confession than in the vulgar tongue.”

This immensely detailed, massive, completely detached and objective, yet loving biography translates James Joyce’s books back into his life. One closes it with the impression that everything every friend of his or that he himself said or did, every detail of his family life, became verbalized and stored away in his mind as material he might put into his books. Ulysses was selected from sacks of notes of things that might go in. Every detail had to be recorded with what may seem obsessive accuracy. When writing Ulysses James Joyce would write to members of his family in Dublin to check on the exact position of a house or some trees in a street.

Reading this book one often has the curious sense of participating in a process of metamorphosis or transubstantiation. His friends and family change into looming phrases in his mind to reappear in his books. But one also has the uncanny impression that the process might be reversed and that his phrases might change back into the people from whom they derive.

Sometimes his own life seems to get completely mixed up with his fiction as though he were living out his own character in his novel (who is also writing the novel). The famous story “The Dead,” in which a husband discovers that his wife, before she met him, was loved by a young man who subsequently died, and who - the husband feels- loved her with an intensity that he can never rival, is partly autobiographical. Nora Joyce did have a youthful admirer who died early, before she met Joyce; Joyce once went and visited this boy’s grave.

It is difficult to read of the way in which Joyce questioned his wife about her former admirers, or to read the letters he wrote to her on the few occasions when they were separated, without having a sense of something odder than self-dramatization, more compulsive than a writer collecting his material. It is as though Joyce were trying to push his way into an imagined reality, more real than the real, which belonged to the transcendent world of his art- a world that was entirely made up of his imagining and imagined self. And this is what “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake” are. They are whole worlds into which everyone and everything Joyce knew has changed into Joyce himself, and yet they continue to retain the very real quality of his literal-mindedness.

This of course is magic, a fact of which Joyce, fanatically superstitious, was aware. His friends, too, felt the frightening quality of his transforming gift. It is scarcely too much to say that Oliver St. John Gogarty- with whom he had quarreled- was terrified of what sort of figure Joyce would make, of him as Black Mulligan, set wandering through Dublin’s Night-town. Others canvassed to have their names or anecdotes about them fossilized in the limestone of “Finnegans Wake,” a request Joyce understood and often acceded to.

Mr. Ellmann notes that “Joyce’s first interior monologue was inserted at the end of ’A Portrait of the Artist,’ where, however, he makes it seem less extraordinary by having Stephen write it in a journal. It had a dramatic justification there in that Stephen could no longer communicate with anyone in Ireland but himself.” What is true of Stephen is likely to have been even more true of Joyce, the self-appointed, self-chosen exile. There is much evidence in this book that although Joyce was a fanatical observer of other people’s idiosyncrasies, his contact with them was either far apart or extreme opposite of this complete identification. An almost incredible example of his power of identification was with James Stevens [recte Stephens], his relations with whom have the bewitched quality of Titania’s relations with Bottom the Weaver when she was under the love-spell.

For Joyce the drug that led him into a trance was the obsessive fascination of coincidence and verbal play: Stevens and he both had the same first name- James; Stevens’ [Stephens] second name was the one Joyce had chosen as first name for Stephen Dedalus; they were both born in Dublin on Feb. 2, 1882. The identification led him so far that he was seized with the fantastic idea that, if he were badly ill, or to die, James Stevens, his absolute alter ego, could complete Finnegans Wake.

There is a photograph of Joyce in this book with Stephens and with another of his identities or self-projections, John Sullivan, the singer. Joyce himself was a tenor; Sullivan was Irish, an exile, persecuted. That was enough. Joyce projected on to Sullivan all the tortures of his own sense of persecution by Dubliners, publishers, censors and the English.

Mr. Ellman’s book thoroughly bears out an observation T.S. Eliot once made to me - that Joyce was the most completely self-centered man he had ever known. Even Joyce, modestly comparing himself with Ibsen, calls himself the lesser “egoarch.” But to say that genius, which can turn the observed material of a lifetime into a world of art, is egotistic is not the same thing as to make the same judgment on anyone else.

A person can be egotistic because he is too little or because he is too great for his surroundings. Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom are double aspects of consciousness brooding over humanity in the isolation of greatness. In Finnegans Wake, the ego of Earwicker becomes the universal of geography and history. As Bernard Shaw, another Dubliner, well understood, Joyce’s esthetic egocentricity was largely the result of his early life of feckless poverty and uprootedness in Dublin.

The tragedy of the artistic genius, who through circumstance becomes an enforced egocentric, is that he can only achieve his prime task- his art- through living his life and through entering into other lives with which he is always in an unequal relation. With Joyce, this tragedy began as farce: the long tears of poverty in Dublin and teaching English in Trieste- years of not being recognized, of censorship and persecution. There followed a decade or so as a visited literary figure in Paris.

In the last years of his life, when he was already tormented by the operations he has to undergo for his iritis, Joyce’s family began to pay the price of their past of wandering, misery and uprootedness, when his daughter, Lucia, went mad. Lucia’s mental condition occasioned the last, the most terrible, and perhaps the most reasonable of Joyce’s self-identifications. For years, he refused to believe that she was ill, and when at last he had to admit it, he saw in her hallucinations insights of the kind he was putting into Finnegans Wake.

In a diagnostic, which Mr. Ellmann does not like, Jung wrote that “the relationship of father and daughter was a kind of mystical identity or participation.” Jung called Lucia “her father’s anima inspiratrix.” “Joyce’s psychological style is definitely schizophrenic, with the difference, however, that the ordinary patient cannot help himself talking and thinking in such a way, while Joyce willed it and moreover developed it with all his creative forces ...”

This takes us to the psychological conundrum of Finnegans Wake. Mr. Ellmann seems to accept the view of all good Joyceans that Finnegans Wake is Joyce’s masterpiece and not an immense aberration. And Mr. Ellmann is to be respected, for, although a Joycean, his love of his subject never comes between Joyce and the reader. Indeed, he writes with a cool and masterful detachment, which allows the reader to approach Joyce with a completely open mind, sometimes liking the warm humanity, sometimes detesting the cold arrogance of the man, always having the sense that he who was often a fool in his life was always wise in his work.

Toward the end, Joyce wrote what may be his best poem, “Epilogue to Ibsen’s Ghosts.” It is about Captain Alving, who never appears in Ibsen’s play but whom all the characters agree to have been a scoundrel. Dissolute husband of Mrs. Alving, father of her son Olaf and also, by a maidservant, of Olaf’s half-sister- Captain Alving, from whom Olaf inherited syphilis; the father, like Joyce, of one sick and one healthy child. In Joyce’s poem, Captain Alving becomes the “life” of Ibsen, without which, after all, it would have been impossible to write Ghosts; the life is as much the author of the play as Ibsen sitting at his desk. Here Joyce accepts his own tragedy and the tragedies it produces. He accepts his own life as writer of his work, plotter of the poet, one might say:

The shack’s ablaze. That canting scamp,
The carpenter, has dished the parson.
Now had they kept their power damp
Like me there would have been no arson.

Nay, more, were I not all I was,
Weak, wanton, waster out and out,
There would have been no world’s applause
And damn all to write home about.


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