The Times – Obituary of James Joyce (14 Jan. 1941)

[ Source: rep. in Charles Lysaght, ed., Great Irish Lives [Times Books] (HarperCollins 2008), pp.149-50. ]

Mr James Joyce, an Irishman whose book Ulysses, gave rise to much controversy, died at Zurich yesterday. The extremes of opinion on Joyce’s work are represented by Sir Edmund Gosse, who wrote to the Revue des Deux Mondes on ‘the worthlessness and impudence of his writings’, and Arnold Bennett, who said of Ulysses ‘the best portions of the novel are immortal’: while the middle, puzzled state of mind is typified by A.E.’s remark on meeting the author: ‘I don’t know whether are a fountain or a cistern.’ It would seem, however, that the appreciation of the eternal and serene beauty of nature and the higher sides of human character was not granted to Joyce – or at least did not appear in his work.

James Augustine Joyce was born in Dublin on February 1882, one of a large and poor family. He went to the National University of Ireland and graduated in 1902. Joyce had strong literary tendencies in adolescence. For Ibsen he had such a passion that he learnt Norwegian so as to read the original. In his student days he was so self-opinionated and vain that he said to W. B. Yeats: ‘We have met too late; you are too old to be influenced by me,’ to which the poet made answer: ‘Never have I seen so much pretension with so little to show for it.’ There was, indeed, not much to show for 12 or 14 years. Joyce was in Paris during 1903-04, engaged first in medical studies and later in having his voice trained for the concert platform, and in 1904 he returned to Dublin. He published a few stories, but could not make a living, so he and his wife went off to Trieste, where he taught English. He had a great talent in that he was able to contribute for languages and learnt Italian so well articles on Irish politics to the Piccolo della Sera. In 1912 he went back to Dublin to start the Volta cinema theatre, but on its failure he resumed his teaching in Trieste. Thus far his only book had been one of lyrics called Chamber Music. In 1914 appeared Dubliners, delayed nine years by haggling with publishers owing to their demand that he should make certain excisions.

When the last war was declared Joyce had to suspend his teaching, but the Austrians allowed him conditions of ‘free arrest.’ A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man was serialized by Ezra Pound in the Egoist from February 1914, to September 1915. In due course he was allowed to go to Zurich where he formed a company of Irish players, who performed his play called Exiles, on the model of Ibsen. He had already begun Ulysses at Trieste in 1914. He continued it at Zurich, and it began to appear serially in the Little Review, New York, from March, 1918, to August, 1920, at which date it was stopped by a prosecution initiated by the Society for the Suppression of Vice. At Zurich his sight began to fail. A few years after the War ended he settled in Paris. Ulysses came out in book form in Paris and London in 1922, but owing to its alleged obscenity it was not allowed to circulate in England or America. Editions were, however, printed in Paris, and thousands of copies were smuggled into this country by individual bibliophile. Joyce’s next task was a large work, which he entitled ‘Work in Progress’, which began to appear in 1927, in sections under various titles. In it the word-coinages that were a feature of Ulysses were multiplied to the point of unintelligibility.

Joyce’s book Ulysses purports to relate the whole mental and physical life of Leopold Bloom, Jewish advertisement canvasser, and Stephen Dedalus, during one single day in Dublin. Its settled principle is to omit nothing, however trifling or scabrous and it makes extensive use what has been called the ‘interior monologue’, a literary device which Joyce claimed to have discovered in Edouard Dujardin’s forgotten novel, Les Lauriers sont coupés (1888): Proust, of course, used it, as did Miss Dorothy Richardson and others in this country, and it has had a far-reaching influence on the technique of many modern writers. Ulysses has many repellent or boring passages. It is steeped and soaked in the rough life of Dublin city. It is, however, intensely alive, fundamentally Irish, full of Rabelaisian ‘humour’, with a highly developed sense of time and a fantastic imaginative faculty.

In person Joyce was gentle and kindly, living a laborious life in his Paris flat tended by his devoted, humorous wife. There were a son and a daughter of the marriage. Joyce’s favourite diversion was music. [End.]

[ close ]

[ top ]