The Wordsmith of Literary Mazes
“Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!” This is perhaps the best way to begin our episode on the revered Irish writer James Joyce. This famous 100-letter construction represents the sound of the fall of Adam and Eve and comes from Joyce’s work of fiction, Finnegans Wake, an arcane book that defies all literary and linguistic conventions. Yet despite Joyce’s reputation for crafting complex and puzzling texts full of riddles and allusions, he is idolized as one of the greatest (albeit controversial) wordsmiths of the 20th century.
Portrait of James Joyce by Jacques-Émile Blanche, 1935. National Portrait Gallery, London.
James Joyce, born on February 2, 1882, in Dublin, was the oldest of ten children. His father, John Stanislaus Joyce, was a talented singer but had a fondness for drinking, and his lack of attention to the family’s finances meant that the Joyces were never wealthy.
From a young age, Joyce displayed exceptional intelligence, a talent for writing, and a deep love for literature. He even taught himself Norwegian so that he could read Henrik Ibsen’s plays in their original language. Later in life, he could speak a total of 17 languages, including Arabic, Sanskrit, and Greek.
Joyce had a complicated connection with his home country. After graduating from University College Dublin at age 20, Joyce left Ireland for Paris. However, he returned when his mother fell ill and passed away. During his short stay, he met Nora Barnacle, who became his lifelong partner. They moved to Pula, now in Croatia, before settling in Trieste, Italy. Joyce never went back to live in Ireland and considered himself an exile, residing in cities like Zurich, Rome, and Paris.
Joyce faced a notorious struggle in getting his first book, Dubliners, published. It depicted lower-class city dwellers living through desperate times. In this book, Joyce offers what he describes as “a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis.”
Submitting this 15 short stories collection for publication at the age of 23, Joyce anticipated recognition of his genius but faced almost a decade-long battle with publishers who feared legal issues and criticism due to the explicit realism, particularly concerning sex, portrayed in his work.
Finally, in June 1914, the collection was released, but it garnered little attention and had poor sales. Its reception would undergo a significant change in the following century.
In a Dublin Park, Light and Shade by Walter Osborne, c. 1895. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.
Two years later, Joyce released his second book, the novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In this künstlerroman, or “artist’s novel,” the reader follows the religious and intellectual enlightenment of Stephen Dedalus (James Joyce’s literary alter ego) during his childhood and adolescent years. Through a mix of third-person narration and free indirect speech, Joyce shifts the focus between memory, thought, and distant perspective with delicacy, allowing the reader to momentarily enter the mind of the main character.
In the year when Dubliners was published, Joyce also began working on his groundbreaking novel Ulysses. This story follows the events of a single day in Dublin, specifically on June 16, 1904, which also happens to be the day Joyce and Barnacle first met.
James Joyce (top left) with his son Giorgio (top right), Nora Barnacle (bottom right), and daughter Lucia (bottom left). Paris, 1924.
In Ulysses, Joyce continued to experiment with innovative forms and juxtaposing voices. He also developed the stream-of-consciousness writing style beginning to bloom in the works of contemporaries such as Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf. This style is most evident through Molly’s “soliloquy” (a monologue to oneself) at the end of the novel. At first glance, the final chapter appears to be blocks of unpunctuated text; however, this uninterrupted flow of visions, sounds, and senses replicates the never-ending psychological activity of the mind, providing endless and often paradoxical interpretations of reality as experienced subjectively.
That being said, Ulysses is not a straightforward book to read. When it was published in Paris in 1922 the novel received both acclaim and strong criticism. It was even banned for several years in the UK and the US for being obscene.
Despite his mixed feelings about the attention Ulysses brought him, Joyce’s days as a struggling writer came to an end when the book was published. However, success couldn’t shield Joyce from health problems, particularly concerning his eyes. He faced a series of eye illnesses, underwent numerous surgeries, and experienced periods of near-blindness. There were times when Joyce had to write using a red crayon on large sheets of paper.
Drawing of James Joyce by Adolf Hoffmeister, 1966
In 1939, Joyce released his highly anticipated follow-up novel, Finnegans Wake, which proved to be an even more challenging read than his previous work. It is an experimental novel that explores the boundaries of the stream of consciousness and literary references to their utmost limits. While the book can be read in a linear fashion, Joyce’s unique writing style challenges conventional notions of plot and character progression, inviting readers to explore the text in a non-linear manner.
On January 11, 1941, Joyce underwent surgery for a perforated duodenal ulcer. Unfortunately, the following day he fell into a coma and passed away, less than a month before his 59th birthday.
Joyce’s inventive literary approaches and unorthodox use of language marked a radical shift in Modernist writing, an influence that still reverberates and liberates through the pages of even the most contemporary works of fiction. Perhaps above all, he understood how flexible words could be, creating a web of storytelling that broke free from the usual understanding of language. In true Joycean fashion, let us conclude this episode with “a way a lone a last a loved a long the—
“Shut your eyes and see.” ―James Joyce
“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” ―James Joyce
“Life is too short to read a bad book.” ―James Joyce
“Love loves to love love.” ―James Joyce, Ulysses
“They lived and laughed and loved and left.” ―James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
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