March 14, 2000
by Kay Kimbrough
Viking Penquin, New York, 1999, $19.95.
Edna O'Brien's contribution to the Penquin lives series makes the career and life of James Joyce read like a lively Irish tale, comic and tragic, ironic and lyrical, bitter and tender. O'Brien's style mimics Joyce's at times, and her opinion of the man Joyce is as inconsistent as the man himself. She criticizes him, makes excuses for him, wonders at his cruelty, laments his weak eyes and poor health, admires his invincibility.
O'Brien tells the story of Joyce's incredible life in short chapters with intriguing names: "Once Upon a Time," "Jesuits," "Inkpots," "Rebellion," "Orphans," "Revels," "Nora,” begin the book. Nora represented the muse, the land he loved and fled, rebellion, and defiance of his family's expectations for him. "She was his precious darling, his pouting Nora, his little brown head as well as being mother earth made beautiful by moonlight and only dimly conscious of her myriad fluid-like instincts. He loved her soft voice. In her company he put aside his jeering contemptuous nature."
The other female influences in Joyce's life are those of his mother and his daughter, both tragic figures that haunted his thoughts and caused him torment. May Joyce died in her forties after bearing fifteen children, five of whom she buried. O'Brien writes of her letters to Joyce while he was studying in Paris: "Here was a woman over forty, ten children living, five dead, a husband who invariably drank his pay packet, writing to her gifted son of his ambitions and the prospects which lay ahead for him. Her solicitude is heartbreaking: he is not to touch the drinking water unless it is filtered or boiled. She assures him that another money order will be sent the moment she can get some. That she had the time let alone the stamina, when she was already, though unknownst to herself, a dying woman makes the letters all the more poignant." His letters to her were certain to have distressed the dying woman. He tells her of his hunger and cold, complaining about when she sends money, his need for new clothes and always his need for more money.
Joyce's daughter Lucia succumbed to insanity as a young woman. Joyce blamed himself and never gave up hope that she could be cured if she could only be near him at all times. "Joyce believed that his genius had cast its shadow on Lucia's psyche and perhaps it had. But his guilt reeks of something darker and more incrimination, and as if her malady was not the consequence of his genius but his early youthful dissipation." There is a parallel between Joyce's pathetic belief in his daughter's goodness and genius and his mother's belief in him "Even when he saw that she had drawn a picture of him, a coffin, with the rubric 'this is Jim' he was not alarmed." She honored his day of glory when ULYSSES was published in the United States and congratulations at last came by cutting the telephone wires not once but twice and by attacking her mother. Joyce's letters to her, like his mother's to him, "are indeed the letters of a lover." He tries to entertain her, sends her presents, gives advice on her diet, and reassures her that she is not insane. She wrote to her father that if she ever went away she would go to a country that belonged to him, but when she heard of his death, she said, "What is he doing under the ground, that idiot? When will he decide to come out?"
Harriet Weaver, who was not inspiration for Joyce's art but support for his very life, played a key role in his career. She arranged for Joyce to have a monthly allowance drawn on her account, although she was not wealthy. She supported him for years, sacrificing for him, even planning to sell her apartment so that he could continue to write without having to earn a living. "Various estimates have been made of how much Miss Weaver gave him, and in the equivalent of today's currency it is thought to be close to a million dollars." He broke with Miss Weaver when she failed, as everyone else had, to manage Lucia, with whom she had been entrusted after a visit to Dublin ended with her being placed in a hospital by Joyce's sister and his nieces. He rejected Harriet Weaver as he had rejected his mother, even though both women had sacrificed for him and given more than they could afford to him.
Another benefactress, Sylvia Beach, owner and founder of the famous bookstore Shakespeare & Company and publisher of ULYSSES, instigated her break with Joyce. Informed by Beach's lover, Adrienne Monnier, that he was exploiting Miss Beach, he replaced her with Miss Weaver. After all, he had warned Miss Beach, having told her, "I am always friends with a person for a purpose." He also informed Miss Beach that Miss Weaver was giving him generous sums of money to let her know in no uncertain terms that she was dismissed as his lady bountiful.
Although O'Brien chastises Joyce the man, she pays high tribute to Joyce the writer. Her chapters that deal directly with his books are helpful in understanding his purpose and the origins of his characters. Of FINNEGANS WAKE she writes, "What he was determined to do was to break the barrier between conscious and unconscious, to do in waking life what others do in sleep. Madness he knew to be the secret of genius....He preferred the word 'exhaltation' which can merge into madness. All great men had that vein in them. The reasonable man, he insisted, achieves nothing."
Joyce was anything but a reasonable man. O'Brien answers her question, "Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create?" with "I believe that they do." O'Brien herself is the author of eighteen books.