Okay, the title of this blog post should actually be “5 Times I Fell in Love with James Joyce and Was Also Sort Of Creeped Out By Him” but brevity is the soul of wit. So, I shortened the title (and it’s still not that funny.)
On June 15th of this year, we celebrated Dubliners’ (notice the lack of the “the”) centennial anniversary. That’s 100 brilliant years of Joyce’s collection of 15 short stories that express themes of loss, nationality, and awkward pubescence. I can talk about Joyce’s work rather nonchalantly now, but that’s because I’ve wedged some time between me and my undergraduate thesis. I dedicated a solid four months (when we had about eight months to write) to the small volume. In all, I wrote 22 pages about two stories from the collection, the first and the last. I was incredibly proud of what I had weaved and teased from the stories when I was finished with them, but I could not go near any of Joyce’s work after that.
But what was my initial attraction to JJ’s Dubliners? I had read the stories in high school, and they had influenced me. Probably not like other authors had, like Hemingway or Tim O’Brien. I enjoy books that have a bit more going on under the surface. But Joyce’s work seemed to pull back the veil on reality for me, if it did not also submerge me into his own version of things. He wrote people how they were and illustrated their dark underbellies. To this day, I can’t go to a funeral without thinking about Joyce’s The Dead. And so, unironically, Joyce haunted me throughout my literary career and my life.
But before I reiterate my entire thesis, let’s check out some interesting tidbits about the man who would come to openly hate and champion his own country and who would become one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
#5-He Really, Really Loved His Wife
Joyce loved Nora Barnacle (what a name!) but like most writers he suffered from a debilitating sense of negative self-worth. As a result, he was an incredibly protective and jealous husband. So, why did Barnacle keep him around? It might have to do with these very NSFW (not safe for work) love letters he wrote for her. Read at your own risk. Remember, somethings can’t be unseen or unread. For whatever reason, this makes me love him more. Not that I want to be the object of his rather explicit affection, I just like a person who says what they mean. Especially when a writer who can do that.
#4-Joyce Was Very Persistent
While every writer experiences some sort of rejection, Joyce seemed to have enjoyed a fair amount of it in comparison. Dubliners was submitted a total of 18 times to 15 different publishers (!!!). Mostly, the publishers believed his work to be too obscene. Joyce tried to stand up for himself by asserting his poetic license, but many of the publishers would not budge, even when he omitted several of the offensive instances in question. MentalFloss does Joyce’s publishing journey justice. In the end, Joyce was able to preserve the integrity of his work. And for that, we cannot fault him, but we can celebrate him.
#3-His Last Words Were Rather Profound
Now, this is a little unfair. All last words are profound because they are the last things you ever say. If you don’t show emotional depth and insight on your death bed, then where will you? However, Joyce’s final question, “Does nobody understand?” seems to accurately capture his entire life. I think he was an incredibly troubled man, and he used his writing to help people comprehend. Not him, per se, I don’t think he wanted to be put under a microscope, and I don’t think he was asking if anyone understood him in that really annoying, cliched teenager sense. But rather, he wanted people to acknowledge their own follies and shortcomings, as individuals and as a population. Not exactly the person you’d invite to a party, but not everyone can be charming. Actually, it’s what I love most about Joyce. He was what he was, and he was absolutely unapologetic for it.
#2-He Asked Hemingway to Beat People Up for Him
One account of Joyce recalls the fact he would pick fights at bars, and Hemingway would finish them. Due to his frail frame and his rather bookish personality, Joyce was hardly the one to initiate violence, but that doesn’t mean he would keep his mouth shut. You would think that this would make me dislike Joyce because he seems to be fearless in every other aspect of his life. But for me, this fact gives him a bit of dimension. Like most writers, he wasn’t the hero of his own life, but unlike most writers, he didn’t seek to write books with main characters bearing similarities to himself but with much bigger brawn and a lot more ladies circling. Joyce saw things as they were. And if he saw that you had about 3 inches on him, he would call Hemingway over for the intimidation factor.
#1-And He Once Said This, “Your battles inspired me–not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead.”
We are all our biggest enemies, and history tells us it was no different for Joyce. This quote speaks to the man he was, valuing intelligence over sheer might, but I think it also represents what kind of man he was when no one else was looking. He was troubled, but tender. In this quote, we can all relate, and we can recognize that we all have a little bit of Joyce inside of us, staring out.
There you have it. The reasons I completely adore James Joyce but sort of abhor his behavior. He wasn’t a particularly kind man, but he was a character. In life, sometimes the best thing you can have is a bit of personality and some quirks. I’m not saying he wasn’t a troublemaker, I’m just saying he’s my troublemaker. Cheers, JJ.