If you follow my Instagram or Twitter account for Truth and Edits you’ll know I recently took the plunge into James Joyce’s sprawling, high modernist work Ulysses. In honour of this momentous moment in my life, I thought it might be nice to briefly discuss the legendary Irish author who continues to fascinate the literary world.
James Joyce, born in 1882, grew up in a large, middle class Irish household and was educated for most of his youth at the Jesuit schools. However, as an adolescent Joyce rebelled against Catholicism (a journey he depicts vividly in A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man) and, turning away from religion, went on to dedicate his life to capturing the workings of the mind instead.
After dropping out of medical school, Joyce worked briefly as a teacher and began writing an early draft of Portrait. It was during this time he met Nora Barnacle, the great love of his life. Joyce memorialized their first date on June 16, 1904 by making it what would become known as ‘Bloomsbury Day’: the day during which the entire action of Ulysses takes place. Nora played a crucial role in Joyce’s writing and it was reportedly through his understanding of her and their candid conversations that he was able to capture the essence of Molly Bloom’s female consciousness so accurately in the final section of Ulysses.
Although much of his work is set in Ireland, Joyce eloped to Italy with Nora shortly after they met and went on to live most of his life abroad in continental Europe, never returning to Ireland after 1912. This being said, Irish culture pervades his work and much of his central concerns revolve around religion, alcoholism and their impact on broader society.
While Joyce was not a wealthy man when he died in 1941, his work has gone on to achieve almost mythical status. His use of stream of consciousness and privileging of thought processes over coherent action made his literary works simultaneously challenging and rewarding. Joyce is widely considered to be one of the great modernist writers, and Ulysses is found near the top of most best novel lists.
While many are intimidated by Joyce’s later works, his early collection of short stories, Dubliners, is extremely accessible and I would recommend it if you’re looking to ease into his writing. Although it deals with many of the themes found in Ulysses and Portrait, he hasn’t settled into his stream of consciousness narration yet, a form writing that even his beloved wife Nora jokingly described as ‘chop suey’ no one could understand.
What a legend (him and her).