Portraits of the Artist in Exile
For those interested in James Joyce, this work may serve as a more genial and comfortable introduction than Richard Ellmann’s magisterial biography of some eight hundred pages. The present volume contains seventeen reminiscences by fourteen authors, translated from six languages—Italian, French, German, Czech, Danish, and Polish. The translations will no doubt also benefit those who do not have Joyce’s facility (or felicity) with languages.
Only one of the essays is previously unpublished, but seven appear here for the first time in English. The original publication dates range from 1922 to 1979, but most of the material was apparently written between 1922 and 1950. Several of these recollections were apparently unknown to Ellmann, and some were published after his James Joyce appeared in 1959. The essays mainly cover Joyce’s years in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris; the editor supplies a general introduction, useful notes, and a series of brief introductions to the various selections which form a handy running biography of Joyce.
As might be expected in a collection of this sort, the contents range from three to forty-six pages, from casual acquaintance to intimate friendship, from brief notes to polished essays, and from the trivial to the useful. As might also be expected, some of the essays really tell more of the author than they do of Joyce.
Although there will be some help here for those Joyceans who delight in hunting allusions and correspondences, it must be said at the outset that this volume will add to or correct Ellmann only in the most minor of details; its primary value is not in new information or new interpretations, but in the new angle it gives us on Joyce. We see Joyce more directly and more personally and are better able to judge the effect he made on those around him. We see Joyce as he appeared to a variety of Europeans—from a bank teller to a collaborator in translation, from a businessman to a sculptor—although most of the pieces in the collection are in fact by persons who have some connection with the world of letters: novelists, journalists, critics, and writers. In spite of the fact that, in addition to being a great novelist, Joyce was also a near-alcoholic, irresponsible in money matters, not above using friends and acquaintances, constantly swinging from manic gaiety to morose silence, and frequently imagining plots against himself, almost every one of these reminiscences is testimony to Joyce’s ability to inspire interest, affection, and even awe in others.
It is impossible to say that any one of these pieces is the “best” or “truest” portrait of Joyce, for Joyce clearly possessed the artist’s chameleon nature. However, several of the essays may usefully be singled out for one contribution or another to a partial understanding of Joyce. The essay most entertaining in its own right is “Joyce Stripped Naked in the Piazza,” originally delivered as a lecture in Trieste just three weeks after the publication of Ulysses in 1922 by Joyce’s fellow language teacher in Pola and Trieste, Alessandro Francini Bruni. It is a hilarious piece, an admitted caricature, presented in a racy, pun-filled, colloquial style, emphasizing the farcical vignettes of Joyce’s involvements with the language school’s students and director. The author admits that this is only the small change of Joyce’s life and that it is difficult to reconstruct the entire person of Joyce, composed as he was of elements which, by right, ought not to be found together.
An author’s person or personality becomes of interest only if his works are of importance. Some of the essays presented here deal hardly at all with Joyce’s books; of those which do, that by Philippe Soupault, French writer and one of the founders of the Surrealist movement in literature, speaks most directly of Joyce’s work. Soupault emphasizes the unity of all Joyce’s books and urges the necessity of reading them in sequence. From his work in assisting Joyce in translating “Anna Livia Plurabelle,” he notes Joyce’s concern for words as objects and his insistence on precision. He makes it clear that, whatever the impression produced on the casual reader by Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, Joyce is far from an automatic writer, spilling out words and phrases from the unconscious with only the most tenuous of connections. In Joyce, every word is weighed; at every step, the reader must submit, through the medium of the language, to the will of the author. Soupault is lavish in his praise of Joyce’s genius, although to say that the whole of Ulysses contains “not one false note, not one error, not one thing to repent” is perhaps to err on the side of idolatry. Although Soupault would not admit that Finnegans Wake is, as some have described it, a noble failure, he does admit that a book of commentaries is necessary for even the willing reader.
An essay which, though brief, raises the most intriguing point in the whole book is that by August Suter, a Swiss sculptor who met Joyce in Zurich during World War I. According to Suter, Joyce used people the way a painter uses models, by assigning roles and turning conversations in directions needed for his work. The editor of the collection points out several other possible instances of this same strategy. If this was in fact a technique employed by Joyce, it would certainly connect with his demonstrated talent for drawing people out and absorbing their experiences; it would also seem to merit wider and more detailed study, as leading to an understanding of at least one element in Joyce’s creative processes.
If one had to select one essay here as a brief introduction to Joyce, it would be “Meetings with Joyce” by Dr. Carola Giedion-Welcker, a Zurich art critic and early champion...
(The entire section is 2387 words.)