James Joyce was one of the most celebrated and influential English-language writers of the 20th century, and his later works of fiction, including Ulysses (1922) and Finnegan’s Wake (1939), are considered by many critics the most challenging (and, for many, rewarding) works of literature produced in any language. The title of his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, signals the author’s tendency to draw heavily upon the circumstances of his own life, particularly his early life in Dublin. Indeed, despite a self-imposed exile that lasted most of his adult life, Joyce’s fiction is always set in the city of his birth, whose sights, sounds, smells and tastes emanate powerfully from his pages, drawing generations of readers to the city to experience a place they have already, in a sense, come to know. Readers should be aware, though, that Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of Portrait, is not James Joyce and the book is not the author’s autobiography; it is a life transformed into fiction, a verbal “portrait.”
Joyce was born in the south Dublin suburb of Rathgar, on February 2, 1882, the eldest of ten children born to John Stanislaus Joyce and Mary Jane (Murray) Joyce. At the time of his birth, the family was very well off, his father having inherited several properties in Cork and a fair sum of money, in addition to holding the highly paid position of Collector of Rates for Dublin. Within a few years, however, John Joyce lost his lucrative position; the family’s debts grew rapidly, and by the time the last child was born all of the properties were gone. Something of the family’s frequent removals into ever more humble surroundings can be glimpsed through Joyce’s fictional rendering of his early life in Portrait.
Before the financial hardships arrived, young James was tutored at home by a governess, Mrs. “Dante” Hearn Conway, whose fervent nationalism and even more fervent Catholicism are reflected in the figure of Dante in Joyce’s novel. At the age of six, he was enrolled in the prestigious Jesuit-run Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare, his father being determined that his eldest son would receive the very best education to be had in Ireland. After three years, though, John Joyce was no longer able to pay the fees, and his son had to be placed in the far less prestigious Christian Brothers’ school. Two years later his father managed to arrange a free place for Joyce at another Jesuit school, Belvedere College in Dublin, where he excelled, earning several national academic prizes. Between 1898 and 1902 he studied languages at University College, Dublin, causing a sensation when he published a review of Henrik Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken that received a complimentary response from the celebrated Norwegian playwright himself. Joyce was only eighteen at the time.
After brief sojourns in Paris in 1902 and 1903, Joyce left Dublin for good in October 1904, accompanied by his lifelong companion Nora Barnacle, whom he had met and fallen in love with only months before. Years later, he would commemorate the day on which they first walked out together at Ringsend (June 16, 1904) by setting his latter-day epic Ulysses on that date. Today, legions of readers remember this day as “Bloomsday,” after that novel’s quietly heroic central character, Leopold Bloom. Continuing the pattern established in the author’s youth, the couple moved often within and between a variety of European cities, including Paris, Rome, Zurich, and Trieste. Their financial situation was often dire, owing in no small part to Joyce’s astonishing recklessness with whatever money came their way; their second child, Lucia, was born in the pauper’s ward of a Trieste hospital. With the exception of two brief visits, in 1909 and 1912, Joyce never set foot in his native city of Dublin again.
Joyce published his first book, a slim volume of poems, Chamber Music, in 1907, but his fiction had a long and difficult path to publication. Early drafts of Portrait were composed as early as 1904, but the book was greatly revised before it was published in serial form a decade later. At the same time, Joyce had completed most of the stories in his collection Dubliners and began seeking a publisher for that book in December 1905. Yet it did not appear in print until after a nearly a decade of often desperately frustrating negotiations with a series of publishers and printers made nervous by the often controversial subject matter and language of the stories. At one point in 1911, in a moment of exasperation, Joyce threw the manuscript of his still unfinished Portrait in the fire; fortunately, most of it was rescued by the Joyces’ maid. At last, in 1914, both works were issued in print. Dubliners was published in June, while a few months earlier, in February, The Egoist magazine had begun serial publication of Portrait, which ran until September 1915. Despite encouraging sales of the serialized novel, Joyce still encountered difficulties in getting the work published in book form; after still further rejections and frustrations, it finally appeared in December 1916.
By this time Joyce was already at work on Ulysses, arguably his greatest achievement and unquestionably the book that made his reputation. Employing a remarkable and unprecedented range of narrative styles and techniques, Ulysses continues the story of the young would-be artist Stephen Dedalus and brings into his company a genial father-figure, an unassuming advertising canvasser named Leopold Bloom, whose wanderings through the streets of Dublin on a single day in 1904 dimly echo the journey of Ulysses (or Odysseus), the hero of the Trojan War whose difficult voyage home is the subject of Homer’s Odyssey. Like Portrait, Ulysses was serialized, in this case in an American magazine, the Little Review, between March 1918 and September 1920. Once again, there were difficulties: some issues were seized and burnt by the United States Post Office, which deemed them obscene. A trial followed, which resulted in the magazine’s editors being convicted and fined, but narrowly escaping imprisonment. No doubt recalling the years of frustration and disappointment preceding the appearance of Dubliners, Joyce feared the conviction would prevent any printer from taking Ulysses on. However, friends came to his aid, and the completed book was privately printed in a limited edition in 1922, with numerous reprints following over the next decade; an unlimited American edition finally saw print in 1934, with an English edition following two years later.
The publication of Ulysses in 1922 was a literary cause celebre: it delighted many and baffled and even disgusted others, but everyone on the literary scene felt compelled to read and talk about the book. Far fewer, though, were inclined to rise to the considerable challenge of Joyce’s next and final work, Finnegan’s Wake, begun in 1923, almost immediately following the completion of Ulysses, and published in book form in 1939, just two years before the author’s death. “I imagine I’ll have about eleven readers,” Joyce wrote to a friend, and, while the estimate is certainly low, there are good reasons for his supposition. Few of the familiar landmarks readers have grown accustomed to are evident here. One cannot speak easily about “plot” or “characters,” for instance, and the book is written in such a densely allusive and polyglot style that few attempt it without the assistance of the growing number of keys, guides, and annotations that have followed in its path. Harriet Shaw Weaver, Joyce’s long-time benefactor, no doubt spoke for many later readers when she wrote, in response to an early excerpt, “But, dear sir…the poor hapless reader loses a great deal of your intention.” Other readers were less polite. “Why can’t you write sensible books that people can understand?” was his beloved Nora’s characteristically blunt response; however, the book had, and continues to have, its fervent admirers. Joyce’s own commitment to his “book of the night,” as he called it, is amply demonstrated by the fact that he persevered in the writing of it for sixteen years despite ongoing hardships: an encroaching blindness required him to write at times in an enormous longhand, sometimes fitting only a few words on a single page while undergoing a series of painful eye operations; meanwhile, it became increasingly apparent that his beloved daughter, Lucia, was suffering from schizophrenia, a condition that finally resulted in her being institutionalized in 1936.
Joyce died in Zurich on January 13, 1941, and was buried there in the Fluntern cemetery, but he is remembered best in the city he fled and recreated so magnificently in his work, Dublin.