James Joyce was one of the most celebrated and influential English-language writers of the 20th century, and his later works of fiction, Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939), are generally regarded among the most challenging (and, for many, rewarding) works of literature produced in any language. All of his fictional writing drew somehow upon the circumstances of his own life, and, despite a self-imposed exile that lasted most of his adult life, his fiction always took place in the city of his birth, Dublin. In fact, Joyce has rendered Dublin so powerfully on his pages that generations of readers have been drawn to the city to experience a place they have already, in a sense, come to know.
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.
Before those hardships arrived, six-year-old James 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, his father was no longer able to pay the fees, and Joyce was placed in the far less prestigious Christian Brothers school on North Richmond street (mentioned in the opening lines of “Araby”) for two years until his father managed to arrange a free place for him at another Jesuit school, Belvedere College in Dublin. He excelled in school, 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 18 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 Joyce’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 some 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 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 his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, were begun as early as 1904, a decade before the greatly revised book saw print. Meanwhile, Joyce began seeking a publisher for Dubliners as early as December 1905. Within a few months he had signed a contract with Grant Richards for its publication, but the book would not appear in print until after a nearly a decade of often desperately frustrating negotiations with Richards and a series of other publishers and printers made nervous by the stories’ often controversial subject matter and language. At one point in 1911, with the book still awaiting publication and the wrangling over it consuming more time and energy than he felt he could spare, an exasperated Joyce threw the manuscript of his still unfinished Portrait on the fire; fortunately, most of it was rescued by the Joyces’ maid. At last, in June 1914, Dubliners was published in both England and America. A few months earlier, in February, the Egoist magazine had begun serial publication of Portrait, which ran until September 1915. After still further rejections and frustrations, the complete novel 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 Stephen Dedalus, the young would-be artist of his first novel, 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 the American magazine the Little Review between March 1918 and September 1920. 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 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 most players 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, Finnegans 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 in this work. One cannot speak very 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 wake. 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 has 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 an encroaching blindness that required him to write at times in an enormous longhand sometimes fitting only a few words on a page and to undergo 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.