It’s almost the middle of June, and that means one specific thing to a certain number of people around the globe; Bloomsday! The 16th of June is the annual date for fans of Ireland’s most famous author - James Joyce - and the literary world in general to celebrate the writer’s life and work. One work in particular, his most famous one, is celebrated with vigour - Ulysses. The events of this sprawling modernist novel take place on the 16th of June 1904 in various locations around Dublin city. Every time the date comes around, fans follow the characters’ footsteps, hear extracts from the book, dress in period costume and eat and drink typical early 20th century fare to commemorate one of the most important novels ever written. But what was James Joyce really like, and what are his other novels about?
James Joyce was born in 1882 in Rathgar, Dublin. Ireland at the time was a turbulent place to live. Having been rapidly industrialised throughout the 19th century, the way of life for its people had changed from largely agricultural to starkly divided rural and city living. More and more people were spending longer in education and an urban middle class emerged.
The nationalist movement was also growing in intensity, and with it came new faces to the world of literature, art, music, and politics, who expressed themes of independence, Irish heritage and culture in their work. The Joyce family was one of the new middle class families, living in a reasonably wealthy suburb with decent income (although with 12 children to look after their finances were constantly stretched to the limits).
James was the eldest of the 12 children, 2 of whom later died of typhoid. He was a very intelligent boy with an aptitude for words and writing; he wrote his first poem at the age of 9 about the death of Charles Stewart Parnell. Seeing this natural talent as well as the burgeoning creative and political movement in Ireland, his parents made it a priority to provide him with the best education possible, sending him to a Jesuit boarding school in Kildare and later the prestigious Belvedere College in Dublin. He went on to attend University College Dublin, where he studied English, French and Italian. Although he was already writing regularly by the time he finished studying in UCD, Joyce instead decided to pursue a career in medicine, for which he moved to France.
After a few months however, he left. The classes were conducted in technical French, which was a struggle for him to understand even with his linguistic talents, and his dying mother wanted him at home. While back in Dublin he made his first real attempts at becoming a published writer, with reasonable success. He wrote literary reviews, supplementing his income by teaching and utilising his other great talent - music and singing. A short story of his was published in Homestead magazine, and he was in the midst of turning a rejected essay-story titled ‘A Portrait of the Artist’ into a novel. He abandoned the project, but returned to it decades later and it became one of his best known works.
Joyce never really felt entirely comfortable in Ireland however due to his renouncement of Catholicism - at the time Ireland was a staunchly religious country - and was prone to binge drinking. In 1904 he met his future wife Nora Barnacle, and took her on their first date on 16th June (so now you know why he chose that particular date for his best work!). His heavy drinking led to him getting involved in conflicts with his peers, and the two decided to escape and settle down in mainland Europe, moving to Zurich that same year.
Their life abroad got off to a rocky start with several initial teaching job opportunities falling through for Joyce. He eventually secured stable employment and the couple settled in Trieste to start a family; son Giorgio was born in 1905 and daughter Lucia in 1907. When not teaching (and according to some sources drinking) he spent his time writing. His literary reputation expanded rapidly back in Dublin, and he also found fame as one of the founding members of the city’s first cinema.
In 1912, after several trips back and forth attempting to get his first short story collection (Dubliners) published, Joyce finally gave up on Ireland and never returned - although it remained the inspiration for the majority of his work. Instead, he brought his brother and two of Nora’s sisters to live with and help support the family. Two years later Dubliners was finally published and things improved. The family moved back to Zurich and Joyce found a patron, allowing him to give up teaching and focus on writing. He began working on Ulysses, published ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ and ‘Exiles’, and came into contact with many multilingual and multicultural like-minded artists.
After spending four years in Zurich, the Joyce family moved to Paris in 1920 at the invitation of Ezra Pound. Initially intending to stay just for a week, they ended up staying for some 20 years! By now Joyce was enjoying a great deal of fame in Ireland, Paris and further afield, and was finishing Ulysses to move on to another of his great works, Finnegan’s Wake. However, his health had started to decline, in particular his eyesight. He made regular trips to Zurich for eye surgery and by the 1930s required regular nursing.
His heavy drinking during his life also took its toll on his body, and other health complications arose. Although still able to write, it became more and more difficult. If it wasn’t for the financial support of his patron and the excellent medical care he received, it’s entirely likely that Joyce would never have published, and possibly not even finished, much of his later work. At the outbreak of the Second World War Joyce moved back to Zurich again. In 1941, he was suffering from a perforated ulcer among other health issues. Although the surgery to fix it was a success, he fell into a coma afterwards and passed away two days later.
His wife Nora outlived him by 10 years, and the two are buried side by side along with their son (who passed away in 1976) in Fluntern Cemetery in Zurich.
If you thought James Joyce’s life sounds complicated, it’s only the tip of the iceberg compared to his work. Far from your average ‘start, middle and end’ novel format, his work is renowned for being the definition of modernist avant-garde writing. The modernist movement was about renouncing the obsolete culture of the past and embracing the ‘new’, using innovative techniques of expression and placing emphasis on self-awareness rather than realism. All of his stories take place in Ireland, mostly in Dublin, and the characters are based on real people that he encountered throughout his time there. Of his fixation on the capital city in his work, Joyce said “I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities in the world. In the particular is contained the universal.” Despite being published almost 100 years ago, his novels are still being picked apart and analysed by literary buffs. If you’re in the mood for a challenge, here are the famous author’s best known works to try for yourself.
Arguably Joyce’s most accessible work, Dubliners is a collection of 14 short stories and 1 novella. Each story tells of the lives of ordinary, middle class dubliners in the early 20th century - some of the characters also appear in minor roles in Ulysses. Starting off with stories told through the eyes of young children, it then progresses to adolescents and mature adults. Like much of his work, great emphasis is placed on precise locations around Dublin - so if you know the city you’ll find it easy to relate to, even 100 years later. As it was his first published book, Joyce had considerable trouble getting it published. He submitted it 18 times to 15 publishers over 9 years, refusing to agree to any major changes. Eventually one of the publishers who initially rejected the manuscript after clashing with him relented, publishing it in 1914.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
This was Joyce’s first novel, and in it he explores the techniques he would later perfect in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. The novel tells the story of Stephen Dedalus (who reappears in Ulysses) as he experiences a religious and intellectual awakening, rebelling against his Catholic upbringing and culture and eventually self-exiling himself to Europe. Sound familiar? Most literary aficionados agree that Dedalus is the fictional alter ego of Joyce himself, which makes sense given the title and plot of this novel! It was first published in 1917, but also appeared in serial form in literary magazine The Egoist.
Joyce’s most famous work, Ulysses is considered to be the epitome of modernist fiction. It follows the protagonist Leopold Bloom over the course of an ordinary day in various locales in Dublin. The novel uses his famed stream-of-consciousness technique which gives a direct insight into the minds of each character. Although innovative, it can be a bit of a headache to read for those unfamiliar with it! The book draws multiple parallels with Homer’s Odyssey, with characters based from Joyce’s life in Dublin. By the time Ulysses was published in 1922 Joyce was already a famed author, but still it met with a controversial reception from some critics and was even banned by the UK until the 1930s because of some of the content.
This was Joyce’s final work, published two years before his death in 1939. It took the author 17 years to write and is even more bewildering than Ulysses - even top critics are willing to confess to being somewhat confused by it. The novel focuses on the Earwicker family, but the plot is still up for debate today. Regularly listed as the most difficult work of fiction in the English language, it uses standard English as well as a multitude of completely made up words. Combine that with Joyce’s classic stream-of-consciousness technique and you have a novel that is quite impossible for the general public to make sense of! Nonetheless, it still deserves its place in Joyce’s canon of work.