Ulysses revisited: Mr. Joyce: ‘literary genius’

Ulysses is the Roman name for Odysseus, in Greek mythology the king of Ithaca and central figure of the Odyssey, renowned for his cunning and resourcefulness. Traditionally ascribed to Homer, the epic poem traditionally describes the travels of Odysseus during his ten years of wandering after the sack of Troy. He eventually returned home to Ithaca and killed the suitors who had plagued his wife Penelope during his absence.
James Joyce’s Ulysses is an odyssey of Dublin life that charts the passage of one day, 16 June 1904, in the life of an Irish Jew named Leopold Bloom who plays the role of Ulysses. Published in 1922 the controversial and notorious novel assured Joyce’s immense literary reputation. Bloomsday is celebrated each year as a notable Dublin and increasingly international festival on the date chosen by Joyce for the events recorded in Ulysses.
Considered the leading prose writer in English in the twentieth century his literary style and prolific works are well documented and commented by historians, writers, biographers and critics on the life and work of this Irish writer. His originality lies in evolving a literary form to express the complexity of the human mind, and he revolutionized the form of the English novel with his ‘stream of consciousness’ technique. Publication of Ulysses in 1922, which revolutionized the form, structure and language of the novel, brought him worldwide recognition.
James Joyce left Ireland at the age of 22 and made his last visit there in 1912. In a sense he never left Dublin which is central to all his published work, especially Ulysses with its detailed picture of the city and its characters as it was in 1904. Joyce boasted that if Dublin were destroyed it could be rebuilt in detail from his works. He wrote ‘I really never left it. I carry it around with me’.
All his books came out in exile: poetry Chamber Music 1907, Pomes Penyeach 1927 and prose: Dubliners 1914, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 1916, Exiles (a play) 1918, Ulysses 1922 and Finnegans Wake 1939.
Joyce in Dublin
Eldest child of John Stanislaus and Mary Jane (May), James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (1882-1941) was born on 2 February in Rathgar, south of Dublin. Clever and well educated at Jesuit schools and University College Dublin he began writing early, achieving recognition, but no firm offers of publication, for work deemed ‘controversial’.
The Joyce family was initially quite well off as Dublin merchants with blood lines that connected them to old Irish nobility in the country. The family suffered increasing hardship as a consequence of the father’s alcoholism and his mother’s early death greatly affected him. They lived at several different addresses in and around Dublin. James’ father was a fierce Irish Catholic patriot and his political and religious influences are most evident in Joyce’s two key works A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses.
There are many landmarks and places in Dublin that honour James Joyce. They include Dublin Writers Museum, The James Joyce Centre, The Joyce Tower and Museum at Sandycove associated with Ulysses, the National Library of Ireland, restored Newman House (University College) and 15 Usher’s Island, the Georgian house with the famous dining room featured in The Dead that is restored and includes the James Joyce Art Gallery.
Joyce in exile
His sense of alienation from the religious and artistic restrictions of Irish life and the lack of recognition of his writing were at the root of his decision to leave Ireland and Parnell’s ‘betrayal’ had alienated him from the Irish establishment.
When in 1904 he went into ‘self-exile’ in Europe with Nora Barnacle his itinerant style of life continued. He kept in touch with his father and surviving siblings. He maintained a close relationship with his younger brother and confidant Stanislaus who followed James to Trieste in 1905 while helping to provide literary and financial support to his brother and family.
Joyce’s life-long partnership with Nora Barnacle began in 1904 when he spoke to her in Nassau Street, near the hotel where she was a chambermaid. She first ‘walked out’ with him at Ringsend at the mouth of the Liffey on 16 June 1904, later immortalised as Bloomsday in Ulysses. She joined him in ‘self exile’ to the continent where, rarely returning to Ireland, they remained mostly in Trieste, Paris and Zurich. Teaching posts and financial help from various sources supported them and their children, Giorgio (born 1905) and Lucia (born 1909).
In self-imposed exile, he wrote … ‘I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use, silence, exile, and cunning’. (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)
James and Nora married in 1931. He died in Zurich on 13 January 1941 where he, Nora (1884-1951) and Giorgio (1905-76) are buried at Fluntern Cemetery. There is a granite plaque marking the place and a near life-size bronze sculpture by Milton Herbald where James Joyce sits, walking stick by his leg, smoking, looking up from a titleless book that dangles open in his right hand resting on his left knee. The sculpture was inaugurated on Bloomsday in 1966.
Ulysses revisited
Irish dramatist, critic and man of letters, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) penned a powerful account of Mr. Joyce’s Ulysses and the Dublin of this ‘literary genius’.
Ulysses … is a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilisation; but it is a truthful one; and I should like to put a cordon round Dublin, round up every male person in it between the ages of 15 and 30; force them to read it; and ask them whether on reflection they could see anything amusing in all that foul mouthed, foul minded derision and obscenity …I have walked those streets and known those shops and have heard and taken part in those conversations. I escaped from them to England at the age of twenty; and forty years later have learnt from the books of Mr. Joyce that Dublin is still what it was, and young men are still drivelling in slackjawed blackguardism just as they were in 1870. It is, however, some consolation to find that at last somebody has felt deeply enough about it to face the horror of writing it all down and using his literary genius to force people to face it. In Ireland they try to make a cat cleanly by rubbing its nose in its own filth. Mr. Joyce has tried the same treatment on the human subject. I hope it may prove successful.
G. Bernard Shaw, Letter to Sylvia Beach, 10 October 1921.
Ita Marguet, June 2008
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in preparation of this article. It follows published texts on James Joyce and Bloomsday including James JOYCE in Pula: A Link to Croatia, by Ita Marguet (2004 – 2007)