Posts Tagged ‘James Joyce’


Bile Beans


Bloomsday 2012 | By Jim Gavin

James Joyce

As a young man, he fled the squalor of Dublin and traveled penniless to Trieste, where he lived in obscurity as an exile. By day he taught at the Berlitz Language School, but his true vocation was literature, and he dedicated his life to the creation of books that would eventually make his name, or his last name, at least, famous throughout the world. Stanislaus Joyce was a martyr to his brother’s art.

James had been in Trieste for about a year, cultivating his silence, exile, and cunning, when he wrote to Stanislaus, trying desperately to persuade his little brother to join him on the continent. Stanislaus was twenty at the time. He hated Dublin even more than James and all he had to look forward to was a miserable clerkship that paid fifteen shillings a week. He had his own literary ambitions, and he dreamed of a new life just as much as James, but he also knew that he was being summoned to a special kind of hell, in which he would always live in the shadow of his genius brother. James had inherited both their father’s sense of humor and his talent for acquiring debt, and Stanislaus understood that James needed him as much for his companionship as his ability to hold down a job and fend off creditors. James was brave to leave Ireland, but he did so confident of his destiny. Stanislaus didn’t have the luxury of genius, and in many ways his decision to join his brother took an even greater amount of courage.

Stanislaus was three years younger than James. As the oldest son, James was the pride of the family, and because his talents were obvious at a young age, everyone agreed that he was destined for a brilliant career. Stanislaus, on the other hand, failed to distinguish himself in any way. The vaudevillian differences in their personalities are immediately apparent in their names. “James Joyce” is bright and sonorous, exuding a princely charm. “Stanislaus Joyce,” is square and awkward, a real clanger, and this was how they would go through life. Social gatherings looked like this: here you had James, tall and willowy, delighting everyone around him with his beautiful singing voice, flashing wit, and eerie self-belief, and here you had Stanislaus, short, sweaty and uncomfortable, standing off to the side and occasionally darkening the room with a sour opinion or fumbling remark.

Stanislaus idolized James and followed him around Dublin. James usually rewarded this devotion by showering Stanislaus with gentle scorn, the kind of ball breaking that all little brothers endure.  Stanislaus did his best to keep up, first by reading all the books that James read, and then by trying to cultivate his own opinions and literary style. He showed James entries from his diary, in which he had recorded a host of gloomy aphorisms – “every bond is a bond to sorrow” – and James made great sport of dismissing his efforts, calling them “Bile Beans,” which soon became a nickname for Stanislaus. When he was eighteen, Stanislaus described his thankless position:

It is terrible to have a cleverer older brother. I get small credit for originality. I follow Jim in nearly all matters of opinion, but not all…I perceive that he regards me as quite commonplace and uninteresting – he makes no attempt at disguise – and though I follow him fully in this matter of opinion I cannot be expected to like it.

However, James trusted Stanislaus more than anyone, and from the beginning confided his hopes and dreams and growing vision of himself as a artist. Though he would never admit it, James depended on his little brother’s awe and admiration, as well as his critical eye. For years, Stanislaus was the first person to read anything James wrote. Stanislaus was always his sounding board, and on their long, half-starved walks through Dublin, James would work out his opinions on art and life.

Stanislaus’ opinions lacked the Thomine intricacy of his brother’s, but they were strong and set him well apart from his peers. His break from the Catholic Church was instant and unwavering. He had always despised the priests, feeling in his gut the sadism and hypocrisy that kept them in power, and around the age of fifteen, he saw through the whole charade and left the Church forever, without a second thought.  Unlike James, he never suffered a melodramatic crisis of faith, and in later years he never looked back with any kind of sentimental appreciation. James saw great drama and mystery in the Mass. But for Stanislaus, it was all bullshit. End of story.

The two brothers differed most in their opinion of their father. James idolized him and found endless pleasure in his outrageous and self-aggrandizing stories. Stanislaus despised the man. He thought John Joyce was a pathetic drunk who, enchanted by the glory of his past, had shirked his responsibilities as a husband and father and driven a once decent middle class family into the most abject poverty.  In Ulysses, we learn that Stephen Dedalus, standing at his mother’s death bed, refused to kneel and pray.  This happened in real life. James refused, and, less famously, so did Stanislaus – Non serviam was his motto, too. When their mother passed, John Joyce began to weep uncontrollably, at which point Stanislaus violently denounced him for being a hypocrite after putting their mother through so much suffering. John Joyce replied meekly, “You don’t understand, boy.” There’s something to this. As a young man, at least, Stanislaus’ views were stark and unforgiving. He had little patience for human flaws. James, in contrast, with a deeper empathy and humor, delighted in the flaws. In later years, Stanislaus would reflect on their Dublin youth: “I wish I could see now, or could have seen then, the funny side of things, as my brother did.”

The day Stanislaus arrived in Trieste, James informed him that he and Nora were broke and they would need him to pay the rent.  This pretty much set the tone for their time together in Italy. They both taught at Berlitz, but James spent most of his paycheck at the pub, leaving Stanislaus to deal with mundane things like rent and food. Nora was glad to have Stanislaus around because she hoped he would help curb her husband’s drinking.  Stanislaus did his best. On many occasions he literally dragged James out of bars. Somehow, between bouts of drunkenness and feeling sorry for himself, James managed to get work done and Stanislaus often provided a guiding hand. He supplied the title for Stephen Hero, the book that would eventually be radically distilled into Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In Stephen Hero, Stephen has an incredibly square but loyal and sympathetic younger brother, Maurice, who plays a large role in the book. In Portrait, Maurice gets cut out entirely.  Stanislaus felt deeply hurt by this decision, but with his usual forbearance, he also recognized that it was the right decision, artistically.

Stanislaus read and commented on all the stories in Dubliners, and served as a model for the protagonist of “A Painful Case.” Mr. James Duffy is a solitary middle-aged bachelor living an exceedingly dull life in Dublin: “Mr. Duffy abhorred anything which betokened physical or mental disorder. A medieval doctor would have called him saturnine.”

But then he has an affair, of sorts, with a married woman. For his own uptight reasons, Mr. Duffy eventually breaks off the affair, claiming that “every bond is a bond to sorrow.” Four years later he reads in the paper that the woman had drunkenly wandered in front of a train and been killed. Bereft, he wanders through Phoenix Park, feeling like “an outcast from life’s feast.” James claimed that the portrait of Duffy was how he imagined what Stanislaus would be like in middle-age. This might’ve been the case, but Stanislaus left Dublin for Trieste and his life turned out much less solitary and much less dull.

For me the enduring image of James and Stanislaus is provided by a one sentence footnote in Ellmann’s biography. In a chapter devoted to the “The Dead,” Ellmann tells us that as James was struggling to complete the story, he suffered a terrible case of rheumatic fever. Ellmann suggests that the fever actually helped Joyce find the rhythm and meaning of the final passage, which he completed “in an atmosphere of fatigue, of weariness, of swooning.” James had recovered enough to resume work on the story, but he was still in a weakened condition, and so, according to Ellmann’s footnote, “He dictated the ending to Stanislaus a few days later.” Two brothers, broke and far from home, getting down on paper, together, the most beautiful goddamn ending in the history of modern literature.

In Trieste…

Eventually, James left for Paris and took his place among the literary gods. But Stanislaus stayed in Trieste, where he had found a home.  He had his own set of friends, and became a well-liked professor of literature at the University of Trieste. He married a former student and they had one son, James. In following his brother, he had stumbled upon an extraordinary life his own. For the remainder of their lives, the brothers rarely saw each other, but they corresponded frequently. During WWII, Stanislaus was removed from Trieste for speaking out against the Fascists. He was sent to Florence, and the last thing James Joyce ever wrote was a post-card to his brother, with the names of influential people who might be able to help Stanislaus deal with Italian authorities.

In his later years, Stanislaus spent much of his time writing about James and defending him against his critics. In his wonderful memoir, My Brother’s Keeper, Stanislaus comes off like a pissy Boswell, mocking the epic pretensions of the boy genius. Behold fourteen-year-old James Joyce, swanning through Dublin, carrying under his arm a thick stiff-covered exercise book that contained his first collection of poems. The title of this work – Moods. But looking back, Stanislaus could also see that his ego and pomposity were “evidence of the struggle to keep the spirit within him alive in the midst of all-pervading squalor and disintegration.”

Stanislaus loved and admired his older brother not for the famous works he produced, but for the fierce and mysterious spirit that drove him towards his destiny:

He detested falsity and believed in individual freedom more thoroughly than any man I have ever known. Freedom…was the guiding theme of his life. He accepted its gifts and its perils as he accepted his own personality, as he accepted the life that had produced him. His revolt was a defense of that personality against a system whose encroachments on the plea of obedience ended, like modern totalitarian systems which have copied it, only with the complete cancellation of character.

Of course, it’s easier to be free when you have a brother along for the ride, paying your rent. The brothers needed each other, and in countless ways, they rescued each other. Stanislaus could not escape his brother’s shadow, even in death. He died in 1955, on June 16th. Bloomsday.


Jim Gavin is a writer. Read his 2011 Bloomsday essay.


Blooms + Baskets | “Do You Like Truffles?”


Bloomsday, 2011 | James Joyce, Class Warrior

By Jim Gavin

After Ulysses was published, legends began to swirl about Joyce.  In a letter to his brother Stanislaus, Joyce catalogued some of his favorites.  He was, variously and simultaneously, an Austrian spy, a cocaine addict, the founder of dadaism, and a Bolshevik propagandist.  Joyce wished his life were so exciting.  Intrigue and peril, for him, meant avoiding the landlord on rent day.  He had benefactors and creditors in equal number, and his novel had been written on the run, as his family moved, or fled, from apartment to apartment in Trieste and Zurich and now Paris.

During his first years in Trieste, Joyce decided that he was a socialist. He believed in the redistribution of wealth, but only insofar as the wealth came his way.  He was a rotten socialist.  In Ulysses, Joyce turned Leopold Bloom, a lowly advertising agent, into an epic hero. Marxist critics assumed it was satire and they denounced Joyce. He told his friend Eugene Jolas, “I don’t know why they attack me. Noboby in any of my books is worth more than a thousand pounds.”

His peers didn’t know what to make of him. Genius? Bounder? Fraud? Mooch?

George Moore, a forgotten Irish novelist, said, “Joyce? Joyce? Why he’s nobody – from the Dublin docks: no family, no breeding.”

Over tea, T.S. Eliot told Virginia Woolf that in Ulysses Joyce had killed the 19th century. Woolf was less impressed. She described the book as “underbred” and “the book of a self-taught working man.”

Hemingway wrote to Sherwood Anderson: “Joyce has a most goddamn wonderful book. It’ll probably reach you in time. Meantime the report is that he and all his family are starving but you can find the whole celtic crew of them every night in Michaud’s where Binney and I can only afford to go about once a week…..The damned Irish, they have to moan about something or other, but you never heard of an Irishman starving.”

Joyce enjoyed flaunting all the money he didn’t have.  One afternoon he had lunch with T.S. Eliot, who, as a Midwesterner, a Harvard man, a Prostestant, an Anglophile, and a nine to five banker, had what you might call a certain distaste for extravagance.  Joyce ordered more and more wine and revelled in the horrified expression on Eliot’s face.  Eliot knew that Joyce wouldn’t let him pay, and he knew that by indulging like this, Joyce was condemning himself to weeks of scrounging.  Eliot never understood this kind of irrational behavior. Joyce understood it completely.  Hence the books they wrote.

On May 18, 1922, the English novelist Sydney Schiff invited Joyce to a supper party for Stravinsky following the performance of one his ballets.  Joyce arrived late and found everyone dressed in formal clothes, of which he owned none.  To cover his embarassment, he began to drink.  Then Marcel Proust walked through the door. He was wearing a fur coat. This was a legendary moment. What did the two greatest novelists of the 20th century talk about when they were introduced?

Proust: Do you like truffles?

Joyce: Yes, I do.

And that was pretty much it.  There are competing stories about what was actually said that night, but this one is the best.  Proust consorted with dukes and duchesses, Joyce with pub crawlers and onion sellers.  Neither really understood or read that much of the other’s work, but I imagine there must have been some recognition that night, some sense of stellar alignment.  I picture a brief nod, silent and transcendant, the kind that might pass between two explorers finding each other in the deepest jungle.  Proust died six months later and Joyce attended the funeral.

(Sources: all quotes taken from Richard Ellman’s James Joyce.)


Read more Blooms + Baskets here, and a Q&A with the author here


Bloomsday 2010 | John Joyce


A portrait of the artist's father.

Bloomsday, 2010

John Joyce

By Jim Gavin

Fathers glory in bad jokes.  Whenever I ask my dad whether or not a certain person is dead – usually an old actor, athlete, or politician I haven’t heard about in a while – he’ll say, “I hope so. They buried him.”  This has been going on for over thirty years and yet, somehow, I never see it coming until it’s too late.  My head drops a little, I stifle a groan. To his credit, my dad always delivers it in a virtuoso deadpan, as if he’s sitting at the Algonquin Round Table, instead of in his recliner, with the Dodger game on.

Ulysses didn’t really make sense to me until I got to the Cyclops chapter.  Early in the day, Leopold Bloom attends the funeral of Paddy Dignam, and later he enters Barney Kiernan’s pub, where the quality has gathered:

-How’s Willy Murray those times, Alf?

-I don’t know, says Alf. I saw him just now in Capel street with Paddy Dignam.  Only I was running after…

-You what? says Joe, throwing down the letters. With who?

-With Dignam, says Alf.

-Is it Paddy? says Joe.

-Yes, says Alf. Why?

-Don’t you know he’s dead? says Joe.

-Paddy Dignam! says Alf.

-Ay, says Joe.

-Sure I’m after seeing him not five minutes ago, says Alf, as plain as a pikestaff.

-Who’s dead? says Bob Doran.

-You saw his ghost then, says Joe, God between us and harm.

-What? says Alf. Good Christ, only five…What?….And Willy Murray with him, the two of them there near whatdoyoucallhim’s…What? Dignam dead?

-What about Dignam? says Bob Doran. Who’s talking about…?

-Dead! says Alf. He’s no more dead than you are.

-Maybe so, says Joe. They took the liberty of burying him this morning anyhow.

Apparently, my dad wasn’t very original.  And neither was Joyce, whose divine reprobate of a father, John Joyce, often used this joke, which he probably heard from his father, or in a bar, or from his father, while in a bar.  Readers can take many different approaches to Ulysses – Marxist, Freudian, etc – but I prefer to read it as one big bar joke.  The scene above, its music and hoary humor, originates from the tongue of John Joyce.

John Stanislaus Joyce was a failure, quite possibly the biggest failure in Dublin, which would place him high in the running for biggest failure worldwide, but his many failures were always overshadowed by his enduring sense of grandeur.  Particularly the grandeur of himself.  At one time, the Joyce family had some money, but by the time James was born, it had been squandered by his father, who gallantly refused to let a few debts get him down.  The Joyce clan grew large – John once described himself as the father of “ten or eleven children” – and on the streets of Dublin it was common to see them, after another eviction, moving en masse to new lodgings.  The kids carried the bags and furniture, while their patriarch led them onward, holding aloft a framed engraving of the Joyce family crest.  In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus famously describes the career, or careers, of his father, Simon:

A medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a good fellow, a storyteller, somebody’s secretary, something in a distillery, a tax-gatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past.

James Joyce had the good fortune of being his father’s favorite, and he more or less adopted his father’s views on politics and religion.  Champion of Parnell, Enemy of the priests. John was an encyclopedia of Dublin lore, and when Joyce was a boy, John would take him on long walks through Dublin, telling him which house Swift lived in, where so and so dropped dead, singing songs, telling jokes, creating the atmosphere that lives on every page of Ulysses. He was the kind of true local and man-about-town that is hard to imagine in our current age, in which we have all become reclusive know-it-alls armed with digital hate cannons.  So John Joyce had a good side.  The bad side – the drunken abuse he heaped on his long-suffering family – helped convince James Joyce to leave Ireland.

While in “exile,” Joyce lived as improvidently as his father, but stayed dedicated to his family and his art.  In Stephen Hero, it is said of Mr Dedalus (Joyce spelled it “Daedalus” in the earlier book, in stricter accordance with Greek myth): “He had his son’s distaste for responsibility but not his courage.”  Joyce wasn’t above paying himself a compliment, but it’s hard to deny him this truth. He stayed on good terms with his father, writing often and bugging him for details about people and places that he could put in his books. In Ulysses, Simon Dedalus is a peripheral figure, losing out on the theological shell game that connects Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, but his appearences are always memorable for his wit and the eloquence of his wrath.  In the Hades chapter, Simon rides to Dignam’s funeral with several locals, including Bloom, who sees Stephen passing in street and says to Simon:

-There’s a friend of yours gone by, Dedalus, he said.

-Who is that?

-Your son and heir.

Simon goes on to express his concers about poor helpless Stephen, his most cherished son, who has been hanging around with a disreputable cad, Buck Mulligan:

-He’s in with a lowdown crowd, Mr Dedalus snarled. That Mulligan is a contaminated bloody doubledyed ruffian by all accounts.  His name stinks all over Dublin.  But with the help of God and His blessed mother I’ll make it my business to write a letter one of those days to his mother or his aunt or whatever she is that will open her eye as wide as a gate.  I’ll tickle his catastrophe, believe you me.

If the goal of every writer is to become the shame of their parents, as J.P. Donleavy once said, then Joyce failed.  John tried reading Ulysses, but it didn’t hold his interest.  He thought singing was Joyce’s true talent.  Still, he was proud enough to describe his son, the author of the century’s greatest novel, as “a good kind of blackguard.”

For many years, Joyce considered returning to Ireland to visit his elderly father, but he never made it.  John Joyce died in 1931, his last words: “Tell Jim he was born at six in the morning.” Joyce had recently written him with some astrological questions. They were always in each other’s thoughts. Joyce was crushed by sorrow and guilt and in a letter to Harriet Weaver, he wrote:

I was very fond of him always, being a sinner myself, and even liked his faults. Hundreds of pages and scores of characters in my books came from him.  His dry (or rather wet) wit and his expression of face convulsed me often with laughter…I got from him his portraits, a waistcoat, a good tenor voice, and an extravagant licentious disposition.

And lots of bad jokes.  Years before, when Joyce told his father about Nora Barnacle, John said, “She’ll stick to you.” Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for funny man, John Joyce!


Jim Gavin’s “Blooms + Baskets” column appears twice a year, “Blooms” on Bloomsday and “Baskets” as a preview to the NCAA basketball tournament. Read “Gogarty,” from Bloomsday 2009, here >>