Bloomsday 2012 | By Jim Gavin
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.
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.