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.)