His Ulysses baffled readers and challenged aspiring writers; it also revolutionized 20th century fiction

  • James Joyce once told a friend, "One of the things I could never get accustomed to in my youth was the difference I found between life and literature." All serious young readers notice this difference. Joyce dedicated his career to erasing it and in the process revolutionized 20th century fiction.

    The life he would put into his literature was chiefly his own. Born near Dublin in 1882, James Augustine Aloysius was the eldest of the 10 surviving children of John and Mary Jane Joyce. His father was irascible, witty, hard drinking and ruinously improvident; his mother, a devout Roman Catholic, helplessly watched her husband and family slide into near poverty and hoped for a happier life in the hereafter. James' entire education came at the hands of the Jesuits, who did a better job with him than they may have intended. By the time the young Joyce graduated from University College, Dublin, in 1902, he decided he had learned enough to reject his religion and all his obligations to family, homeland and the British who ruled there. Literature would be his vocation and his bid for immortality.

    He fled Ireland into self-imposed exile late in 1904, taking with him Nora Barnacle, a young woman from Galway who was working as a hotel chambermaid in Dublin when Joyce met her earlier that year. (On hearing that his son had run off with a girl named Barnacle, John Joyce remarked, playing on her last name, "She'll never leave him." And, proving puns can be prophetic, she never did.)

    Joyce departed Dublin with nearly all the narratives he would ever write already stored in his memory. What remained for him to do was transform this cache into an art that could measure up to his own expectations.

    As he and Nora and then their two children moved among and around European cities--Pola, Trieste, Zurich, Rome, Paris--Joyce found clerical and teaching jobs that provided subsistence to his family and his writing. His first published book of fiction, Dubliners (1914), contained 15 stories short on conventional plots but long on evocative atmosphere and language. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) provided a remarkably objective and linguistically complex account of Stephen Dedalus, i.e. James Joyce, from his birth to his decision to leave Dublin in pursuit of his art.

    Portrait did not sell well enough to relieve Joyce's chronic financial worries, but his work by then had attracted the attention of a number of influential avant-gardists, most notably the expatriate American poet Ezra Pound, who believed a new century demanded new art, poetry, fiction, music--everything. Such supporters rallied to promote Joyce and his experimental writings, and he did not disappoint them.

    He began Ulysses in 1914; portions of it in progress appeared in the Egoist in England and the Little Review in the U.S., until the Post Office, on grounds of alleged obscenity, confiscated three issues containing Joyce's excerpts and fined the editors $100. The censorship flap only heightened curiosity about Joyce's forthcoming book. Even before Ulysses was published, critics were comparing Joyce's breakthroughs to those of Einstein and Freud.

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