Review: Selected letters of James Joyce

edited by Richard Ellmann (Faber Paperbacks, London, Faber and Faber, 1976. £6.50)

John Bayley

Keats’s letters, or D. H. Lawrence’s, are contiguous not only with the writers’ personalities but with their whole being as artists: their letters are, in fact, a natural part of their art. This is not necessarily a sign of superiority, but it does perhaps indicate an attitude to their art that other lords of the word hoard do not possess. Virginia Woolf writes letters to practise her writing—in itself not necessarily a chilly business—she needs her correspondents much more than many more spontaneous performers—but we do feel with her a sense of the blade being honed on the grindstone: nor does she give much away. Joyce does not practise, and he gives a great deal away; yet as a modern letter writer he is nearer to her than to Lawrence. Their art is like a jewel in a casket, shut away from daily exigence and routine.

And yet we can find in Joyce’s letters, in a way which has no parallel with hers, not only the genesis of his larger myths, but the simple and moving situation which was to be worked up into his greatest masterpiece of art—The dead. Joyce did put his art into his letters in one sense, in the same way that he put his life into his art. His marriage to Nora Barnacle provided him with an escape from the narcissistic solitariness and self-interest of the artist as young man: he acquired the vulnerability and the accepted indignity of Bloom. This is the principal drama that emerges in the letters he wrote before the First World War and the chief interest they exhibit to us. One of the fascinations of Joyce’s letters, which makes him different from any of his contemporaries, is the intense curiosity they raise about what his correspondents were really like, and how much they resembled in reality the picture of them, suggested or brought out, by Joyce himself. Nora herself, and Stanislaus the faithful younger brother, become as real in some ways as the figures in the background of a Shakespeare play, and for reasons not so very different—Joyce had the mysterious power of creating other peoples reality in the words he uses for his own ends and, as it were, to please himself.

I had supposed that Joyce’s relations with his brother were selfish, demanding and insensitive—total exploitation, so far as was practicable, of this singularly patient and long-suffering family man. But the letters give a different impression, of an intimacy taken for granted, it is true, but mutual and complete for all that. And Stannie—or so one infers—was certainly not the bachelor prude of A painful case in relation to his brother, who tells him, for instance, in an offhand but wholly relaxed and unselfconscious way, that Nora admits when young to having practised ‘the gentle art of self-satisfaction.’ To his brother, as to Nora herself, he acts quite at home, with a lack of posture, as of restraint, which is both revealing and touching. The impression here is in a sense Keatsian, and is of a genuinely common man, a man who never even bothered to consider or attempt ‘the life of the intellect’ in the sense that Keats himself would have thought it an automatic aspiration, the sense in which Proust or Eliot or Pound took it for granted.

It was for Joyce to master words, not ideas or culture: Stephen was a pose, a young man’s pose, but Bloom was the reality. ‘He’s a bit of an artist is old Bloom.’ In the earlier letters we can see Joyce meditating and preparing the becoming of a bit of an artist, with all it implies. And doesn’t imply. He hardly bothers with English literature: ‘Without boasting I think I have little or nothing to learn from English novelists.’ Characteristically, he seems at first a little perturbed by Gissing—has Gissing done it, or anything like it, already? But no, no need to worry, a rapid perusal reveals that Gissing turns out just as literary, as firmly conventionalized, as the rest of them. ‘Why are English novels so terribly boring? The socialist in this is first a worker, and then inherits a fortune, jilts his first girl, marries a lady, becomes a big employer and takes to drink. You know the kind of story?’ Indeed we do. And Joyce rubs the point in for his brother with a final comment on Demos. ‘There is a clergyman in it with searching eyes and a deep voice who makes all the socialists wince under his firm gaze.’ Joyce has the solvent powers of genius; he can make all English fiction seem as wholly artificial as the cinema, the ways of John Wayne and the Western. And in pre-Bloom days he is immensely shrewd to his brother on the subject of the Russian novelists. He has no time for Turgenev (‘He is a little dull, not clever, and at times theatrical. I think many admire him because he is ‘gentlemanly’ just as they admire Gorki because he is ‘ungentlemanly’’) but he reproves his brother for depreciating Tolstoy, whom he passionately admires. Again, one must be struck by the comment about ‘gentlemanly’ and ‘ungentlemanly,’ as if they were aspects of the same conventionality in regard to literature, as indeed they still are—nobody is stagier than the trendy, the feminine, or the prole novelist of today, who have no more been able to learn from Joyce than his successors learnt from Shakespeare.

‘Scrupulous meanness’ was not enough—Joyce had to discover the real dynamic that finds its most intense and compressed expression in The dead: the natural cohabitation in the archetypal popular art-mind of romance and meanness. And here the breakthrough was his feeling for Nora Barnacle. Like Gabriel Conroy, Joyce could visit upon Nora, in thought, word and deed, all his ‘clownish lusts,’ while at the same time remaining enchanted by the romance of her youth, his own feeling for it, and an unenvious wistfulness for the feelings of others. Nora was ‘his little brown-arsed fuck-bird,’ but she was also his little ‘wild drenched, dark-blue flower of the hedges.’ Keatsian again is the spontaneity of high romance with total earthiness, neither in any way conventionalized into the gentlemanly or ungentlemanly. Yet, as for Yeats, ‘Words alone are certain good.’ Joyce’s obsession with the brown stain on the back part of Nora’s drawers, is, we feel, not so much with the thing itself as with the words he can find for it. ‘Are you offended, dear, at what I said about your drawers? That is all nonsense, darling. I know they are as spotless as your heart. I know I could lick them all over, frills legs and bottom. Only I love in my dirty way to think that in a certain part they are soiled. It is all nonsense, too, dear, about buggering you. It is only the dirty sound of the word I like, the idea of a shy beautiful young girl like Nora pulling up her clothes behind and reveal her sweet white girlish drawers,’ etc., etc.

It was not nonsense—that is clear—but it is also clear that what really excited Joyce were the words he found to describe his excitement. Words—the ‘cool web of language’—are spotless, whatever they convey. And yet he needed art in the most practical of ways. The more frenetic of the scatological love letters make no bones about the fact that Joyce is missing Nora and writing to her thus in order, as he tells her, to masturbate; and encouraging her to do the same. A remarkable image of marital intimacy. And what were Nora’s reactions? She, like Stanislaus, has all the interest of a character, all the more from her shadowiness. Probably she took it all as the way her Jim carried on, and found it both mildly funny and flattering.

There is, after all, a certain universality about it: men have always been obsessed with womens’ knickers, since they have worn them, much as Greek sculpture—and its Hellenic and Victorian customers alike—delighted in the beautiful image of the crouching Venus, who, when one considers the matter, is obviously just rising from the act of having a shit. Sex remains in the head, whatever Lawrence may say, and hence in the imagination of art and language. Joyce’s difficulty was obviously to persuade Nora to have the same fascination with sex as language as he did. Romance (the Michael Furey, or the Michael Bodkin as he actually was) was more her style, and there may be something of the ewig weiblich about this, despite all the efforts of Women’s Lib. Certainly Nora appears to have been totally unmoved—in all senses—by Joyce’s art; and he recognizes this, in a sense, in the nature of Molly’s dialogue, where language is too lazy and too incoherent to be used by the speaker to excite herself or others.

Despite their intimacy, therefore, a gap remained, and its existence is itself comic, touching and moving, very much a part of the charm and humanity of the correspondence. ‘Not only do I want your body (as you know) but I also want your company.’ Joyce found Nora’s existence a source of infinite fascination, more so, probably, than if she had been able or willing to respond to his work and his words and be interested in them. The lyric accounts of their eating (Keats again) give more of an impression of togetherness than the sex language. Joyce is entranced when she asks him to teach her geography, inquires ‘is Jesus and God the same?’ and ‘the evening before fast I found her stitching together skins of apples.’ Above all she responded to the goodness and humanness of her husband—’a poor weak impulsive man, and he prays to me to defend him and make him strong . . . You will find, dear, that I am not a bad man.’ It is a critical bromide to speak of the central humanity in Joyce’s work but it is nonetheless true. Maybe, too, it is part of the unfairness of art and the privilege of a great male artist that he can respond to and understand the romance centred in women and the lust centred in men, making the two equal and interchangeable? His dark-blue raindrenched flower of the hedges, and the yearning figure of romance standing under the dripping tree, are as vivid and beautiful to this artist and man as the brown marks on drawers or his panting curiosity about just how his flower stands or crouches when she is masturbating in the WC.

It remains to say, what one has come almost to take for granted with this seraphic biographer and editor, that Richard Ellmann’s edition, notes and commentary are all superb.