Sunday, February 2, 2014

Happy Birthday James Joyce

"A hundred cares, a tithe of troubles and is there one who understands me? One in a thousand of years of the nights?" 
- Finnegans Wake, p. 627

Today, February 2nd, marks the anniversary of James Joyce's birth. A highly superstitious man, he insisted upon both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake being published on his birthday. The latter would lead to some misadventures as, after 17 years of laboring on his final book and making endless hand-written revisions and additions to the page proofs, he finished writing the book in November of 1938. This left barely two months to proofread the entire 628-page linguistic nightmare and get it to the printers.

Joyce and his friends worked around the clock to prepare the final manuscript, its author barely sleeping at all during this time and once collapsing from exhaustion during a walk in Paris. Richard Ellman tells a story from this period's "frenzy of proofreading":
[Paul] Léon supplied a last drama by forgetting a section of the revised proofs in a taxi. He rushed back to stop the driver, but the taxi was gone. Bitterly ashamed, he hurried to Joyce's flat to inform him; Joyce did not reproach him, seemed rather to take it as the usual sort of bad luck. Léon telephoned to London to send more proofs, but the taxi driver, after two hours, miraculously appeared with the missing package. (Ellman, pg 714)
The first printed copy of Finnegans Wake was presented to Joyce on January 30th, 1939 and three days later on his birthday he gathered with family and friends to celebrate the culmination of nearly two decades of intensive work. Paris' best caterer baked seven cakes, each one a replica of Joyce's seven books, with icing the color of the books' bindings. At the dinner celebration, Joyce told the guests how the idea for the Wake came to him in 1922 when he was at Nice in France and, after dinner, Joyce and his son sang a duet and his son's wife read aloud the last pages of Finnegans Wake.

The world was busy preparing for a second World War during this time, though, and the great author had been virtually cast aside as a lunatic for so thoroughly dedicating his gift to such a strange and difficult-to-comprehend book. Within two years he died at the age of 59, the world collapsed into "Booms of bombs and heavy rethudders" (FW p. 510) and the great historic dream epic of co(s)mic puns, riddles, and jokes was left to collect dust until a young Joseph Campbell (with Henry Morton Robinson) published the first intensive study of Joyce's magnum opus in 1944.

James Joyce did not lead an easy life. Born in 1882, he was the eldest of 10 children in a family that collapsed into debilitating poverty, his mother died when he was a teenager, and his father let an already struggling household fall into complete disrepair. Growing up, he lived in probably two dozen different addresses because of unpaid rent. This pattern continued when he had his own family, bouncing between apartments and flats in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris as he struggled to get any of his books published and feed his wife and two children on an English teacher's salary.

He tended to get by on loans from friends until Harriet Shaw Weaver, convinced of his genius, became his patron and supporter, eventually helping him get the chapters of Ulysses published serially. Despite its controversial content (the novel was banned in English-speaking countries for 11 years after its publication), Ulysses made Joyce the world's most famous writer in the 1920s. His reputation took a swift decline as he would then dedicate the rest of his career to writing Finnegans Wake whose chapters were also published serially for a baffled and disappointed audience. Suffering through numerous eye diseases and surgeries, the mental collapse of his beloved daughter Lucia, public excoriations of Ulysses (copies were piled up and burned in Ireland), and friends withdrawing their support for his bizarre new book, he carried on in his work. As he writes in the Wake, "You will say it is most unenglish and I shall hope to hear that you will not be wrong about it. But I further, feeling a bit husky in my truths." (FW p. 160)

All these years later, we're still unraveling the riddles of his final "worldstage's practical jokepiece" (FW p. 33). An unyielding, unique, damn near heroic dedication to crafting and completing these encyclopedic texts seems entirely worth it in retrospect as their study and appreciation has already far exceeded his 59-year lifespan. In fact, especially as regards the Wake, one might say the world is only beginning to learn how to approach and appreciate his art. With its combination of world languages (over 70 have been identified) and rational-mind-cracking prose-poetry, Finnegans Wake seems like it was written for the children of the future.

Here are some links to check out today about Joyce and his birthday: Peter Chrisp writes about Joyce's selecting James Stephens (because they shared the same birthday) to finish writing the Wake in case he couldn't continue, and Flavorwire presents 10 authors on James Joyce.


  1. Thanks for this. A large part of the SC contingent was so busy celebrating our mutual friend's grandfather's centennial yesterday that Joyce's birthday has been a little overlooked. At least by me. I wonder what the publishing on birthday superstition was all about.

  2. Perhaps it is a "coincidance" that Ellmann's paragraph about Joyce's birthday and its significance,

    "James Joyce liked to think about his birthday. In later years, fond of coincidences, he was pleased to discover that he shared his birth year, 1882, with Eamon De Valera, Wyndham Lewis and Frank Budgen, and his birthday and year with James Stephens. That February 2 was Candlemas helped to confirm its importance; that it was Groundhog Day added a comic touch; and Joyce made it even more his own by contriving, with great difficulty, to see the first copies of both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake on that white day."

    is found in the original 1966 Oxford Paperbacks edition of his biography on page 22.

    Amazing stuff on this blog, PQ. Thanks!

  3. Thanks znore!

    Seana, I think it was in the hopes of bringing good luck.

  4. Great stuff PQ! Ellmann says that Joyce originally wanted to publish the Wake on his father's birthday - 4 July, in 1938. 'The publisher objected that summer publication would find everyone on holiday and defeat sales. Joyce retorted that his name would be enough. But this deadline also passed with the work still in progress.'

    It would have been a good date, because John Stanislaus Joyce is a great presence in the Wake. He's the main model for HCE, and the book retells his favourite stories, like Buckley and the Russian General, and the hunchbacked Norwegian captain
    who ordered a suit of clothes from the Dublin tailor J. H. Kerse. The Chapelizod setting is linked with his father too.

  5. Thanks for that info, Peter Chrisp. We happen to be reading the hunchbacked Norwegian captain bit right now.

  6. Thanks.
    I have just started a real-time review of Finnegans Wake:

  7. Thanks Peter C, it's funny to imagine a publisher concerned about FW book sales.

    Thanks for sharing, Weirdmonger, I'll check it out.