Biography of Lucia Joyce

I rolled my eyes when I heard a book was coming out about Lucia Joyce. I admit it. I rolled my eyes AGAIN when I read some of the excerpts from that book in this review in The New Yorker.

Who exactly would read this book?

I am not sure. Lucia was mad. Her father was James Joyce. As far as I can tell – that is all that is interesting about her.

(Speaking of psychiatry and the Irish – Lucia was analyzed by Jung.)

The Ellmann biography of James Joyce has it all in there. Joyce was convinced that the madness of his daughter, the schizophrenia, was actually genius – As a genius himself – he couldn’t tell the difference at first between his daughter and himself – her erratic behavior and “artistic” personality seemed like divine inspiration to him. He thought her madness was the ‘art’ in her – and he did not want to squelch her expression of herself in any way – He did not want to repeat what he had gone through in his childhood. So her illness progressed undiagnosed for quite some time. He had a hard time admitting how sick she was. It broke his heart.

Here’s why I rolled my eyes. Of COURSE Carol Shloss (the author of the new book on Lucia) has a whole theory about what was up with Lucia. She HAS to have a theory because there isn’t really any evidence – no proof – It’s all just guesswork. Also: again, what is all that interesting about a young woman who went mad? She’s only interesting because of who her father is.

You don’t need to have a theory about James Joyce to write about him. The facts are enough, his writing is enough.

But here we have, yet again, another muse-to-the-artist biography – which, sorry, sounds like sheer invention.

Joyce’s wife? He admitted that she was his muse. The entirety of the book Ulysses took place on June 16, the day he and Nora “first went out walking” together. Molly Bloom’s monologue at the end of the book is obviously taken from Nora’s Galway-girl speech.

But to … raise Lucia up to the level of a collaborator? An inspiration for Finnegans Wake? Joyce used his whole life in his writing. He was inspired by everything. He created a whole new language, for God’s sake. So knowing that – obviously Lucia was in there. Included.

But enough to warrant an entire book? It seems a stretch.

Listen to this excerpt from the book (I cringed as I read it):

There are two artists in this room, and both of them are working. Joyce is watching and learning. The two communicate with a secret, unarticulated voice. The writing of the pen, the writing of the body become a dialogue of artists, performing and counterperforming, the pen, the limbs writing away. The father notices the dance’s autonomous eloquence. He understands the body to be the hieroglyphic of a mysterious writing, the dancer’s steps to be an alphabet of the inexpressible. . . . The place where she meets her father is not in consciousness but in some more primitive place before consciousness. They understand each other, for they speak the same language, a language not yet arrived into words and concepts but a language nevertheless, founded on the communicative body. In the room are flows, intensities.

Uh … were you there? How do you know?

What is your evidence for this scene? Are you quoting a letter? James Joyce’s diary? Lucia’s diary? Something firsthand at least?

Turns out, this entire “imaginative” scene comes from one comment in an interview with one of Lucia’s cousins 50 years later. This cousin described how she would come to visit the Joyce’s, and Joyce (who was able to work calmly in the midst of loud chaos) would sit and write and “Lucia danced silently in the background.”

That’s the quote. That’s it. Joyce worked while “Lucia danced silently in the background.”

And from that one comment – said 50 years in retrospect – we get a monologue from Shloss about the father “noticing the dancer’s autonomous elegance”.

How do you know that?? He did? Where the hell do you get what you just wrote from THAT?

Joan Acocella, the reviewer, calls Schloss on all of this stuff. She’s merciless, thankfully. It’s a very well-written review.

My favorite comment from Acocella follows this excerpt from the book:

Lucia’s mind was filled with the grammar of vitality, prizing the dynamic over the static order. She imagined herself in terms of tension and its release; she felt the anxieties of opposing muscle to muscle and the heady mastery of resistances, knew the peace of working with gravity and not against it. To drop, to rebound, to lift, to suspend oneself. To fall and recover, to know the experience of grounding oneself and then arising to circle to the edge of ecstasy. Priests danced, children danced, philosophers’ thoughts rose and fell in rhythmic sequence; lovers danced, and so did Lucia.

Acocella writes: “This is what you get when you tear up letters on a biographer.”

That made me laugh out loud.

Lucia left no evidence behind – the Joyce family supposedly destroyed a lot of her letters – and so now – because there is no evidence, no letters, no diaries, we get a fantasy-scene like that.

However – one interesting thing:

Zelda Fitzgerald had her first breakdown (or at least, first recorded breakdown) in Paris – after she became convinced that she could re-make herself into a ballerina. She became obsessed. She danced 6 hours a day. Apparently, she was a laughably bad dancer. Her life was the ballet. And she went mad.

Lucia’s first recorded crack-up was also after she decided that she had to become a prima ballerina, and devoted her life to the dance.

A strange confluence. The same doctor treated them both as well … in some sanitarium in Europe … not sure where.

Acocella talks about the “biography-of-the-artist’s-woman” – the purpose of such biographies, etc.

But here is where she really makes her point – a point which Nancy Milford (who wrote the biography of Zelda Fitzgerald I talked about a while back) makes time and time again in the book she wrote about Zelda. (Who actually WAS as interesting as Scott).

There is a difference between being a genius who can work and a genius who cannot work. Zelda may have had some kind of genius for SOMEthing (her letters to Scott are unbelievable) – but it was Scott who sat down every day, and wrote, and worked, and sent stuff out, and corrected stuff, and re-edited stuff – THAT is an artist. The mixture of inspiration and discipline. Zelda, paralyzed by her own needs, her own desire to be an artist, did nothing. Wrote one novel, which failed miserably. And that was that.

Acocella writes:

All these biographies, subtle or not, are valuable, and not only for the sake of justice (when that is what they achieve) but because they tell an important truth about how artists get their work done. Many people are brilliant, and from that you may get one novel, as Zelda Fitzgerald did. But to write five novels (Scott) or seventeen (Nabokov)—to make a career—you must have, with brilliance, a number of less glamorous virtues, for example, patience, resilience, and courage. Lucia Joyce encountered obstacles and threw up her hands; James Joyce faced worse obstacles—for most of his writing life, publishers ran from him in droves—but he persisted. When the critics made fun of Zelda’s novel, she stopped publishing; when Scott had setbacks—indeed, when he was a falling-down drunk—he went on hoping, and working.

Amazing.

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2 Responses to Biography of Lucia Joyce

  1. Dan says:

    I like that last excerpt. Genius – or even mere talent – is a nice thing to have – but without discipline it kind of falls by the wayside.

  2. I think Carol Shloss’s book is giving us important
    information on Joyce’s life and writing after he had written Ulysses. Lucia must have influenced Joyce’s writing on Finnegans Wake. (This is partly shown in ‘Issy’.) We must know the fact that many Joyceans or scholars had not paid enough consideration on Lucia’s ‘being’ with respect to Joyce’s thinking and writing. Some riddles of Finnegans Wake might be hidden here. I evaluate Shloss’s book from this respect.