The Books: The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town, edited by Lillian Ross; ‘The Joyces’, by James Thurber


Next up on the essays shelf:

The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town (Modern Library Paperbacks) is a collection of “The Talk of the Town” pieces in The New Yorker, grouped by decade, which is a lot of fun because you can see how the “voice” of the magazine developed, and how “The Talk of the Town” has grown and changed over the years.

From 1935, this “Talk of the Town” piece focuses on Giorgio Joyce, son of James Joyce, who arrived in New York the previous year with his family. Giorgio Joyce is a singer, a bass (unlike his father who was a tenor – James Joyce considered being a singer, actually.) At this point in the James Joyce story, Ulysses had been published for over 10 years (although it had only been allowed into the United States for a year, after a Court of Appeals judge deemed the book to be not obscene). Regardless of Ulysses‘ complicated publishing history, Joyce had been done with the book for 10, 12, years. And since then, he had published nothing. He was working on something else, which would, of course, become Finnegans Wake, finally published in 1939. People knew for years that James Joyce was working on something. Imagine writing Ulysses, and then submitting to silence for 17 years. At one point, Joyce said, of Finnegans Wake, “I confess that it is an extremely tiresome book but it is the only book which I am able to write at present.”

That’s what it means to follow your own star!

I love James Thurber’s piece on Giorgio Joyce because, of course, it’s all about Jimmy. Giorgio is here in New York, he’s singing on the radio occasionally, but all anyone cares about is his father. Including James Thurber.

James and Nora Joyce, and their two children, Lucia and Giorgio

Here is an excerpt.

The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town (Modern Library Paperbacks), edited by Lillian Ross; ‘The Joyces’, by James Thurber

Giorgio won’t talk about his father’s work, but he told us some interesting things about the author’s way of life, speaking with a slight accent. (He lived in Trieste till he was nine, in Switzerland during the war, and has been in Paris since 1919. He and his father always converse in Italian.) James Joyce’s eyesight, his son says, is much better than it used to be, but he can see only with his left eye, his right being entirely blind. A few years ago he had to write with blue crayon on huge sheets of white paper, but now he uses pen or pencil on any paper that is handy. He can typewrite, using one finger on each hand, but uses a typewriter only for his infrequent correspondence, never for manuscripts. His friends drop in and type his manuscripts – he hates professional secretaries and has never hired one. His friends also read to him, out of dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other reference books. When he wants something read to him for relaxation, he usually asks for Ibsen. He has never had a line of Gertrude Stein read to him and seems to have no interest in her work. The two have met, but that’s all. The only thing Joyce reads for himself is his “Work in Progress.” He reads parts of it aloud to his friends, chuckling now and then, going back and rereading sometimes passages he especially likes. He never reads from “Ulysses” or any other of his old works, being bored with them after they are written and published.

Joyce sees very few people. He never goes to literary teas or other parties, but gives three a year himself – at Christmas, New Year’s, and on his birthday, February 2nd. Only his small circle of intimates are invited to these parties. Joyce always sings Irish songs for them, playing his own accompaniment. His voice is tenor and his favorite song is “Molly Brannigan.” (His son, incidentally, doesn’t play the piano.) Joyce gets up around nine, writes a little, but spends most of the morning telephoning. He actually likes talking on the phone, and chins with his friends by the hour. Before lunch he plays and sings, and afterward works until five o’clock. He has been at his new book for years; nobody knows when it will be finished, but Giorgio thinks it’s about half done. After five, Joyce takes a walk, alone. He detests dogs and wouldn’t walk with one. There are no pets at all in his household, which consists of himself, his wife (who was Nora Barnacle), and his other child, Lucia.

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5 Responses to The Books: The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town, edited by Lillian Ross; ‘The Joyces’, by James Thurber

  1. Doc Horton says:

    It’s a list of sentences! How cool is that? Way to go, Mr. Thurber.

  2. Shelley says:

    I still miss Keith Olbermann reading Thurber to us out loud from his huge armchair on Friday nights.

  3. bybee says:

    Thurber seems a little starstruck!

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