James Joyce
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Lucia at the age of 19.

Portrait of the Daughter
Two works seek to reclaim the legacy of Lucia Joyce

By Tara Pepper
Newsweek International

March 8 issue - When Samuel Beckett died in 1989, a striking snapshot of a feral woman dancing, clad from head to toe in silver fish scales, was found among his papers. Beckett had kept this memento of his affair with James Joyce's turbulent daughter, Lucia, for more than 60 years. To her father, Lucia was the "wonder wild," his dark muse, who spent much of her adolescence locked with him in a room while he wrote "Finnegans Wake," his final novel. "Whatever spark or gift I possess," Joyce wrote in 1934, "it has been transmitted to Lucia and kindled a fire in her brain." But the rest of the world saw her differently; in the history of 20th-century literature, Lucia is portrayed as a troublesome blight on the Joyce family, an eccentric, mentally unstable woman in the mold of Vivienne Eliot, Zelda Fitzgerald and Sylvia Plath.

Two recent works seek to reclaim Lucia from these misconceptions. Michael Hastings's new West End play, "Calico" (through March 29), echoes Carol Shloss's recent reassessment of Lucia's life in "Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake" (576 pages. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux). Both emphasize that Lucia was a powerful creative force in her own right: a poet, illustrator and pioneer of modern dance. Hastings's portrayal of the destructive interaction among family members as Lucia clings to the edges of sanity is poignant and convincing. Lucia's symptoms—promiscuity, outbursts of violence and foul language—inspired a series of diagnoses ranging from "schizophrenic" to "nothing much wrong." But in Hastings's play, they seem the natural result of her isolation and neglect, and the sexually charged atmosphere in the household. Previous biographers of the Joyce family—like Richard Ellman, in his definitive work on James, and Brenda Maddox, who wrote a pioneering study of James's wife, Nora—failed to explore the exact nature of her illness or the reasons for Lucia's confinement in a series of clinics and asylums, where she spent much of her adult life.

Shloss also blames Lucia's upbringing for her mental instability. James Joyce sought to make visible that murky realm of human consciousness that, he wrote, "cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cut and dry grammar and goahead plot." Subjected to the incessant, intense scrutiny of her father, who regarded her as raw material for his work, Lucia's disturbing, unfettered language and behavior were increasingly interpreted as signs of madness, writes Shloss. Left barely educated by the family's peripatetic lifestyle, moving from Trieste to Zurich, Paris, Dublin and London, she had few resources of her own. Shloss notes that Carl Jung, who treated Lucia briefly in 1934, said she and her father were like two people heading to the bottom of a river, except that he was diving and she was falling.

Shloss had great difficulty getting permission to use original material about the Joyce family and Lucia's life. Well known for assiduously guarding the copyright on Joyce's works, Stephen Joyce (the son of Lucia's brother, Giorgio, and trustee of his grandfather's estate) wields immense influence over studies of the family. In 2000 he took legal action against the sponsors of a global reading of Joyce's works. Recently, he sent a letter to the Irish government and arts institutions warning them of legal action should there be any breach of copyright during this summer's centenary celebration of "Bloomsday," the June day on which Joyce's landmark novel "Ulysses" is set. Shloss spent years working with lawyers, cutting out carefully gleaned material from her book. "It was excruciating," she says. Stephen Joyce's wife, Solange, sees it differently: "We're doing our job," she says.

That job seems to include deliberately destroying some of Lucia's personal writing, which might have helped authors like Shloss piece together her life. "She has been expunged from history, Stalinized, made into a nonperson," says Hastings. In 1998 Stephen Joyce declared that he had destroyed Lucia's letters, despite pleas from William Butler Yeats's son, Michael, and Ezra Pound's daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz. The correspondence obviously meant a lot to James Joyce: "I am grateful for your letters," he wrote in 1935 to Harriet Weaver, a family friend and patron, "but the only ones which enlighten me, even if they are wild, are Lucia's own." In an interview with The New York Times shortly after his announcement, Stephen explained, "I didn't want to have greedy little eyes and greedy little fingers going over them."

Some detect within "Finnegans Wake" a sinister hint at what the family might have been trying to hide. Joyce's lyrical writing transgresses every taboo of style and substance. And at the core of this novel, which he worked on so intensely with his daughter, is an act of incest, which sparked speculation among Joyce scholars about the nature of James and Lucia's relationship. Shloss argues, "they were intensely involved, but there's no evidence of literal incest." Both Hastings and Shloss have succeeded in returning a dramatic and nuanced picture of Lucia Joyce to history. But with the destruction of her letters and much other material bound by copyright, she remains, as she was in life, seen always through the eyes of someone else.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

Sources:

  • Text - http://msnbc.msn.com/id/4408820/
  • Images - various websites

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Created: Wednesday, December 21, 2005; Last Updated: Thursday, August 06, 2015
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