HE BEST JOYCE SCHOLARSHIP comes from America. Richard Ellmann's life of Joyce is a masterpiece of American industry, empathy and humor, and is probably the best biography of the century so far. If Joyce is now assumed to be an American property, there is a sense in which that terribly direct and profoundly enigmatic Irishman can never really be exported from Europe. He was fascinated by the idea of a New World, and
Finnegans Wakes is full of Mark Twain and a letter from Boston, but he never felt a desire to visit that other Georgian Dublin on the stream Oconee. Nor did he open his heart to the American expatriates in Paris as he did to the Triestines, Danes and Greeks. And yet to learn, as in this book, how fundamentally European Joyce was, and how shrewdly and lovingly other Europeans were able to draw him and draw him out, we have to go to an American. Professor Potts, of Corvallis in Oregon, has made an admirable compilation, meticulously annotated, and I am happy to be early with a gush of gratitude, grash of guttitude.
Indispensable as Ellmann's biography is, it is already 20 years old and could not make use of the delayed reminiscences that we slow Europeans are costive to deliver. I am always urging Georges Belmont in Paris to hurry with his memoirs (he translated Joyce's poems and helped with the French Finnegan ; now down in the World, he merely translates me). He has a lot to tell about Joyce the man, and he is not alone. The Joyceana of The Potts book are fine, but we shall always be ready for more.
Not that we are likely ever to get anything so hilarious as the saga of Joyce at the Berlitz Institute in Pola, as recounted by his old colleague Alessandro Francini Bruni. The future master of most of the Italian dialects talked at that time "a crippled Italian full of ulcers" -- a bookish porridge of archaisms. Asked how he liked Italy, he could only find a reply out of Canto III of the Inferno, "A bunch of rags tumbling out a third class car -- too bad that in Austria there were no fourth class cars as in Germany -- like two sacks of spoiled beans," Joyce and his wife Nora were sad clowns in a wretched circus of fake pedagogy which only time has been able to redeem to the richly comic. Poor, exploited, insolvent, drunk, Joyce yet comes through with a terrible dignity, an aura of vocation that, whatever the miseries heaped on him, never once lost its luster.
The Swiss sculptor August Suter first met Joyce in Zurich when the white wine was flowing. From this point on the flow never stops, and it is always gold, divine urine, liquid electricity. Joyce could not take the bloodier wines, which he called potable beefsteaks, though his doctors warned him of the effects of the white on his wretched eyes. Joyce in tavern brawls, Joyce with a pair of doll's drawers in his pocket (he passed on the knicker fetish to Bloom), Joyce mad about words, obsessed with a creative lust that seems positively obscene -- the myth in the dirty tennis shoes with the boneless limbs ever ready to launch into a spider dance is established early and, with it, the most bizarre literary independence of the century. Nino Frank in Paris wanted to publish something of D.H. Lawrence: where could he find him? "That man writes really too poorly," said Joyce. "Ask his friend Aldous Huxley for something instead; at least he dresses decently."
Joyce theParisian, dressed decently at last, eating nothing, drinking much (that lethal gastric condition should have been no surprise), ends by having no writer to talk about except himself. Everything flows into Finnegans Wake , the sacramental meal which alone sustained his appetite; other authors were not to be discussed or even read, only to be ingested. Readers who find the Wake unintelligible will have at least to admit that Joyce was ready enough to tell people what it meant over the cheerful cups, in most of the languages of Europe. Ole Vinding meets him in Copenhagen and is surprised at Joyce's fluency in Danish. Adolf Hoffmeister is astonished to hear "clear Czech with a perfect accent." But Joyce was not after polyglottism for anything but the Wake's sake. We end up with the immensely complicated pun-Eurish that, ostensibly breaking Babel, is only there to make it more Babelish. But in Babel is babble -- talk over wine, family nonsense, the remembered Anna Liffey.
I was delighted to hear new things from Louis Gillet. I always wondered what Joyce thought of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the writer who most resembles him in language if not in scholastic thought. Hopkins, Newman and Joyce himself were lauded in an Irish paper as the three glories of University College Dublin. Joyce was delighted to find himself in the company of the great cardinal, whose prose he adored and who is the only author in "Oxen of the Sun" to be seriously pastiched, not parodied. Hopkins he regarded as an English Mallarme. Strange, very strange. Another new thing I learned was Nora Joyce's disdain for French syntax: nous etaient heureux , she said, and Joyce, who spoke French better than the French, never corrected here. She appears, in all these reminiscences, a heroine of unassailable strength, Howth Castle to Joyce's Liffey, a woman of great beauty and integrity. It is time for one of the proponents of feminism to write her life, to pull her out of the background where Gillet, Mercanton and the rest are content to let her make tea (the best in Paris).
Joyce emerges finally as genial (in the French as well as the English sense), deeply family-centered and complementarily convivial, reserved because his vocation could only be practiced within a fire-circle, possessed of easily carried prophetic gifts (his eccentric literary judgements have been invariably proved right; he was always right about the great dictators and the childishness of war), a fanatical wordman. These Europeans did not always understand his work, but they understood his essentially European conservatism, the urge to preserve the past that was expressed in a literary revolution. Joyce, this British admirer may be allowed to add, was also British. An exile with a British passport, he would not take the Irish Republican one that was offered him in Vichy in 1940 so that he might make an easier exit from ruined France. Joyce was no republican; his ironic literary tyranny preserved him from the heresy of anti-monarchical levelling. An yet what are his books but glorifications of the common man?