Will Self: PsychoGeography - The people's Joyce

Share
Related Topics

Consider the final days of James Joyce – I have. Fleeing from Paris in the dying days of 1939, the Joyces headed south to the village of Saint-Gérand-le-Puy, near Vichy. Here, as the Second World War girded up its annihilating loins, the great confabulator was gripped by stomach pain in his rooms at the Hôtel de la Paix, and harried by dogs if he ventured out with his dark glasses on and with his blind man's cane. When asked why he hated them so much, Joyce replied: "Because they have no souls."

Meanwhile, his schizophrenic daughter, Lucia, was confined to an asylum at Pornichet on the Brittany coast. Joyce, who believed that his daughter's psychosis was a bizarre product of his own creative fomenting, was tormented by the agonies she might suffer under aerial bombardment, agonies which were, perhaps, a projection of his own pathological fear of thunderstorms.

The Joyces were a year at Vichy, a time during which he did little work apart from correcting the misprints in the recently published Finnegans Wake. Eventually, rather than the encroaching war driving them out, it was terror of rural stagnation. There was a plan for them to go to America by air – but even writing this, almost 70 years after the event, I think we can all agree how preposterous a notion this was. Instead, Joyce decided to head for Switzerland, just as he had during the First World War.

However, this time gaining entry was not quite so easy. All sorts of permissions and passes had to be secured from both the French and the Swiss authorities – there was considerable anxiety that Joyce's adult son, George, being of military age, would be interned. The Irish Minister at Vichy offered him a passport; when he went home and told his father, Joyce asked: "What do you think of it?" "Not much," George said, and Joyce agreed: "Neither do I." For having resisted Irish citizenship in peacetime, he would not accept it even in war.

The Joyces eventually reached Zurich on 17 December 1940. Here he was, back in the city where, as a young and vigorous man, he had written the great bulk of Ulysses. Less than a month later he was dead, after surgery for a perforated duodenal ulcer. What can be more horrible or pathetic than his grandson Stephen's description of Joyce, being carried out of the hotel where they were all staying on a stretcher, his eyes open and staring, his body – in spite of being strapped down – "writhing like a fish".

Reeling, writhing and fainting in coils; Trieste-Zurich-Paris – then Zurich again. The strange, centripetal progress of Joyce, the foremost exilic of 20th-century letters – albeit one banished by his own authority alone – is a timely corrective to the facile transits of our own era. Nowadays we all go anywhere, and demand that our eyes take the prose equivalent of an easyJet as well – for what could be more preposterous, to us, than to have to make an effort, having to make difficult connections, or change narrative trains. Perhaps my low point of last year was sitting with a gaggle of Eng Lit academics at a Spanish-themed restaurant in a provincial English city, and hearing one of them describe Ulysses – with no irony whatsoever – as "a bad book".

To call Ulysses, with its massive expansion and contraction of space and time "a bad book"! Ulysses, the plan of which is chromatic, organic, and peripatetic: a mythopoeic rendition of a still greater, more ancient myth ... well, at least the epithet has the virtue – unlike that which it profanes – of being succinct. In his later years, Joyce, who never seriously intended ever returning to the city that he had abandoned as a young man – and then spent a lifetime meticulously rendering in prose – would become quite outraged upon hearing that this or that business on Grafton Street had changed hands, as if this were a personal affront; or, rather, as if this were a cack-handed rewrite of his own near-perfect text.

What would Joyce make of the Bloomsday celebrations, when eejits dress up in Edwardian togs and retrace the routes across Dublin taken by his protagonists on 16 June 1904? Ulysses may be a bad book – but it's a great excuse for knocking back the Guinness and indulging all the oirishery its author travelled a long way to avoid. An unrepentant foe of the Irish Catholic Church; a bitter opponent of physical-force Republicanism; a hater of British Imperialism – the writer who put a literary IED under the armoured car of the conventional novel, and whose remains were yet interred in a bourgeois cemetery, in the most bourgeois of cities.

During the early days of his first sojourn in Zurich, Joyce was so repelled by the city's cleanliness that he said he could've eaten his food off the streets – 24 years later he returned and busted a gut.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: With 100 days still to go how will Cameron, Miliband and Co. keep us all engaged?

Andrew Grice
A solar energy farm in France  

Nature Studies: For all the attractions of solar power, it shouldn’t blight the countryside

Michael McCarthy
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea