"This ought to keep the professors busy for a hundred years!"James Joyce (Irish, 1882-1941), likely the most influential writer of the 20th century. If you think that's a bit hyperbolic, in 1998, Modern Library ranked Ulysses No. 1, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man No. 3, on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.To those seeking a simple description of Joyce's work, "modernist" is most often applied, though Joyce more defined the term than followed it. Although he lived most of his adult life away from Ireland, his work is almost entirely Irish in tone, manner and location.Excepting a few articles, a handful of short stories and poems, and a play called Exiles that virtually no one reads, Joyce's CV is four works long, yet all of them are considered highly important works and present in many reading lists of college literature:
— James Joyce, after publishing Finnegans Wake. Damn it all to hell, the bastard was right.
- Dubliners (1914): a collection of short stories about some Dubliners, the final story The Dead was made into a well-regarded film by John Huston.
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916): A mostly autobiographical, coming-of-age story. It occasionally veers into Ulysses-like stream of consciousness, but to students who read (or try to read) Ulysses first, it's a surprisingly catchy page-turner, maybe even a "conventional" novel. (That rumble you hear is Joyce spinning in his grave.)
- Ulysses (1922): Love It or Hate It, Ulysses is a defining novel of the 20th century. The plot? Leopold Bloom and his wife and some friends have experiences on 16 June 1904, known now as "Bloomsday". Simple, right? Ha. It's dense, delphic, hydra-headed, with multiple story lines mixed together like a bowl of spaghetti. Even Joyce himself later admitted he may have overcooked it. Nonetheless, to a determined student of literature, it can be a hugely rewarding undertaking.
- Finnegans Wake (1939): Whereas Ulysses broke some rules and bent the rest, Finnegans Wake absolutely obliterated every single one. We would try to provide a useful description, but we'll let Mr. Joyce himself try to make the case:And that was how the skirtmisshes began. But the dour handworded her grace in dootch nossow: Shut! So her grace o'malice kidsnapped up the jiminy Tristopher and into the shandy westerness she rain, rain, rain.
Joyce's works contain examples of:
- Anti-Hero: Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus.
- Crapsack World: Deconstructed. Joyce depicts early 20th century Dublin as a pretty crappy place, but he also takes pains to show you reasons why that's so, even if his own characters aren't always aware of them.
- Creator Provincialism: All of Joyce's work is set in Dublin or the surrounding area, though he spent most of his adult life on the Continent. As he explained to Arthur Power:James Joyce: For myself, I always write about Dublin because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities in the world. In the particular is contained the universal.
- Cunning Linguist: Joyce had a genius for learning new languages. At the end of his life, he knew English, Gaelic, Italian, French, German, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. In his youth, he was able to write a fan letter to Henrik Ibsen, in Norwegian and he was able to read Russian authors in the original language. His fluency of course varied but few modern authors(and fewer people) had that facility with language, which he took to the extent of multilingual puns in Finnegans Wake.
- Deconstruction: Novels as an entire art form and English as a language, starting small with Portrait of an Artist then going for broke with Finnegans Wake.
- Early Installment Weirdness:
- The remaining bits of Stephen Hero, Joyce's unfinished first draft of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, read like a much more conventional novel than the kind of thing he later got famous for.
- If one comes to Joyce from reading Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, Dubliners can be surprising for its simplicity, its elegance, its realism and also its seriousness. Except for one or two stories, they are lacking in the humour and low-spirited hijinks his famous novels are peppered with, and many of them are bleak and serious, written under the influence of Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen.
- Matzo Fever: Joyce (and Stephen Dedalus, Bloom and HCE by extension) had a bit of a fascination with the "Oriental mystique" of Jewish women.
- Subverted, except for the ones Joyce confirms. Joyce generally refused to sentimentalize many of the common tropes associated with this, and generally played it for drama, and presented a very critical idea of the common stereotypes people foisted on the Irish, many of which are later internalized by the same Irishmen in their interactions with Englishmen and foreigners.
- To some extent, Finnegans Wake is a reconstruction, it's modelled on an Irish music hall song which had the Drunken Irishman stereotype as its main punchline, and is set in a single house in Dublin's Chapelizod district, but it reconstructs that as a universal experience and essentially reconfigures the Western literary tradition from the perspective of this mentality.
- Raised Catholic: Joyce was baptized and educated by Jesuits at Trinity College. However this was largely on account of his mother's influence. His father was a Republican who supported Parnell (the Protestant politician who came very close to uniting the divide between Protestants and Catholics) and Joyce himself harbored the same sympathies and of course he dramatized his break from the church in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ("non serviam"). He had some sympathies for the Church rituals and regalia, though he lost his Catholic faith while a young man. When he died, a Catholic priest offered to give him a religious funeral but his wife Nora honoured his intentions and turned the offer down ("I couldn't do that to him!").
- Shout-Out: At some point, to almost every major novelist and poet in the history of western literature.
- Spiritual Sequel: Read his four major works in their published order. Each expands upon the themes of the last, each ups the ambition of the style, and the character of Stephen Dedalus can be seen taking shape in Joyce's mind in the pages of Dubliners.
- Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Going by their personal letters, Joyce apparently saw himself in a similar situation with Nora.
- Viewers Are Geniuses: Joyce assumes his readers possess quite a bit of intuitive insight. His justification was clear:James Joyce: One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.