So you’re an admirer of James Joyce’s “Ulysses”? Well, thank Trieste for that book. Why? Gordon Bowker’s “James Joyce: A New Biography” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 608 pp., $35) shows readers how living in that seaport city in northeastern Italy helped rekindle Joyce’s enthusiasm after the lackluster reception of “Dubliners” and his uncertainty over what readers would think of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” The city not only gave him and wife Nora an income, it gave Joyce, as a teacher, an exceptional pupil: the writer Ettore Schmitz, known by the pen name Italo Svevo.
In the following excerpt, Bowker describes the writerly back and forth between Joyce and Schmitz, and though Joyce is now a monolithic giant in the literary canon, Bowker provides readers with a refreshing reminder of something else: Joyce indeed was a human being, with plenty of doubts and insecurities … just like the rest of us.
The year 1909 would be an important and traumatic one for Joyce, challenging him once again as a writer, and enticing him back to the novel over which he had laboured so long and which he had come to neglect. But it took a moment of mutual discovery to galvanize him. In February, Ettore Schmitz, his student, mentioned to him shyly that he too was a writer and had published two novels under the pseudonym “Italo Svevo.” These were “Una Vita” and “Senilità,” published ten years earlier. Joyce took them to read and was deeply impressed, telling him, “Do you know that you are a neglected writer? There are passages in ‘Senilità' that even Anatole France could not have improved.” His words moved Schmitz almost to tears. From then on he talked to Joyce openly about his frustrated ambitions. Joyce’s enthusiasm had reignited his will to write, and he would soon embark on the novel that would bring him literary recognition. His brother, said Stanislaus, was more than a teacher to Schmitz, he was “an influence.”
That “influence,” however, had been undergoing his own crisis of confidence. With his disappointment over “Dubliners” and the feeling that readers would be put off by the hellfire passages in “A Portrait,” Joyce’s inspiration had run out. He showed the first three chapters to Schmitz who disagreed with him about the sermons, saying that he knew many Triestines who would be greatly struck by them. “Every word of these sermons acquires its artistic significance by the fact of their effect on poor Stephen’s mind.” He did, however, object to the first chapter. “I think it deals with events devoid of importance and your rigid method of observation and description does not allow you to enrich a fact which is not rich by itself. You should write only about strong things. In your skilled hands they may become still stronger. I do not believe you can give the appearance of strength to things which are in themselves trivial, not important.” Schmitz’s serious interest in his novel was sufficiently encouraging for Joyce to take it up again.
With his mind refocused on Dublin, it also became focused on Oscar Wilde when the Strauss opera of his controversial “Salomé" was performed in Trieste that March. [The Italian newspaper] Piccolo commissioned an article from him on the playwright and he produced an essay which said almost as much about himself as about Wilde. He began by reflecting on the name, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, which implied descent from Fingal, King of the ferocious O’Flahertie clan. “Like that savage tribe, he was to break the lance of his fluent paradoxes against the body of practical conventions, and to hear, as a dishonoured exile, the choir of the just recite his name together with that of the unclean.” The sentence rings strangely prophetic of Joyce himself — the exile already regarded as suspicious and morally tainted by many conventional Dubliners. Wilde, he wrote, again sounding strangely self-referential, “grew up in an atmosphere of insecurity and prodigality.” He then got in a shot at the rabblement who threw stones at Wilde, quoting his comment in “The Picture of Dorian Gray” that the sins we perceive in Dorian are our own. Finally he lamented a life which ended not only in public disgrace but with Wilde’s conversion. He could identify with a genius betrayed; it was the prospect of grovelling recantation that he himself was determined to avoid. So engaged did he become with Wilde that he wrote to his literary executor, Robert Ross, asking permission to translate his “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” into Italian. Unfortunately, no Italian publisher seemed interested in publishing it.
Excerpted from “James Joyce: A New Biography” by Gordon Bowker, published in June 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright ©2011 by Gordon Bowker. All rights reserved.