Thursday, February 02, 2012

You know what day it is---no, not that one, Bill Murray fans.  It's James Joyce's birthday, of course.

Never heard of him?  Well, you've heard of him, but...With Ulysses, Finnegans Wake and the books more people are likely to have actually read, A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man and Dubliners, he was once revered as the greatest writer of the modern age.  But his reputation has been in something of an eclipse.  That's partly been due to his own descendants, or at least the ones controlling his estate.  They've apparently raised litigiousness to a high modernist art.  They've reputedly tried to stop or control every excerpt, quote, fact, observation or mention of his name for years.  I read somewhere that his work was dropped from an important anthology of Irish prose because of their mercurial demands.  They apparently drove the scholarly biographer of his daughter Lucia half mad, and seriously weakened her otherwise excellent book--and then they sued her anyway.  That she finally won may or may not have slowed them down.

Joyce did enter popular culture for awhile, with the many Bloomsday readings in June.  And reputedly the family put a stop to that.  Notice I keep saying reputedly.  They've reputedly intimidated everybody, and may have intimidated away their future income in the process.

 It may well be that Ulysses is not the greatest novel of the 20th century after all.  Then again, we're in a philistine age.  A Portrait of the Artist will always remain an important book to me, personally and as a writer.  I revered his dedication to his craft, as chronicled with such grace in the classic Richard Ellman biography.  Now there's a new biography, which sounds pretty awful.  There really aren't many good new literary biographies.

 Maybe Joyce's example did me more harm than good, but so what?  His birthday was important to Joyce--he tried to schedule the publication of his books for this date, and I believe he succeeded with Ulysses at least.   So even if he screwed up my life, got me drunk too often and encouraged me to stay poor, while setting standards I couldn't match so I never published even a little novel. He still was a friend.  So happy birthday, James.  Your day will come again.

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