In this excerpt from James Joyce: A New Biography, the most comprehensive Joyce biography since Richard Ellman's James Joyce, Gordon Bowker explores the sexual awakening in the pious young Joyce, as well as other pivotal events in his personal life that would shape modern literature.
Late one night in the second week of August 1898, a college boy of sixteen left a Dublin theatre (the Gaiety) with his father and a friend. They had just seen a play called Sweet Briar. He was a pious boy, but the play had left him strangely aroused, and on the way home he parted from the others to walk alone, to contemplate and pray. The religious life, the priestly vocation, had a powerful attraction for him, but recently he had been assailed by temptations of the flesh, thoughts that he had banished only by revealing them to his Jesuit confessor. He had much to dwell upon as he strode off into the night. Coming to a canal, he decided to follow the tow-path. He had not gone far before a shadowy figure approached him--a woman. She had a cigarette in her hand and asked for a light. He apologized, explaining that he carried no matches. His youthful voice seemed to animate her, and she suddenly pressed herself against him, asking whether he liked girls. The boy felt overwhelmed and confused. Her hands were exploring his body and before he knew what had happened he was pulled to the ground and deftly seduced. From that moment onward his life would be changed for ever. Darkness would no longer be the haunt of the wicked, but an enshrouding milieu, exciting beyond all imagination. His Jesuitical conscience now had something serious with which to contend. He did not, on this occasion, confess what had happened to the college priest but took his guilt to a church where he was unknown. Thereafter he began to skip confession, to neglect his biblical studies and embrace art as passionately as he had previously embraced religion. Gradually the vocation of artist would displace that of the Jesuit priesthood.
It was 10 June 1904. A young man was sauntering along Nassau Street in Dublin when he spotted a head of luxurious red hair. He turned and, as if drawn by a powerful magnet, sidled up to the girl and doffed the yachting cap which sat at a rakish angle over his left eyebrow. They immediately struck up a flirtatious conversation, and he was soon aware that he had captured not just her attention but also her interest. Despite her playful pretence of rebuffing him, a glint of coquettish amusement in the girl's eyes encouraged him enough to try coaxing her to meet him again a few days later. She tossed her head and laughed--the deep, knowing laugh of an enchantress--and, in a voice which sang of the Irish west, quickly agreed, then skipped off along the pavement, smiling at the thought of her unexpected conquest and the prospect of adventure to come. The young man gazed after her, his eyes squinting, trying to keep her in focus, but the redhead finally disappeared from view along the busy pavement running beside the high walls of Trinity College. This brief encounter was to change not just the course of her life and the life of the young man in the yachting cap but the whole course of twentieth-century literature. A master had just stumbled upon his Irish muse.
On Sunday 17 April 1932, the weather in Paris was sunny and mild, though showers from the east were forecast. The platform for the Calais-bound boat train at the Gare du Nord was more than usually crowded. One party struggled through the crowd towards its reserved compartment, accompanied by a trunk and variety of other much-labelled baggage. Their belongings were taken aboard and the porters returned to wrestle the heavy trunk up the steps to the luggage compartment at the end of the coach. A tall thin man in dark glasses who stood supervising all this finally seemed satisfied. The well-dressed, matronly figure beside him looked on coolly and the somewhat distracted young woman who moved about, nervously tugging and tweaking at the hat in her hand, grew ever more agitated.
The man turned and held out a hand, beckoning the others to board the train. The matron turned towards the younger woman and gestured impatiently. Suddenly a piercing shriek rent the air, bringing the bustling platform to a breathtaking halt. The distracted young woman had erupted with a great howl, flinging her arms out as if fighting off an invisible monster. In this catatonic position she froze, but the shrieks continued as a great never-ending wail of anguish. People turned and converged on the girl, fearing that she had been attacked or had been struck with sudden pain. The man in dark glasses, her father, it transpired, took hold of her and tried in vain to hush her up and urge her aboard the waiting train. The matron, her mother, joined in but all to no avail. People crowded round offering advice, but the man in dark glasses shrank from the crush as if fearing any kind of contact with the gaping onlookers. In a moment he had summoned a porter and issued an order. The porter in turn summoned a colleague and together they began unloading the baggage they had carefully and laboriously stowed away a few minutes earlier. The man and woman now held the girl, whose shrieks had subsided to a whimper. She had, it seemed, got her way and this family would not, after all, be leaving on the boat train for England that day.
The tall thin man behind the shades was, of course, James Joyce, the mother was Nora Barnacle Joyce and the distraught daughter was Lucia, a strange, impulsive young woman, wilful and talented and only too aware of her father's reputation as a genius of modern literature. After this traumatic event, Joyce's great labyrinthine Work in Progress (later unveiled as Finnegans Wake), the nocturnal offspring of his earlier novel, Ulysses, ground to a halt. When it restarted, disturbing personal themes would begin to weave themselves into it, leaving him open to dark and prurient suspicions.
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.