For The New Yorker, Louis Menand writes on the life, brilliance, and eccentricities of that most-famed Irish export, James Joyce.
Joyce didn’t use actual people and places because he was settling scores, or because he was writing disguised autobiography, or because he lacked invention. The relation between his world and his fiction is much stranger than that. In November, 1921, he wrote to his aunt Josephine, in Dublin, to ask if she could tell him whether it was possible “for an ordinary person to climb over the area railings of no 7 Eccles street, either from the path or the steps, lower himself from the lowest part of the railings till his feet are within 2 feet or 3 of the ground and drop unhurt.” He had seen it done, he told her, but by someone with an athletic build; he wanted to make sure that an ordinary man could do it. He needed the information because he was editing the “Ithaca” chapter of “Ulysses,” in which Leopold Bloom, who has forgotten his latchkey, enters his house, at 7 Eccles Street, by this method. He had made up Bloom. Why couldn’t he just make up the height of the railings?
In 1932, two young Americans, Dwight Macdonald and George Morris, recent Yale graduates with an interest in modern literature and art, were in Paris, where they bought a copy of “Ulysses,” still outlawed in the United States, at the English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company. They got into a conversation with the owner, Sylvia Beach, the woman who had published “Ulysses,” and she arranged for them to meet Joyce. They showed up at Joyce’s apartment and plied him eagerly with questions about his work. He was unresponsive. “It was like trying to open a safe without the combination,” Macdonald later said. Finally, one of them made a remark about people not knowing what to do with their lives. Joyce suddenly perked up. He gestured toward the window. “There are people who go walkin’ up and down the street,” he said, “and they don’t know what they want.”