Whittaker Chambers on James Joyce

In the conclusion of his review of Finnegan’s Wake, Whittaker Chambers wrote this telling description of James Joyce,

“Nono. In appearance Joyce is slight, frail but impressive. He stands five feet ten or eleven, but looks as if a strong wind might blow him down. His face is thin and fine, its profile especially delicate. He wears his greying, thinning hair brushed back without a part. Joyce reads and writes sprawling in bed or on a couch but he does not like it known. He is very formal in public, in restaurants prefers straight-back chairs in which he sits bolt upright.

He dresses with conservative elegance, never goes out without a slender walking stick, which he manipulates expertly, accenting the delicacy of his beringed hands (he has a passion for rings). His voice is soft, rich and low with a gentle, melancholy brogue. He is rather vain of his tenor, which he likes to join with his son’s bass at small family celebrations.

Joyce’s curious glasses give him a somewhat Martian appearance. The left lens is so thick it is almost a hemisphere, and to focus it is necessary for him to throw back his head slightly when looking at people. Ten years ago, Joyce could not see with his left eye at all, and a cataract was beginning to form on the right eye. Every operation on the left eye caused a hemorrhage. Finally Dr. Alfred Vogt of Zurich succeeded in making an artificial pupil for the left eye, set in below the position of the normal pupil. The cataract on Joyce’s right eye has meanwhile developed. He has had eleven major operations on his eyes, all without anesthetics, faces another soon. But he sees far better than he did ten years ago.

The Joyce family consists of amiable Galway wife Nora, née Barnacle; a son, Giorgio, 33; a dancer-illustrator daughter, Lucia, thirtyish. Giorgio, who married American Helen Gastor, has one son, Stephen James, lives in a Paris suburb where Joyce and his wife frequently visit him. Grandson Stephen is adored by his grandfather, calls the author of Ulysses “Nono.”

Among Joyce’s closest friends are Eugene Jolas (editor of transition), Paul Léon, his secretary, and Stuart Gilbert, who wrote an exhaustive exegesis of Ulysses. With Eugene and Maria Jolas, the Joyces dine every Saturday night.

Joyce is constantly jotting down overheard phrases, is especially interested in dialects, Midwestern American, British colonial, newspaper jargon. He speaks Italian as smoothly as English, flawless French, fluent German, knows some dozen other tongues, including outlandish Lapp. At present Joyce is not writing. His wife is trying to get him started on something, because when he is not working he is hard to live with.

Though he has been away from Ireland since 1904, returning only briefly in 1912 to start a motion-picture house, the Volta, which quickly failed, Joyce has an unrivaled knowledge of Dublin and its current life, keeps his recollections green by subscribing to Dublin newspapers, pores over their gossip and chitchat.

But no observer of his life and works can fail to note that James Joyce is a typical Irishman. Born in Dublin, he remains as Irish in Paris or Trieste as he was in the city of his birth. His friends believe that nothing short of a European war could drive him back to the “little brown bog” and the haunting Liffey.”

The Whole Thing.



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