For more than twenty-five years a promotional poster for Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce has hung on dozens of walls in the various houses and apartments I have called home. I don’t remember how or precisely when my father acquired the poster but I have a clear image from when I was nine or ten years old of it pinned to the wall above the makeshift shelf of Joyce books in my parents’ bedroom. Later, during a brief mania that involved mounting to wood or foam board any image he intended to look at more than once, my father attached the poster to a piece of cheap plywood. By then we lived in a house big enough to devote an entire room to our books, so the poster resided in the closed-in porch we called the library. Eventually (again, I don’t remember how or precisely when) the poster came to me.
One evening about ten years ago I had some friends over to watch a couple movies. As I was bringing out a bowl of chips I noticed one of my friends looking intently at the poster of Joyce. This friend was older than the rest of us (nearly forty) and had the seen the poster many times over the years, so it was odd that he was scrutinizing the image so closely. When I asked him (a bit sarcastically) why he seemed so captivated, he smiled and said, “I just can’t believe how much younger Joyce looks in that picture every year.”
One of the ironies of hanging an image on your wall is that you seldom see it and almost never truly look at it. My father had once pointed out to me how magnified Joyce’s eyes were by the strong lenses of his glasses but beyond that I had never really looked at the man in the photograph. I had certainly never thought about his age. As a boy I simply regarded Joyce as a grown-up—and a dead grown-up at that. Even as I became a grown-up myself I simply didn’t think of Joyce as having been a living, breathing, aging, human being. Of course, Joyce’s boater hat and bow-tie as well as the sepia toned rusticity of the photograph itself all contributed to that sense of timelessness, as did Joyce’s reputation and stature as a Man of Genius. Joyce was an Immortal, how could he age?
When I finally looked at the picture I saw that my friend was right. The photograph was taken circa 1917 which means that Joyce was in his mid-thirties (he was born in 1882). In other words, the Joyce in the photograph was younger than my parents, younger than my professors, younger even than some of my classmates and friends at the time. The Joyce in the photograph had, in fact, only recently published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and was about five years from finishing Ulysses.
Since that evening I have tried look past the iconic image and see the person. Now I find that I am older than the Joyce in the photograph.
A work of art is a constant in a changing world, a reminder that we are changing along with everything else. Whenever we revisit a work of art we are given a rare glimpse of that change in ourself. The film or song we loved as a child we find insipid in our twenties but return to with nostalgic affection in later life. The book that once seemed so touching or original fails to move us as we grow older, while another work that baffled or bored us ten years ago now seems laden with wisdom.
The eerie sense of communing with your former selves is even stronger when you are the creator of the work in question.
When I was twenty-one I enrolled in my first creative writing course. Initially my pieces were short, gimmicky metafictions. I remember one story (cleverly titled “A Story”) that consisted entirely of a narrator stringing together digressions for five pages and never actually telling his story. As part of his critique of this piece, the professor encouraged me to stop playing games and write something true. I took his suggestion to heart and the result was “The Sentence,” a longer piece about my relationship with my father in the months after my parents divorced. At the time it was a breakthrough story for me, my first attempt to explore the texture and complexity of real life in fiction. Reading it now I find it uneven, filled with youthful narcissism and painfully transparent adolescent poses. Still, it was the story that would establish the techniques and values that have defined my writing ever since.
Since I recently posted excerpts from letters my father wrote about Joyce, I thought it only fair to include the following excerpt from “The Sentence”—a description of my father and I talking about Joyce. This is the only description of my triangular relationship with my father and Joyce that was written at the time. I present this excerpt exactly as it was written, resisting a great many temptations to edit and revise.
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I would usually find him sitting in his padded rocking chair, cramming cigarette butts into an ashtray already crammed full of them. He was having trouble sleeping . . . His eyes were puffy and red, his face careworn. There were cigarette ashes everywhere . . . The ashes that had not settled on him or the furniture became trapped inside the thin shafts of sunlight that shone through the cracks in the blinds. The entire room was still . . . quiet. Only the creaking of the his chair as he lightly rocked back and forth . . . He would raise his eyebrows in greeting when I walked in . . . The expression on his face seemed to indicate that he was on the verge of speaking, but he never did . . . The awkward silence would get to me after awhile and I would begin to talk . . .
—I’m reading Chekhov in class.
He looks up, probably more interested in the fact that I’m talking, than in what I’m saying.
—The Cherry Orchard?
—No . . . No, we’re reading the short stories.
—Ah, Lady with Lapdog, then?
—Among others, yes . . . They’re really terrific. I’d honestly have to say he’s better with short stories than Joyce.
—Really? Better than The Dead?
—Well . . . That’s something else. I was thinking more of the shorter stories by Joyce. A Painful Case, Clay, . . . Araby.
—Well, Joyce’s form was always the novel.
James Joyce is almost like a member of the family . . . He is mentioned more than certain relatives. I am named after him.
—Oh, sure . . . But his short stories aren’t bad by any means. In fact, I can honestly say that only Chekhov and Melville impress me more.
He is leaning forward now, genuinely interested.
—Speaking of Joyce . . . You’ve read Portrait, right?
—Sure. That’s the only one I have any sort of grasp on.
—Don’t worry about it . . . It’s like Ellmann says: You don’t read Joyce . . . You re-read him . . . Anyhow . . . What was I saying?
—Oh, right . . . Well, I was just re-reading Kenner’s essay on Portrait . . . Since I have so much time on my hands. He laughs and then shrugs apologetically. Did you ever read that one?
—I don’t think so. I answer with feigned absent-mindedness, knowing that I have.
—Well, in it he makes this great point about about the bird-girl passage. You know, that really beautiful passage where Stephen is watching the young girl in the stream, but he describes her as a seabird . . .
—I remember it well, it’s one of my favorites.
—Well, Kenner in this essay . . . Here, let me read it to you. There’s no point in my butchering it with a paraphrase when I have it . . . He twists around and drags his finger across some of the books behind him . . . Right . . . Shit, where the hell is it . . . Ah, here it is! . . . I tell you Kenner is great . . . Alright . . . Yes, here it is . . . Okay, first he talks about how Joyce doesn’t just want to parody, how does he put it . . . To parody adolescent rapture . . . Now here’s the good part: Yet he’d not pretend that it soared over limitations. It is just what it is: a talented boy’s rhapsodizing. I think that’s right on . . .
For some reason the comments feels like an insult. Limitations? But the passage is beautiful . . . What more can one ask?
—Hmm . . . I don’t know that I agree with that. Why is a beautiful passage like that any less valuable than a mature work by someone like Yeats? Like The Song of Wandering Aengus . . .
—No, you’ve missed the point. The beauty of the passage is that it put Stephen’s talents at the time in perspective. Joyce doesn’t just parody the immaturity of his writing—which would be pointless—but he also doesn’t do anything ridiculous like make him seem too talented for his age. It’s still great writing, but it is made greater when you understand the accomplishment. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of pretty words strung together.
—I guess . . .
My father is sitting up now . . . He is excited and enthusiastic, passionate. He is looking at me eagerly . . . Eager for me to agree, to develop . . . He expects a lot of me . . . He told me once that he could never bring himself to write because he was terrified . . . That was his word: terrified . . . Every time he picked up his pen to write . . . Terrified.
—Remember, James . . . A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man . . . The most important words in the title are the last four: as a Young Man.
Most of what he says to me he has said before. Maybe he realizes this, because he sits back in his chair and fades away again.