Monthly Archive for October, 2008

James Joyce and his mad daughter

I was in Ireland a few months ago and found myself in the superbly named bookshop in Cork, ‘Vibes and Scribes’ – the name alone made me want to browse and buy.  In an eclectic, and eccentric category called ‘Madness’ I found a book called ‘To Dance in the Wake – the story of Lucia Joyce’ about James Joyce’s only daughter. I’ve always loved Joyce, not least for his rejection of Ireland, and think ‘The Dubliners’ is one of the finest book of short stories ever written, although I still can’t get to grips with ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ (who honestly can?).  The only thing I knew about Lucia was that she was mad and in and out of mental institutions all over Europe but then after buying the book, in one of those strange coincidental moments, I discovered that she was also for many years in a mental institution in Northamptonshire.  I came across this after doing some research on the poet John Clare, who was in the same asylum, as was, much later, the writer Richard Mabey.  That’s quite a line-up.  Having almost finished the book it seems that the thing that made her mad, although like almost everything about Lucia Joyce even this is in dispute, was being the muse for Joyce and she felt herself at times suffocated by her genius Father and his modernist writing.  One of the things that the physicians thought was a symptom of her madness was her ability to talk in four languages which she interchanged regularly – she was brought up entirely in Italy, Switzerland and France with parents that spoke Irish-English – as if she was ‘speaking in tongues’.  I went back to Joyce’s work and re-read parts of ‘Ulysses’ where he frequently invents new words and then back to ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ which looks like the language of someone who is insane.   Words, it seems, can either raise you to a level of a genius of condemn you to a life of misery and incarceration depending upon who is using them, to whom and where.   Muses beware – write your own words and stay sane.