James Joyce in Winter
Today, 13 January, is the 72nd anniversary of the death of James Joyce in Zurich, when he failed to recover from an operation for a perforated ulcer. He died twenty days short of his 59th birthday.
This was wartime, and James and Nora Joyce had had an arduous time getting out of occupied France and into neutral Switzerland. The couple had to leave behind their troubled daughter Lucia, and – as usual – were short of money. Yet, despite the stresses on him, not least his excessive drinking, Joyce’s death was entirely avoidable. He had suffered what he called “stomach cramps” in Paris for years and, if only this illness had been diagnosed and treated earlier, he might have lived as long as his father John, who reached the age of 82.
All his life Joyce had imbued the calendar with superstitious significance, and many specific dates were important to him. Most notoriously, the events of Ulysses happen on 16 June, 1904, the day on which the author first walked out with his wife, the hotel chambermaid Nora Barnacle (“With a name like that,” predicted John Joyce, “she’ll never leave him.” ). But despite the setting of his most famous book in high summer, the true Joyce season is the one in which he died – the winter.
He was a renegade Catholic who could never quite get the church, its rituals and its calendar, out of his system. The Church calendar kicks off with Advent Sunday in late November, the start of the liturgical year. Then in fairly close succession come the following four dates, each of which is freighted with its own special Joycean significance.
13 December. The Feast of Santa Lucia, after whom Joyce named his only daughter. With his ever failing eyesight it was a saint’s day of great significance for her father, since S. Lucia is the patron of light.
26 December. The Feast of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, after whom Joyce named his fictional alter-ego Stephen Dedalus.
6 January. The Epiphany. The idea of an epiphany – an everyday moment of sudden mystical clarity – was central to Joyce’s aesthetic. His earliest body of written work, short prose evocations of such moments, were titled Epiphanies.
2 February. Candlemas, another festival of light, and Joyce’s birthday. This is also Groundhog Day, which in American tradition is regarded as the harbinger of spring.
Groundhog Day has of course come to mean something additional now: the repetition of events in time, as in the 1992 Bill Murray film. This development would have delighted Joyce. He was deeply interested in the philosophical ideas of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) who saw history, and even time itself, as circular and endlessly repetitive. It is according to this idea that Finnegans Wake with its “commodius vicus of recirculation” is structured – the last words of the book being the same as the first.
There is no epitaph chiselled on Joyce’s grave. Here instead is a poem, which seems appropriate, from Chamber Music, the collection of romantic lyrics Joyce had written "when I was a lonely boy, walking about by myself at night and thinking that one day a girl would love me." It was originally the final poem in the collection until numbers 35 and 36 became late additions.
Sleep now, O sleep now,
O you unquiet heart!
A voice crying "Sleep now"
Is heard in my heart.
The voice of the winter
Is heard at the door.
O sleep, for the winter
Is crying "Sleep no more."
My kiss will give peace now
And quiet to your heart—
Sleep on in peace now,
O you unquiet heart!