Friday, June 5, 2020

Tragic Muse

Being the child of a celebrity is seldom easy. Actor, writer, musician, business executive, lawyer, doctor—the profession hardly matters. If authors who achieve public acclaim with their first book struggle to match their own earlier success, how much more must the child of a famous father or mother fight the inner and outer voices of comparison, the hidden disappointment of never measuring up?

Now imagine that your famous father is James Joyce, the author of Ulysses, a book widely banned in the English-speaking world at the time for its “filth” and “profanity”; that because of your parents’ desire to escape censure you have spent your childhood and youth in Italy and France; that you recognize you come a poor second to your older brother in your mother’s eyes; and that although you have managed to make a career and win praise for yourself as a modern dancer, when opportunity at last knocks on your door, you are horrified to learn that your parents have so little interest in your accomplishments that they expect you to drop everything to accompany them to Britain. When you resist, they guilt-trip you, pointing out that your father sees you as his Muse for the book described only as Work in Progress (known to us as Finnegan’s Wake), and his genius requires your sacrifice.

This is the situation Lucia Joyce faces in Annabel Abbs’s biographical novel The Joyce Girl, published in 2015 in the UK but reissued in the United States by William Morrow this past Tuesday. It is a tragic but riveting story of a young woman struggling to find her place in art and in love despite the demands of her family—a task complicated by her unerring ability to pick the wrong man. First Samuel Beckett (yes, the one who later wrote Waiting for Godot), then Alexander Calder (the painter), attract Lucia’s attention and desire, only to abandon her when she expresses her interest.

Other affairs end no better. By 1930, Lucia—still no more than twenty-three—supposedly exhibits signs of psychiatric disturbance, starting a long progression that includes treatment by the analyst Carl Jung, a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and decades in mental hospitals that last until her death in 1982. But is she really insane, or is this just another example of “inappropriate” behavior by women being punished in the same crusade that swept up Zelda Fitzgerald and many others in the 1920s and 1930s?

I know what I think. I recommend that you read this taut and enthralling book and make up your own mind. Lucia’s life is history, available for anyone to discover. But as so often happens in good fiction, The Joyce Girl takes her rather sordid and unhappy past and shines a light on the family and the society in which she lives. And that’s what makes the novel such a gripping literary journey.

Image: James Joyce in 1918, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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