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’ I said to the screenwriter from Galway, who was gesturing to the balding, middle-aged man sitting next to me.‘I said, this is James Joyce’. It must be a misunderstanding, I thought, or as Joyce puts it, a ‘missed understanding’. Or do I admit to my table companion that I too feel cursed, but for other reasons.Getting things right is something I had learnt not to expect; getting things wrong, Joyce has taught me, is the more natural, more human, and often, more comical way. I opened my mouth.‘Well,’ I said, reaching for the wine and offering to fill his glass, hoping that some bolt of inspiration might rescue me from relapse.
Joyce had a knack for picking up just what he needed.
‘Chance furnishes me with what I need,’ he wrote, ‘I’m like a man who stumbles; my foot strikes something, I look down, and there is exactly what I need.’ Nora Barnacle was the most important chance stumble of his life.
We met when I was sixteen and have been sweethearts ever since.
I would have liked to say that about a living man, the way famous writers do in their acknowledgements of their latest novel, thanking their ‘loving husband, without whose unceasing patience and support etc,etc’. Until I realised how annoying it must be to live in the shadow of another man, and a dead one at that.‘Writers are a scourge for those they cohabit with,’ says Edna O’Brien in her book on James Joyce.
Which was why I realised that adding my own unsophisticated southern-hemisphere thoughts to the gazillion books and articles already written about Joyce was a complete waste of effort. And yet here I am, having finally given up on the enterprise altogether, only to find myself seated at a long table with thirteen artists from all over the world – and James Joyce at my side. Or at the very least, an ‘unexpected simultaneity’.
I have been allocated the Butler room, named after Hubert Butler, Tyrone Guthrie’s brother-in-law, and the most coveted room in the entire estate.In public, Joyce’s manners were impeccable and his letters demonstrate a remarkable courteousness but at home, it was very different.Quite apart from the regular drinking binges, his life was driven by his one-eyed obsession to fulfil his destiny and there was perhaps only one woman in the world who could have put up with the selfishness that such a vocation entailed.Sometimes he is the mythical Irish hero Finn Mc Cool. And sometimes he is a lowly insect called an earwig.Beckett wrote that Joyce believed fervently in the significance of chance events and of random connections.So perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I’ve tried to give up the dependency. The only way I can really give up is by putting myself in the thick of it.So I have taken up a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie House in Country Monaghan to write, ostensibly, the first draft of a manuscript that, for the first time in decades, has nothing to do with James Joyce. I have brought no Joyce books or copies of the chat groups. On my first evening at Tyrone Guthrie House on the Annaghmakerrig estate in Ireland, I sat down at the long table for the communal meal and was immediately introduced to a crime novelist whose name I assumed I had misheard.‘I beg your pardon? The middle-aged gentleman showed me his blue Visa card to prove it: James Joyce.‘I use a pen name instead,’ he said. ‘Until recently.’ Just a few months ago, he confessed, he finally and wrote an essay about the curse of being a contemporary writer named James Joyce. Do I break my commitment to abstain from reading, thinking or talking about Joyce?The author has determined my daily work of writing and teaching; he has also provided friends, colleagues, lovers, and once, a husband.Even my social life is arranged around Joyce, anchored each month by a meeting of the once accused, ‘the most pretentious book club in Sydney’.)In many ways, Joyce has been my longest long-term relationship.I wonder now why I ever wanted to be your friend in the first place. The need to be seen hanging around with an Important Man. You always believed that thirteen was an unlucky number. So it was absolutely true that his mother has been in the employ of James Joyce for as long as he could remember. My son was nine when a professional man in a suit asked: ‘And what does your mother do?