My father was a fan of James Joyce, and so I learned about Joyce at a young age, in 2nd or 3rd grade. And since I developed an interest in literature myself, I started reading James Joyce as a teenager. Before I was sixteen, I had read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners and Ulysses. I have reread since then, but I admit that I have probably not read Joyce with the maturity that I should have. And one of the major problems with my reading of Joyce is that I read his biography in the forewords of books and got the basics of James Joyce 101: James Joyce, raised to a middle class family fallen upon hard times, rebels against his Roman Catholic education and flees the backwater of Ireland to be an avante-garde artist and the star of fashionable literary Paris. Recently, I read the excellent (and weighty) Richard Ellman biography of Joyce, which corrected me in both tone and factual detail on the life of Joyce.
James Joyce was seen as a literary protege at a young age. At the age of 20 (an age at which I was, as the stereotype goes, playing video games in my mother's basement), Joyce was invited for literary conversations with William Butler Yeats, the foremost writer in his nation. Imagine yourself at an age when you are trying to scrape together a 2 page reflection paper about The Red Badge of Courage for English 101, and then imagine that the most celebrated author in your country is having you over for lunch. But despite the fact that Joyce was praised and recognized at such a young age, he did not immediately catapult himself into the Paris high life. In fact, after spending the first 22 years of his life in Dublin, he then moved to Trieste, a town that is now in Italy but was at the time part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and which was surrounded by what we would now call Yugoslavia. It was, like Dublin, somewhat of a provincial town. Here, Joyce worked as a language teacher for the next 16 years to support his family while writing three books. Joyce was habitually bad with money and given to bad planning and flights of fancy, but also viewed the welfare of his family quite seriously.
It was only at the age of 38 when Joyce moved to Paris and begin to regularly associate with the literati of the day, including Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett, amongst many others. Yet even while enjoying his newfound fame and (relative) prosperity, Joyce had many troubles to deal with, including repeated eye surgery that left him nearly blind and the mental illness of his daughter. Over the next decade and a half of his life, he wrote Finnegans Wake, a book that would be published shortly before his death.
This biography of Joyce brought to light many of the things I have noticed before in his writing, but which I perhaps didn't explore fully because of the simplified notion I had of him in my head. James Joyce was an ex-Catholic who wanted a secular, modern future for Ireland, yet he also had a mystical bent and an appreciation for the legend and lore of his country. James Joyce was an outgoing and charming man who was the toast of Paris society --- but spent most of his adult life in an unfashionable small town on the Adriatic. James Joyce grew up in a family that had advocated for Irish home rule, but Joyce didn't think much of Ireland when it gained its indepedence. Joyce wrote embittered social criticism in Dubliners, but buoyant fantasy in Finnegans Wake. Joyce desired political and social reforms, hated war, militarism and aristocracy, yet avoided making direct political statements in his work. He wrote the greatest experimental novel in the world (possibly twice), yet he also liked to dash off simple poems and humorous limericks full of gossip.
One of the most telling quotes from Joyce about his own position comes from this quote:
"..the more I hear of the political, philosophical, ethical zeal and labors of Pound's big brass band the more I wonder I was ever let into it 'with my magical flute'"
meaning that he didn't view himself as a principled rebel or systematic reformer like many of his modernist colleagues, but rather as someone who just wanted to tell stories. I will keep this in mind for future readings of his writings.