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Why was James Joyce’s daughter Lucia written out of history?
Annabel Abbs, author of The Joyce Girl, asks why was Lucia Joyce, a beautiful woman and talented dancer, left to languish by her family for 50 years in an English asylum?
Annabel Abbs
Most of Lucia Joyce’s letters (to her, from her, about her) had been purposefully destroyed. Her medical records had been burnt. She spent four months in analysis with the legendary Carl Jung in Switzerland. He too had destroyed all his notes. Poems and a novel she’d written had also been lost or destroyed
When I first stumbled across James Joyce’s only daughter, I confess I was behind the curve. It was a dank, dark day in March 2012. Copyright on Joyce’s work had recently expired and Joyce scholars everywhere were celebrating. I knew nothing of this as I

pushed aside a demi-john of lime vodka and picked up a graphic novel recommended by a friend. At the time a career in the flavoured vodka business beckoned and I was experimenting with flavours in my kitchen. The demi-johns were heavy, my hands were sticky with citrus, and I’d managed to get vodka in my eye – Dotter of her Father’s Eyes, by Mary and Bryan Talbot, looked like a bit of light relief.
The “light relief” turned out to be a comic-style autobiography, cleverly twinned with a short but moving account of Lucia Joyce’s life. I’d studied Joyce at university, some 25 years earlier, but knew nothing of his daughter. I was instantly struck by the juxtaposition of the world-famous, iconic figure of Joyce and his “unknown” daughter. Everything about her intrigued me. I wanted to know more about this beautiful girl who’d studied modern dance in 1920s Paris.
I wanted to know what happened between her and Samuel Beckett, and between her and the American artist, Alexander Calder. Why had her lovers had such stellar careers, while her own promising career as a dancer languished? I wanted to know what it was like to have a father deemed to be a genius pornographer, and a mother who’d been an uneducated chambermaid – another odd juxtaposition. I wanted to know how it felt to be at the heart of one of the most exciting periods in artistic history. But most of all I wanted to know why she was left, friendless and forgotten, in an English mental asylum for 50 years. What had happened to make her own mother and brother abandon her so ruthlessly?
Hoping to find some answers, I turned to a 600-page biography written a decade earlier by an American Joyce scholar called Carol Loeb Schloss. The biography was meticulously researched and yet entire swathes of Lucia’s life were unaccounted for. Why? Because most of her letters (to her, from her, about her) had been purposefully destroyed. Her medical records had been burnt. She spent four months in analysis with the legendary Carl Jung in Switzerland. He too had destroyed all his notes. Poems and a novel she’d written had also been lost or destroyed. Lucia’s life seemed to be little more than a few bald facts strung together and viewed through the lens of other people, many of whom seemed entirely unreliable. And yet newspaper reviews (which I quote in the novel) raved about her talent.
I began reading anything I could find on 1920s Paris and the Joyce family. I went to the National Archives and the James Joyce Centres in Zurich and Trieste, trawling through clippings, photographs and previously-censored material. The more I researched, the angrier I became. Joyce’s daughter had been obliterated from history, her voice smothered. I realised that if I wanted to understand and experience her life, I would have to use the facts gleaned from my research – and imagine the rest. Only a novel was going to give me the emotional truth of Lucia. Only fiction could provide the emotional access to the past I was looking for. To experience her life, both in the intense, claustrophobic Joyce household and colourful, creative, jazz-age Paris needed imagination, not another biography or history book. And, as Doris Lessing famously said, “There’s no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth”.
So the vodka business was put to one side as I began writing Lucia’s story, fuelled by outrage. I’d never attended any writing courses, but ploughed on regardless. As my research gathered pace, I was horrified to uncover a pattern of young, newly liberated women being carted off to asylums: Lucia’s sister-in-law; her first boyfriend’s sister (who was the first French translator of Joyce’s Dubliners); Zelda, the wife of F Scott Fitzgerald, (who studied ballet alongside Lucia). All appear in my novel – and all ended up with diagnoses of schizophrenia. Lucia and Zelda both died in asylums. They had both longed to be professional dancers. They had both, it seemed to me, lived in the shadows of more successful men.
These young women were also victims of the rapid change sweeping through the developed world. The 1920s was a time of huge change – cars, cameras, telephones and radios were altering the lives of everyone. In Paris, hems were up and stockings were down as young women embraced change and all it promised. But beneath the glamour and glitter lay a dark underbelly. As I wrote The Joyce Girl, I noticed similarities with our own period. Today, technology and social media have revolutionised our world and yet beneath the glossy Technicolor of Instagram and Facebook lurks a similarly dark underbelly, with soaring rates of mental health problems among the young. The more I researched, the more I saw parallels between the 1920s and the 2010s – as new generations (particularly, but not exclusively, female) struggled to adapt to new values, to new ways of behaving and seeing themselves. Hence I decided to give my first-year profits to a charity called YoungMinds.
Lucia’s story was particularly interesting because she very much wanted to be a modern woman, and yet her parents retained a strongly Irish sense of propriety – in spite of Joyce’s image as a radical writer changing the face of fiction. It was here, in the father-daughter element of the story, that Lucia’s story resonated at a more personal level. Like Lucia, I grew up with a poet-father who exiled himself in order to pursue his art. The Joyces went to Italy and adopted Italian as their lingua franca. We went to Wales and learned Welsh. Like the Joyces, we lived in relative poverty, moving frequently during the first 10 years of my life.
My childhood was very much the “lite” version – but the similarities enabled me to understand how she might have felt. While many children grow up with the sense of a largely absent father, having a writer as a father results in something quite different – a father who is present in body but absent in spirit. Joyce worked and wrote obsessively. He was convinced of his own genius. He refused to compromise the integrity of his art for anything – or anyone. My father was similarly compulsive. Like Lucia and her brother, Giorgio, I and my siblings grew up in thrall to the creative will. Reading Ulysses for the third time reminded me of how particularly absent Joyce must have been from his children’s childhood. But there the similarities ended.
The Joyce Girl is my attempt to resurrect Lucia and give her a voice, to experience 1920s Paris as she might have done, to understand why her life fizzled out in the way it did. I hope I’ve done her a scrap of the justice she deserves.
The Joyce Girl, published by Impress today, is Annabel Abbs’ first novel. It won the Impress Prize for New Writers, and was longlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award and the Bath Novel Award. She sponsors a full bursary for aspiring writers on the University of East Anglia Creative Writing MA and lives in London

Lucia Joyce
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Lucia Joyce dancing at Bullier Ball - Paris, May 1929
Lucia Anna Joyce (26 July 1907 Trieste - 12 December 1982 Northampton) was the daughter of Irish writer James Joyce and Nora Barnacle.
Italian was her first language and the language in which she corresponded with her father. She first demonstrated her talent as a dancer after seeing Charlie Chaplin's The Kid in 1921: her party pieces became imitations of Napoleon and the little tramp.[1] She studied dancing from 1925 to 1929, training first with the Dalcroze Institute in Paris run by Jacques Dalcroze, followed by Margaret Morris (granddaughter of William Morris) in her school of modern dance, and later with Raymond Duncan (brother of Isadora Duncan) at his school near Salzburg.
 She furthered her studies under Lois Hutton, Hélène Vanel, and Jean Borlin, lead dancer of the Ballet suédois.
 In 1927, she danced a short duet as a toy soldier in Jean Renoir’s film adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's La Petite marchande d’allumettes (The Little Match Girl). In 1928, she joined "Les Six de rythme et couleur," a commune of six female dancers that were soon performing at venues in France, Austria, and Germany.
Recognized as a professional dancer, she was profiled in the Paris Times after her performance in La Princesse Primitive at the Vieux-Colombier theatre. The article began: "Lucia Joyce is her father’s daughter. She has James Joyce’s enthusiasm, energy, and a not-yet-determined amount of his genius." Highlighting her choreography for Le Pont d’or, and her skills as a linguist, costume designer, and creator of colour schemes and effects, the article concluded: "When she reaches her full capacity for rhythmic dancing, James Joyce may yet be known as his daughter’s father."
On 28 May 1929, she was chosen as one of six finalists in the first international festival of dance in Paris held at the Bal Bullier. Although she did not win, the audience - which included her father and the young Samuel Beckett - championed her performance as outstanding and loudly protested the jury’s verdict.
After seven years’ training and nine dance schools in the anti-balletic style, she took up professional ballet instruction with Lubov Egorova, formerly of the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, who was now based in Paris. Working six hours a day at the age of twenty-two when ballet dancers usually begin training at eight, she broke under the pressure and decided "she was not physically strong enough to be a dancer of any kind".
 Announcing she would become a Margaret Morris teacher, she then "turned down an offer to join a group in Darmstadt and effectively gave up dancing."
Her biographer Carol Shloss, however, argues that it was her father who finally put an end to her dancing career. Joyce reasoned that the intense physical training for ballet caused her undue stress which in turn exacerbated the long-standing animosity between her and her mother, Nora. The resulting incessant domestic squabbles prevented work on Finnegans Wake. Joyce convinced her she should turn to drawing lettrines to illustrate his prose and forgo her own deep-seated artistic inclinations.
 To his patron Harriet Shaw Weaver, Joyce wrote that this resulted in "a month of tears as she thinks she has thrown away three or four years of hard work and is sacrificing a talent".
Lucia started to show signs of mental illness in 1930, a year after she began casually dating the twenty-three year old Samuel Beckett, then a junior lecturer in English at the Ecole normale supérieure in Paris. In May 1930 while her parents were in Zurich, she invited Beckett to dinner, hoping "to press him into some kind of declaration."
He flatly rejected her, explaining that he was only interested in her father and his writing. Joyce biographer Gordon Bowker argues that the underlying reasons for the rejection were Beckett's keen awareness of the "strong unfulfilled erotic bond between Lucia and her father" and her need to find "a genius father-substitute", together with "her predilection for unprotected sex."
By 1934, after failed affairs with her drawing teacher Alexander Calder, and another expatriate artist Albert Hubbell, her condition had deteriorated to the point that Joyce had Carl Gustav Jung take her in as a patient. Soon after, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the Burghölzli psychiatric clinic in Zurich.
In 1936, Joyce consented to have his daughter undergo blood tests at St Andrew's Hospital in Northampton. After a short stay, Lucia insisted she return to Paris, the doctors explaining to Joyce that she could not be prevented from doing so unless he had her committed. Joyce told his closest friends that "he would never agree to his daughter being incarcerated among the English."
 Lucia returned to stay with Maria Jolas, the wife of transition editor Eugene Jolas, in Neuilly sur Seine. After three weeks, her condition worsened and she was taken away in a straitjacket to the Maison de Santé Velpeau in Vésinet. Considered a danger to both staff and inmates, she was left in isolation. Two months later, she entered the maison de santé of Dr François Achille Delmas at Ivry-sur-Seine.
In 1951 Lucia was again transferred to St Andrew's Hospital. Over the years, she received visits from Beckett, Sylvia Beach, Frank Budgen, Maria Jolas, and Harriet Shaw Weaver who acted as her guardian. In 1962, Beckett donated his share of the royalties from his 1929 contributory essay on Finnegans Wake in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress to help pay for her confinement at St Andrew's. In 1982, Lucia suffered a stroke and died on 12 December of that year.  She is buried in Kingsthorpe Cemetery.
Her mental state, and documentation pertaining thereto, is the subject of a 2003 study by Carol Shloss who believes Lucia to have been her father's muse for Finnegans Wake. Making heavy reference to the letters between Lucia Joyce and her father, the study became the subject of a copyright misuse suit by the James Joyce estate. On 25 March 2007, this litigation was resolved. In 2004 her life was the subject of Calico, a West End play written by Michael Hastings, and of the 2012 graphic novel, Dotter of Her Father's Eyes, by Bryan and Mary M. Talbot. Another play exploring her life, called L, was performed to a limited audience in Concord Academy from April 14-16, 2016. It was written and directed by Sophia Ginzburg.

The difficulties of being James Joyce’s daughter.
William Butler Yeats, when he was riding the bus, would occasionally go into a compositional trance. He would stare straight ahead and utter a low hum and beat time with his hands. People would come up to him and ask him if he was all right. Once, his young daughter, Anne, boarded a bus and found him in that condition among the passengers. She knew better than to disturb him. But when the bus stopped at their gate, she got off with him. He turned to her vaguely and said, “Oh, who is it you wish to see?”
When I think of what it means to be an artist’s child, I remember that story. There are worse fates. But in the artist’s household the shifts that the children must endure—they can’t make noise (he’s working), they can’t leave on vacation (he hasn’t finished the chapter)—are combined with a mystique that this is all for some exalted cause, which they must honor even though they are too young to understand it. Furthermore, if the artist is someone of Yeats’s calibre, the children, as they develop, will measure themselves against him and come up short. In fact, many artists’ children turn out just fine, and grow up to edit their parents’ work and live off the royalties. But some do not—for example, James Joyce’s two children. His son became an alcoholic; his daughter went mad. Carol Loeb Shloss, a Joyce scholar who teaches at Stanford, has just written a book about the latter: “Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $30).
Lucia grew up in a disorderly household. Joyce had turned his back on Ireland in 1904, when he was twenty-two. Convinced that he was a genius but that his countrymen would never recognize this, he persuaded Nora Barnacle, his wife-to-be, to sail with him to the Continent. They eventually landed in Trieste, and there, for the next decade or so, he worked as a language teacher and completed “Dubliners” and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” With the publication of “Portrait,” in 1916, he acquired rich patrons, but until then—that is, throughout his children’s early years—the Joyces were very poor. Some days they went without dinner. Their first child, Giorgio, was born in 1905, a bonny, easy baby, and, furthermore, a boy. Nora adored him till the day she died. Two years after Giorgio came Lucia, a sickly, difficult child, and a girl, with strabismus. (That is, she was cross-eyed. Nora, too, had strabismus, but hers was far less noticeable.) Lucia’s earliest memories of her mother were of scoldings. Joyce, on the other hand, loved Lucia, spoiled her, sang to her, but only when he had time. He worked all day and then, on many nights, he went out and got blind drunk. The family was evicted from apartment after apartment. By the age of seven, Lucia had lived at five different addresses. By thirteen, she had lived in three different countries. The First World War forced the Joyces to move to Zurich; after the war, they settled in Paris. As a result, Lucia received a spotty education, during which she was repeatedly left back by reason of having to learn a new language.
Was she strange from childhood? With people who become mentally ill as adults, this question is always hard to answer, because most witnesses, knowing what happened later, read it back into the early years, and are sure that the signs were already there. Richard Ellmann, the author of the standard biography of Joyce, and Brenda Maddox, in her “Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce,” both note that the young Lucia seemed to stare off into space, but the strabismus might account for this. It is also said that she was reticent socially. Although she was talkative at home—a “saucebox,” her father called her—she apparently went through periods when she spoke to few people outside her family. But the language-switching could explain this. A friend of the family described her, in her twenties, as “illiterate in three languages.” It was four, actually: German, French, English, and Triestine Italian. The last was her native tongue, the language that her family used at home, not just in Trieste but forever after (because Joyce found it easier on the voice). It was not, however, what people spoke in most of the places where she lived.
When Lucia was fifteen, she began taking dance lessons, mostly of the new, anti-balletic, “aesthetic” variety, and this became her main interest during her teens and early twenties. She started at the Dalcroze Institute in Paris, then moved on to study with the toga-clad Raymond Duncan, Isadora’s older brother. Eventually, she hooked up with a commune of young women who performed now and then, in Paris and elsewhere, as Les Six de Rythme et Couleur. However briefly, Lucia was a professional dancer. She is said to have excelled in sauvage roles. But eventually she left this group, as she left every group. (I count nine dance schools in seven years.) In part, that may have been due to lack of encouragement from her family. Nora reportedly nagged Lucia to give up dancing. According to members of the family, she was jealous of the attention the girl received. As for Joyce, Brenda Maddox says he felt “it was unseemly for women to get on the stage and wave their arms about.”
Finally, after seven years’ training in the left wing of dance, Lucia bolted to the right wing, and embarked on a backbreaking course of ballet instruction with Lubov Egorova, formerly of the Maryinsky Theatre, in St. Petersburg. This was a terrible idea. Professional ballet dancers begin their training at around the age of eight. Lucia was twenty-two. She worked six hours a day, but of course she couldn’t catch up, and, in her discouragement, she concluded that she was not physically strong enough to be a dancer of any kind—a decision, Joyce wrote to a friend, that cost her “a month’s tears.”
The loss of her dance career was not the only grief that Lucia suffered in her early twenties. The publication of “Ulysses,” in 1922, made Joyce a star, and there were plenty of young artistic types in Paris who thought it would be nice to be attached to his family. When Giorgio was in his late teens, an American heiress, Helen Fleischman, laid claim to him; eventually he moved in with her. Lucia, who had been very close to Giorgio, felt abandoned. She was also scandalized. (Fleischman was eleven years older than Giorgio, and married.) Finally, she wondered what she was missing. She decided to find out, and in the space of about two years she was rejected by three men: her father’s assistant, Samuel Beckett, who told her he wasn’t interested in her in that way; her drawing teacher, Alexander Calder, who bedded her but soon went back to his fiancée; and another artist, Albert Hubbell, who had an affair with her and then went back to his wife. Lucia became more experimental. She took to meeting a sailor at the Eiffel Tower. She announced that she was a lesbian. During these romantic travails, she became more distressed over her strabismus. She had the eye operated on, but it didn’t change. Soon afterward, her pride received another blow: her parents told her that they were going to get married. (Giorgio’s marriage to the newly divorced Fleischman got them thinking about legality and inheritance.) This is how she discovered that they never had been married and that she was a bastard.
The following year, on Joyce’s fiftieth birthday, Lucia picked up a chair and threw it at her mother, whereupon Giorgio took her to a medical clinic and checked her in. “He thereby changed her fate,” Shloss writes. That is a strong judgment, but it is true in part, because the minute an emotionally disturbed person is placed in an institution the story enters a new phase, in which we see not just the original problem but its alterations under institutionalization: the effects of drugs, the humiliation of being locked up and supervised, the consequent change in the person’s self-image and in other people’s image of him or her. For the next three years, Lucia went back and forth between home and hospital. One night in 1933, she was at home when the news came that a United States District Court had declared “Ulysses” not obscene (which meant that it could be published in the States). The Joyces’ phone rang and rang with congratulatory calls. Lucia cut the phone wires—“I’m the artist,” she said—and when they were repaired she cut them again. As her behavior grew worse, her hospitalizations became longer. She went from French clinics to Swiss sanitariums. She was analyzed by Jung. (Briefly—she wanted no part of him.) One doctor said she was “hebephrenic,” which at that time was a subtype of schizophrenia, describing patients who showed antic, “naughty” behavior. Another diagnostician said she was “not lunatic but markedly neurotic.” A third thought the problem was “cyclothymia,” akin to manic-depressive illness. At one point in 1935, when she seemed stabler, her parents let her go visit some cousins in Bray, a seaside town near Dublin. There she set a peat fire in the living room, and when her cousins’ boyfriends came to call she tried to unbutton their trousers. She also, night after night, turned on the gas tap, in a sort of suicidal game. Then she disappeared to Dublin, where she tramped the streets for six days, sleeping in doorways, or worse. When she was found, she herself asked to be taken to a nursing home.
Soon afterward, the Joyces put her in an asylum in Ivry, outside Paris. She was twenty-eight, and she never lived on the outside again. She changed hospitals a few times, but her condition remained the same. She was quiet for the most part, though periodically she would go into a tearing rage—breaking windows, attacking people—and then she would be put in a straitjacket until she calmed down. This went on for forty-seven years, until her death, in 1982, at the age of seventy-five.
Carol Shloss believes that Lucia’s case was cruelly mishandled. When Lucia fell ill, she at last captured her father’s sustained attention. He grieved over her incessantly. At the same time, he was in the middle of writing “Finnegans Wake,” and there were people around him—friends, patrons, assistants, on whom, since he was going blind, he was very dependent—who believed that the future of Western literature depended on his ability to finish this book. But he was not finishing it, because he was too busy worrying about Lucia. He was desperate to keep her at home. His friends—and also Nora, who bore the burden of caring for Lucia when she was at home, and who was the primary target of her fury—insisted that she be institutionalized. The entourage finally prevailed, and Joyce completed “Finnegans Wake.” In Shloss’s view, Lucia was the price paid for a book.
But, as Shloss tells it, the silencing of Lucia went further than that. Her story was erased. After Joyce’s death, many of his friends and relatives, in order to cover over this sad (and reputation-beclouding) episode, destroyed Lucia’s letters, together with Joyce’s letters to and about her. Shloss says that Giorgio’s son, Stephen Joyce, actually removed letters from a public collection in the National Library of Ireland. When Brenda Maddox’s biography of Nora was in galleys, Maddox was required to delete her epilogue on Lucia in return for permission to quote various Joyce materials. Shloss doesn’t waste any tears over Maddox, however. In her opinion, Maddox and Ellmann are among the sinners, because they assumed, and thereby persuaded the public, that Lucia was insane. (Whenever Shloss catches Ellmann or Maddox in what seems to her a factual error, she records it snappishly—a tone inadvisable for a writer who, forced to swot up three decades of dance history, made some errors herself.) But the biographers are a side issue. None of Lucia’s letters survive as original documents. Nor is there any trace of her diaries or poems, or of a novel that she is said to have been writing. In other words, most of the primary sources for an account of Lucia Joyce’s life are missing. “This is a story that was not supposed to be told,” Shloss writes. Therefore she tells it with a vengeance.
Shloss says that Lucia was a pioneering artist: “Through her we watch the birth of modernism.” She compares her to Prometheus, “privately engaged in stealing fire.” She compares her to Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. Insofar as these statements have to do with Lucia’s dance career, Shloss is as hard up for evidence as all other people writing about dance that predated the widespread use of film and video recording. What those writers do is quote reviewers and witnesses. But Lucia’s stage career was very short; Shloss is able to document maybe ten or twenty professional performances, and Lucia’s contributions to them were apparently not reviewed. Once, in 1929, when she competed in a dance contest in Paris, a critic singled her out as “subtle and barbaric.” Apropos of that performance, Shloss also quotes the diary of Joyce’s friend Stuart Gilbert: “Ballet yesterday; fils prodigue is a compromise between pas d’acier (steps of steel) and neo-Stravinsky.” This would be an interesting compliment if the prodigal son in question were Lucia, but what Gilbert is clearly describing is George Balanchine’s ballet “Le Fils Prodigue,” which had its première in Paris, with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, three days before Lucia’s dance contest.

Shloss’s evaluation of Lucia as an artist is not limited to her dance career, however. Lucia, she tells us, collaborated with Joyce on “Finnegans Wake.” One of Lucia’s cousins, Bozena Berta Schaurek, visited the Joyces briefly in 1928, and in an interview fifty years later she recalled something from that visit: while Joyce worked, “Lucia danced silently in the background.” Joyce prided himself on his ability to write under almost any conditions, so if his niece saw him, once or twice, working in the same room where Lucia was practicing, this would not be surprising. But in Shloss’s mind Schaurek’s report prompts a vision:
There are two artists in this room, and both of them are working. Joyce is watching and learning. The two communicate with a secret, unarticulated voice. The writing of the pen, the writing of the body become a dialogue of artists, performing and counterperforming, the pen, the limbs writing away.
The father notices the dance’s autonomous eloquence. He understands the body to be the hieroglyphic of a mysterious writing, the dancer’s steps to be an alphabet of the inexpressible. . . . The place where she meets her father is not in consciousness but in some more primitive place before consciousness. They understand each other, for they speak the same language, a language not yet arrived into words and concepts but a language nevertheless, founded on the communicative body. In the room are flows, intensities.
Shloss thinks that this artistic symbiosis went on for years and that out of it came the theme of “Finnegans Wake” (flow), its linguistic experiments, much of its imagery, and also, because dance is abstract, its quasi-abstract quality. In return for these artistic gains, Shloss says, Lucia’s life was forfeited. Transfixed by Joyce’s gaze, she became too self-aware. And magicked by her relationship with him—“one of the great love stories of the twentieth century,” Shloss calls it—she could never form an attachment to another man. Even years later, when Lucia is in the sanitarium and doing bizarre things—painting her face black, sending telegrams to dead people—Shloss believes that this was Lucia’s way of giving her father material. She wasn’t schizophrenic; she was working on “Finnegans Wake.”

This elevation of Lucia to the role of collaborator on “Finnegans Wake” is the book’s most spectacular act of inflation, but by no means the only one. The less Shloss knows, the more she tells us. On Lucia’s studies with Raymond Duncan, for example, she seems to have almost no information. But here, among many other things, is what she says on the subject:
Lucia’s mind was filled with the grammar of vitality, prizing the dynamic over the static order. She imagined herself in terms of tension and its release; she felt the anxieties of opposing muscle to muscle and the heady mastery of resistances, knew the peace of working with gravity and not against it. To drop, to rebound, to lift, to suspend oneself. To fall and recover, to know the experience of grounding oneself and then arising to circle to the edge of ecstasy. Priests danced, children danced, philosophers’ thoughts rose and fell in rhythmic sequence; lovers danced, and so did Lucia.
This is what you get when you tear up letters on a biographer. Underlying that passage—indeed, the whole book—are many of the irrationalist formulas associated in the public mind with dance. Painting is an art, writing is an art, but dance is a religion, an immolation. It is primitive, it is sexual, it is Dionysiac. (Shloss gives us a talk on Nietzsche.) It is an ecstasy, an obsession—the Red Shoes. Therefore it is cousin to insanity. Shloss points us to Zelda Fitzgerald, who also threw herself into ballet in her twenties, also studied with Egorova, and also went mad. (The two women even ended up in the same Swiss hospital, though Zelda was gone before Lucia checked in.) Nijinsky, too, is invoked. And Lucia’s symptoms are repeatedly described as her way of dancing.
In some sections, however, Shloss forgets that she is writing a symbolist poem or a Laingian treatise and starts writing a biography. That, of course, is when she has some information to go on. At one juncture, she quotes from a history of Lucia that Joyce and his friend Paul Léon wrote for one of the hospitals that she was sent to: “The patient insists that despite her diligence, her talent and all her exertions, the results of her work have come to nothing. The brother, her contemporary, whom she previously idolized, has never worked at anything, is well known, has married wealth, has a beautiful apartment, a car with a chauffeur and, on top of it all, a beautiful wife.” Lucia herself said to a companion that her situation was “just as if you had been very rich, and collected many valuable things, and then they were taken away from you.” These are modest statements, about cars and money, not Dionysus, but they are the ones that make you want to cry.
Another poignant section of the book has to do with Joyce’s efforts on Lucia’s behalf. Joyce believed that Lucia’s problems were somehow inherited from him: “Whatever spark or gift I possess has been transmitted to Lucia and it has kindled a fire in her brain.” (In fact, the fire may have been transmitted by Nora, whose sister Dilly spent a year and a half in a lunatic asylum.) He tried to find ways to heal her, please her. He bought her a fur coat (“My wish for you is warmth and beauty”), and when she lost it he bought her another one. To replace dancing, he persuaded her to take up book illustration—she drew lettrines, ornamental capitals—and he secretly gave publishers the money to pay her for her work. He didn’t think she was crazy; he thought she was special—“a fantastic being,” with her own private language. “I understand it,” he said, “or most of it.” If there was something wrong with her, maybe it was an infection, or a hormone imbalance. (She was given hormones, and also injections of seawater. The treatment of schizophrenia in those days was basically stabs in the dark, as it is still.) He spared no expense. In 1935, Léon reported that three-quarters of Joyce’s income was going to Lucia’s care. When the Germans invaded France, in 1940, and the family had to flee to Switzerland, Joyce practically killed himself in the vain effort to arrange for Lucia to go with them. Indeed, he may have killed himself. A month after the family arrived in Zurich, he died of a perforated ulcer.
Shloss loves Joyce for the pains he took over Lucia. The enemies in her book, apart from the letter-destroyers, are Nora and Giorgio—especially Giorgio, who, though by this time he spent his days in an alcoholic haze, was always forgiven everything by his family, and who, time and again, was the first person to say that his sister should be put away. Shloss repeatedly suggests—again, without evidence—that there may have been some sexual contact between Lucia and Giorgio when they were in their teens or earlier, and that Giorgio, in his rush to institutionalize her, may have been trying to silence her on this subject.
Shloss’s book is part of a tradition, the biography-of-the-artist’s-woman—a genre that is now about thirty years old, as old as its source, modern feminism. Its goal is to show that many great works of art by men were fed on the blood of women, who were then, at best, forgotten by history or, at worst, maddened by their exploitation and then clapped in an institution. In the latter cases—Shloss’s “Lucia,” Carole Seymour-Jones’s “Painted Shadow: The Life of Vivienne Eliot, First Wife of T. S. Eliot, and the Long-Suppressed Truth About Her Influence on His Genius”—these books can be very indignant. (Not always. Nancy Milford’s biography of Zelda Fitzgerald basically comes down on Scott’s side.) When the woman is merely unacknowledged, the tone tends to be milder, as in Brenda Maddox’s “Nora”—which, pace Shloss, says that Nora was the primary inspiration for Joyce’s work—or Ann Saddlemyer’s “Becoming George: The Life of Mrs. W. B. Yeats,” which tells the weird story of how Yeats’s wife, Georgie, was the medium (literally) through which he reached the spirit world and thus found the subject of his late work. In recent years, possibly because most of the really shocking cases have been used up, the arguments seem to be getting subtler. In Stacy Schiff’s “Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)” we are shown a woman whose contribution to her husband’s work was to meld with him in the creation of a single, shared personality, which then wrote the books and lived the life—a curious phenomenon.

All these biographies, subtle or not, are valuable, and not only for the sake of justice (when that is what they achieve) but because they tell an important truth about how artists get their work done. Many people are brilliant, and from that you may get one novel, as Zelda Fitzgerald did. But to write five novels (Scott) or seventeen (Nabokov)—to make a career—you must have, with brilliance, a number of less glamorous virtues, for example, patience, resilience, and courage. Lucia Joyce encountered obstacles and threw up her hands; James Joyce faced worse obstacles—for most of his writing life, publishers ran from him in droves—but he persisted. When the critics made fun of Zelda’s novel, she stopped publishing; when Scott had setbacks—indeed, when he was a falling-down drunk—he went on hoping, and working. Lucia and Zelda may have been less gifted than the men in question. But there is something else going on here, too, which the biographies-of-the-artists’-women record: that while nature seems to award brilliance equally to men and women, society does not nurture it equally in the two sexes, and thus leaves the women more discourageable. Nor, in females, does the world reward selfishness, which, sad to say, artists seem to need, or so one gathers from the portraits of the men in these books. One can also gather it from biographies of the women who did not lose heart—for example, George Eliot, whose books were the product of a life custom-padded by her mate, George Lewes. (Phyllis Rose, in her “Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages,” reports that for twenty-four years Lewes screened Eliot’s incoming letters, together with all reviews of her books, and threw away anything that might distress her.) Then there is Virginia Woolf, whose novels would never have been written had she not had non-stop nursing care from Leonard Woolf. Virginia knew this, and seems to have decided she deserved it, or so she suggests in “A Room of One’s Own.” But, male or female, once the artist walks into that private room and closes the door, a lot of people are going to feel shut out—are going to be shut out—and they may suffer.

‘The Fall of the House of Wilde: Oscar Wilde and His Family’, by Emer O’Sullivan

Review by Suzi Feay
There have been many biographies of Oscar Wilde. Emer O’Sullivan justifies hers by presenting him not in brilliant isolation but as part of an eminent Anglo-Irish family — just one actor in a compelling intergenerational tragedy. His father was the prominent Dublin doctor and folklorist Sir William Wilde, and his mother Jane was better known as the firebrand political poet “Speranza”. Together with Oscar’s feckless brother Willie, they rose to dizzy prominence and fell to ignominious depths.
Overall it’s a melancholy story; only William senior got off relatively lightly, dying in 1876 aged 61 while still a revered public figure. Even so, he and his wife had suffered a mortifying libel case, a tragic irony in view of the one that was to bring about his son’s downfall in 1895. The young Oscar was sent hurriedly away to school as the scandal broke; just as his own sons Cyril and Vyvyan would be whisked off in their turn to escape their father’s shame.
William was a Victorian polymath, spewing out learned books. A renowned expert in aural medicine, he was appointed Queen Victoria’s doctor in Ireland (not much work involved there, since she never visited the country). As passionate a patriot as his wife, he devoted his spare time to compiling Irish folklore and helped inaugurate the Celtic Revival, the movement that sought to reclaim the dignity of Irish history and culture. Jane had advocated direct action in the uprising of 1848, and her poems made her a national heroine.
Oscar and his elder brother Willie thus grew up in an unconventional, liberal milieu of ardent talkers and writers. This early training surely helped Oscar to become one of the era’s finest conversationalists. Jane, a noted bluestocking, held celebrated salons in the Wilde house in Dublin’s Merrion Square, where wit and erudition rather than social status took precedence. Her son’s noted sympathies in later life towards clerks and telegraph boys perhaps partly had its root in Jane’s egalitarianism.
The brothers lived for pleasure; Willie seems to have had some of Oscar’s brilliance without even his minimal work ethic
After Sir William’s death, the family fortunes faltered and the three Wildes moved to London. Except for brief periods when Oscar’s plays were hits, financial security eluded them all. The brothers rebelled against Victorian “earnestness” (memorably parodied by Oscar in his most celebrated play) by living for pleasure; Willie seems to have had some of Oscar’s brilliance without even his minimal work ethic. Both were riddled with laziness, charm and complacency.
Without being in any way a feminist biography, The Fall of the House of Wildevividly brings out the crushing despair of Oscar’s devoted wife Constance, and the slow slide into destitution of the formerly bejewelled and dazzling Jane. The erstwhile darling of Dublin, the revolutionary poet was finally forced to petition an indifferent English government for a tiny pension. At least when we read of the bitter desolation of Oscar’s latter years, we are consoled by his sparkling talent and continued fame. But nothing leavens the misery when reading about Jane’s bravely endured penury, or Willie’s alcoholism. Willie’s lively journalistic pieces lived for a day and Jane’s poems, briefly quoted here, don’t invite further investigation. I couldn’t help thinking their sad stories would be better left in obscurity.
As O’Sullivan notes, the family ultimately paid a high price for promoting “liberal values at odds with contemporary mores”. Oscar came to personify the fin de siècle; as his friend, the poet Richard Le Gallienne, explained: “In [Oscar] the period might see its own face in the glass. And it is because it did see its own face that it first admired, then grew afraid, and then destroyed him.”
When Sir William Wilde died, his funeral cortège was, as a newspaper reported, “one of the most imposing that had been witnessed in [Dublin] for a long time”. Sir William was lowered into a vault with plenty of room for his family to join him in due course. In a telling aside, O’Sullivan adds “except none would do so”. Oscar Wilde of course rests beneath a noble monument at Père Lachaise in Paris. Learning that Jane and Willie lie in unknown, unmarked graves leaves the reader with the saddest pang of all.
The Fall of the House of Wilde: Oscar Wilde and His Family, by Emer O’Sullivan, Bloomsbury, RRP£25, 512 pages

Wilde about Paris – An Irishwoman’s Diary about Oscar Wilde’s life in exile
Lara Marlowe
Legions of artistic and literary ghosts haunt the streets of Paris, their presence signalled by plaques on the facades. The one outside L’Hôtel, at 13 rue des Beaux-Arts in the sixth arrondissement, records that Oscar Wilde spent the last two years of his life here.
Wilde had learned French from the family Bonne. “He spoke it well, I imagine with an Enniskillen accent,” says David Charles Rose, the retired Irish academic and author of Oscar Wilde’s Elegant Republic; Transformation, Dislocation and Fantasy in fin-de-siècle Paris.
Wilde had attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, then Trinity College Dublin and Magdalen College in Oxford.
“He said that Greek and French were the only two languages a civilised man should speak,” Rose continues. “When he came to Paris in the 1880s, Wilde bought up unsold copies of his 1881 collection of poems and sent them with elaborate inscriptions to the people he wanted to meet, including Mallarmé and Zola. When he arrived in Paris, he presented himself at their door and was greeted with, ‘Cher poète, cher maître’.”
In a huff
Wilde saw the great French actor Sarah Bernhardt onstage in Paris, London and Nice. She wanted to play the lead role in a London production of Salomé, which Wilde wrote in French. But the lord chamberlain refused to give the play a licence and Bernhardt left in a huff.
“After Salomé was banned, Wilde talked seriously of taking up French citizenship, because in France they appreciated artists, and England was too philistine,” Rose says.
Wilde lost his defamation case against the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie. The writer’s friends begged him to flee to France.
“If that had happened, his life could have been so different,” Rose says wistfully. “It was possible to acculturate oneself in Paris. A lot of English and American writers did that.”
In 1895, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labour for “gross indency”. William Butler Yeats launched a petition in his favour. “He hardly got any signatures at all, so it rather fell through,” Rose says.
When Wilde was released from prison on May 18th, 1897, he sailed immediately for France. “I’ve often fantasised about him being met by WB Yeats and Lady Gregory at the prison gates and whisked off to a little cottage on the Coole Park estate, where he could have lived out his days”, Rose says.
Wilde used the name Sebastian Melmoth, after a novel written by his great-uncle, for the last three years of his life in France. He wrote his masterpiece,The Ballad of Reading Gaol, with its timeless refrain of “each man kills the thing he loves”, in the seaside village of Berneval-le-Grand.
He and Bosie were briefly reunited in Naples. But Wilde’s wife and Bosie’s mother threatened to cut off their allowances, and the lovers separated out of financial necessity.
Back in Paris, “A lot of people whom Wilde had previously known dropped him or made it clear that they did not want to see him,” Rose says. “Sometimes he avoided people because he was embarrassed.”
Homosexuality was not the problem. “The fact he’d been in jail was, and the fact he was bankrupt. He was in disgrace, déclassé, says Rose. “He did tend to pick up rent boys on the boulevards, which embarrassed his more strait-laced friends.”
Wilde hailed the French writer André Gide one day, as Gide passed a cafe terrace. “Gide sat with his back to the pavement, and Oscar said ‘No. Come and sit next to me’,” Rose recounts. “Gide did not want to be seen sitting next to Wilde, but he obeyed. That was the last time they saw one another.”
In fin-de-siècle Paris, Wilde slept late, drank brandy for breakfast and spent his days moving from cafe to cafe, or writing in his hotel room. It was fashionable to s’encanailler – frequent the riff-raff – in cabarets in Montmartre like Le Rat Mort and Le Moulin Rouge, where Wilde went to smoke and drink.
Wilde’s health had been broken by his stay in prison and he had written himself out. “This poverty really breaks one’s heart: it is so sale [filthy], so utterly depressing, so hopeless. Pray do what you can,” he wrote to his publisher.
But Wilde kept his sense of humour. “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death,” he quipped on one of his last forays outside the hotel. “One of us has got to go.”
Today you can rent the suite where Wilde died at L’Hôtel for € 850 a night. The former dosshouse where Wilde died on November 30th, 1900, is Paris’s smallest five-star hotel. A green peacock mural decorates the wall behind the bed. When Wilde was an Oxford student, he had decorated his room with peacock feathers.

New patrons for Irish Writers Centre

President Michael D Higgins has been announced as the new patron of the Irish Writers Centre. Marking the centre’s 25th anniversary, the initiative will be launched on January 13th next year with a visit from the President at a special celebration. Six new ambassadors will also promote and endorse the centre over the next three years. John Banville, Anne Enright, Roy Foster, Marian Keyes, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and Joseph O’Connor will all take part in the programme.
“They are key figures in Irish literature selected across a range of disciplines,” says Amy Herron, events manager at the centre. “We look forward to working with them in furthering the aims of the Irish Writers Centre at home and abroad. The ambassadors will support the work we do in various ways, whether that means taking part in events or working with us on long-term projects.”
An open day at the centre this Saturday, September 12th, will offer writing groups in poetry and fiction, an introduction to the Greenbean Novel Fair Initiative for 2016 and a presentation by managing director Valerie Bistany on the services and resources offered to professional writers. For more information, visithttp://irishwriterscentre.ie/.
Only Ever Yours sells rights
The film and TV rights to Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours have been acquired by the US production company Killer Content. The Cork author’s dystopian debut published last year to much acclaim. It tells the chilling story of a group of girls who are schooled to become model wives in viciously competitive circumstances. The deal comes a week after the launch of O’Neill’s second novel Asking for It, a searing account of a rape and its aftermath in a close-knit Irish community.
Killer Company was formed last year through the merger of Killer Films with Glass Elevator Media. An indie company behind such hits as Still Alice and Mildred Pierce, its most recent film is Carol, due for release in November. Directed by Todd Haynes, the screenplay is based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt.
According to the US entertainment site Variety, Only Ever Yours will be a bigger-budget film than Killer has fielded in the past. To finance the project, the company will work with Two Brass Brads, a non-profit organisation that creates socially relevant content released alongside educational campaigns. Killer Content is also currently working on an adaptation of the Brian Selznick novel Wonderstruck and a pilot based on Therese Ann Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.
Hodges Figgis festival
Celebrity chefs, historians, debut authors, short stories, art, mental health and young adult literature all feature in the Hodges Figgis Book Festival 2015, which runs from Thursday, September 10th - Saturday, September 19th. Opening the festival on Thursday evening is the launch of Thomas Morris’s debut collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing from 6pm in the Dawson Street outlet in Dublin 2. This will be followed by the launch of The Long Gaze Back, an anthology of 30 Irish female writers edited by Sinéad Gleeson. Readings from both collections, along with the recently published Young Irelanders, edited by Dave Lordan, will take place on the evening.
A programme that is driven by the ideas and issues that animate writers across all genres includes Marina Carr, John Connolly, Éilis Ní Dhuibhne, Paul Perry, Rick Stein, Diarmaid Ferriter, Belinda McKeon, Shane Hegarty, Derek Landy and Pádraig Yeates. All events are free and public. A full listings can be accessed here.
Literary luminaries in Dun Laoghaire
Edna O’Brien joins Margaret Atwood and Anthony Horowitz on the programme for the dlr Library Voices Series in Dun Laoghaire this autumn. With The Little Red Chairs, her first novel in ten years, out next month, O’Brien will be in conversation with journalist Sinéad Gleeson at the Pavilion Theatre on Tuesday, October 27th at 8pm. Tickets at €12/10 are available here.
The British writer and director Anthony Horowitz, whose new James Bond novel Trigger Mortis was released this week, appears in conversation with Rick O’Shea at the Dun Laoghaire LexIcon Library this Friday, September 11th at 7.30pm. Journalist Paula Shields will host the Margaret Atwood event at the Royal Marine Hotel, Dun Laoghaire on Wednesday, September 30th at 7.30pm. Curated by Bert Wright, this is the eighth year of the series that brings renowned authors to south county Dublin. Booking for all events is through the Pavilion Theatre on (01) 231 2929 or www.paviliontheatre.ie.
Advent of Kavanagh festival
The 32nd annual Patrick Kavanagh Weekend runs from Friday, September 25th to Sunday, September 27th in the Kavanagh Centre, Inniskeen, County Monaghan. The programme gets under way at 7.30pm on Friday with a reception and music by local piper Patrick Martin. A keynote address by Professor Alan Titley at 8pm will look at Kavanagh’s literary hinterland, followed by the announcement of this year’s Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award. Other highlights over the weekend include literary trails, musical dramas based on Kavanagh’s poetry, readings and a performance of The Gallant John Joe by Tom Hickey and written by Tom MacIntyre. More information and booking here.
Irish poetry in Phoenix
For a literary festival further afield, head to Phoenix, Arizona the weekend of September 27th, where the Ennis Committee of Phoenix Sister Cities will host a two-day event at the Irish Cultural Centre. Poetry is the focus of this year’s inaugural event, with Thomas Kinsella (of Leaving Cert fame), David Baker, Sara Berkeley Tolchin, Cynthia Hogue, Dr Adrienne Leavy and Yvonne Waterson on the billing.
Chairperson Mary Hill-Connor, originally from Ennis, plans to grow the event in the coming years to mirror the annual book festival that takes place in her hometown each spring. In addition to the featured poets and speakers, a number of Irish publishing houses are taking part in promotional events, including Irish Academic Press, The Gallery Press, Royal Irish Academy, Tramp Press, New Island Books, The Liberties Press, Swan River Press and The Lagan Press. The forthcoming WB Yeats commemorative issue of Poetry Ireland Review will also feature at the event. More information at www.phoenixsistercities.org.
Richard Ford at UL
The Pulitzer prizewinning author Richard Ford makes his first visit to Limerick next week for an evening of literature at UL. Hosted by Joseph O’Connor, the current chair of the university’s creative writing programme, the event takes place on Tuesday, September 15th at 7pm in the Computer Science and Information Systems Building on campus. A reception will be held before the event for the American novelist and short story writer, best known for his Frank Bascombe novels, Independence Day and Canada. Admission is free but tickets must be reserved by emailing Claire.ryan@ul.iebefore Friday, September 11th.
Portumna arts festival
The Shorelines Arts Festival in Portumna, County Galway will host a number of literary events as part of its programme from Thursday, September 17th - Sunday, September 20th. Writer and broadcaster Joseph O’Connor will read from his books and weekly radio diary on RTE’s Drivetime on Thursday, September 17th. A live recording of RTE Radio 1’s Sunday Miscellany takes place on Sunday at noon, featuring local and international musicians and writers. Both events will take place at Christ Church in Portumna, with tickets at €12 and €10 respectively. Writing workshops and an event for the Yeats 150 celebrations are also part of the programme. Full details on events and booking information at www.shorelinesartsfestival.com.
Lunch with Simon Trewin
A new short story competition from writing.ie offers the prize of a lunch with literary agent Simon Trewin. Sponsored by Cross Pens, the Make Your Mark Short Story Competition also gives the winner a pen of their choice up to the value of €250. The lunch with Trewin, who heads up the London team at the international agency WMA, takes place in Dublin on October 17th. Vanessa O’Loughlin, literary scout and managing director of writing.ie, will also attend. “I’m always looking for new talent and competitions are a fabulous way to spot new voices,” says O’Loughlin. “I’m also passionate about writers having access to opportunities, so this will be a free to enter competition.” John Boyne, Sinéad Moriarty and Alex Barclay will judge the entries, which should be fiction and a maximum of 1000 words. The closing date is Thursday, October 1st. More information here.
Dreadful novellas at the ready
The deadline for entry to The Penny Dreadful’s Novella Prize is Wednesday, September 30th. The Cork based literary journal is offering a €2,000 award and publication of the winning entry. The competition is open to writers resident in Ireland or the UK, with a wordcount of 15,000 to 35,000 per entry. Judging the inaugural competition are the Irish writers Colin Barrett, Sara Baume and Paul McVeigh. The entry fee is €10 per manuscript and the winner will be announced in January. Further submission details are available on the magazine’s website.
Contact sarah.gilmartin@gmail.com with your literary listings

Colum McCann, 'Irish writer through and through,' kicks off 2015 Gifford Lecture series

Colum McCann speaks Sept. 15 as part of the Gifford Lecture Series in Syracuse. (Cassandra Amendola)
 By Don Cazentre | dcazentre@syracuse.com
Colum McCann writes stories and novels with complex, intricate plotlines. He calls his style "kaleidoscopic."
 Let the Great World SpinAmazon.com
He think that fits in well in the modern age of storytelling – the digital age, even with its short attention spans.
"Certainly the digital age has shaped the manner in which we read," McCann said in an email interview (see transcript below). "Most interestingly to me is that in some ways it makes us more agile as readers."
McCann launches the 2015 Rosamond Gifford Lecture Series in Syracuse Sept. 15. His talk is 7:30 p.m. in the Crouse Hinds Theater in the John H. Mulroy Civic Center, 411 Montgomery St., Syracuse. See ticket and lecture series information below.
Born in Ireland, McCann has written six novels and three collections of stories. His most recent novel is "Trans Atlantic." His newest short story collection, "Thirteen Ways of Looking," will be published in October.
His novel "Let the Great World Spin" won the 2009 National Book Award. His short film "Everything in this Country Must," directed by Gary McKendry, was nominated for an Oscar in 2005. McCann teaches in the master of fine arts program at Hunter College in New York City where he lives with his wife and three children.
Although he grew up in Dublin, he has lived for the last 20 years in New York City, where he has set much of his work. Yet he still considers himself "an Irish writer through and through."
Asked whether "Irishness" colors his writing, he referred to an essay on Irish language and consciousness he wrote for the upcoming White Lights Festival at New York City's Lincoln Center. The festival is in November; the essay is not yet published. In it, he writes:
"Let's face it. We (the Irish) are torturously poetic. We're unbearably self-conscious. We're awkwardly comic. We're wilfully ambiguous. We'll answer a question with another question. We joyfully use three words instead of one. We'll give you directions towards the exact place you don't want to go. We'll walk a hundred miles to receive a good insult. We're blasphemous. We're contrarian. We never forget a grudge. We address incomprehension. Our war songs are merry. Our love songs are sad. We have half-doors: we are neither in nor out. And we're marvellous at spouting rubbish about ourselves."
McCann answered questions last month via email while on a trip to Argentina:

I understand you now live in New York. Do you get Upstate much -- have you been to Syracuse or Upstate New York before?
I've been to Syracuse a couple of times before. I like the literary feel of the town, it reminds me a little of Dublin. I've been in New York the best part of twenty years now, so I'm becoming more and more familiar with, and partial to, upstate. My son attended a cycling camp for young racers at the Finger Lakes last year and recently I've taken a few trips up to the upper Catskills to get some peace and quiet away from the city. To get the noise out of my head and onto the page.

Do you consider yourself an "Irish" writer, an "Irish-American" writer or none of the above? Related: It may be a cliché, but I have always loved the way Irish speak/write English. Do you find that any "Irishness" influences the way you write, in rhythm, cadences, word choices etc. ... (Also), do you speak or write in Irish (Gaelic) at all?
I'm an Irish writer through and through. (He then refers to the White Lights Festival essay). Like most Irish people I speak a limited Gaelic, but I think that river runs through me.

You seem to not necessarily set stories in Ireland, but both Ireland and New York seem to be places you're comfortable with.
I write towards what I want to know. But writing what we "want to know" is informed by what we already know. I would say that my most comfortable territory is New York. After that I like writing about Ireland. Curiously I have stayed away from Dublin where I spent most of my first 21 years. Perhaps Joyce had already written all of Dublin in Ulysses for me, or perhaps I have been constantly escaping.
I have read that you write in a small, tight space. Can you elaborate on the process?
That small tight space is really a cupboard that I stumbled upon by accident. I was building a wraparound desk in my office when the carpenter, a friend of mine, actually extended the desk into a cupboard. I sat on the desk and it seemed the perfect place to hide. So then I put cushions on the desk and more or less sit in mid-air, in the cupboard. My kids joke that I'm in the closet.
Writing certainly seems to be a solitary experience, but then as a writer you are called on to these kind of speaking tours. Are you comfortable with that? How do you adjust your "writing" style to your "speaking" style, if in fact you do so?
I enjoy getting out and about into the world. I like Emile Zola's ideas that we have to live our lives out loud. I suppose it's fair to say that I'm thirsty for experience beyond what it is easy and available to me. And I enjoy meeting people at readings, lectures, on the street. When I write I enter a different world. I embrace silence and listen for new visitors in my head. It's a form of interaction too, I suppose. One is physical and present, the other is mental and imagined. Both are a form of experience. I like the way they dovetail together.
What can people expect from your public appearances -- readings, background stories, humor, casual etc. ?
I am often told that I'm far less serious in person than I appear on the page. I don't know whether it's true or not. I like to engage people and perhaps unlock a few things in their minds. I also like to move the barometer away from "literature" as such and have a bit of a laugh. I have been known, on a rare occasion, to break out into song. It is not recommended. I like to sing, but I can't. Simple as that. Warning. I should not be encouraged. Keep the whiskey glass out of my hand.

We're in a digital age, with fast-paced, often short means of communication. How do you think the novel fits into the current world? Does the new technology affect the way you write or approach story-telling?
Certainly the digital age has shaped the manner in which we read. Most interestingly to me is that in some ways it makes us more agile as readers. We can make the hyper-leap. We're used to surfing through a variety of topics and a wealth of images. In some ways it has been good for literature, especially my sort of story-telling which is essentially kaleidoscopic. There's also a downside -- most obviously that we have a shorter attention span, and we think we know about everything under the sun and that it is available with a click. But it is up to the writers to provide a scaffold against that. Truth is not available with a single click. Nor is deep experience. Literature lives because of this.
Can you elaborate on your decision to publish a collection of shorter works ("Thirteen Ways of Looking") for the first time in while?
I don't really see any essential difference between the purpose of short stories and novels. Everything should be designed to make you see differently, feel differently, maybe even live differently. One is a sprint, the other is a marathon (containing lots of sprints). Both have the same aim -- to make you feel and experience what it means to be someone other than yourself. I didn't write "Thirteen Ways of Looking" to fit into a digital age. It just seemed like time to write a collection of stories. I wanted a break from the novels. A time to catch my breath.

Much of your work, such as "Let the Great World Spin" and "Transatlantic" has been described as having complex, intricate plots and storylines. Do you enjoy that kind of writing, or is it just the way the stories turn out?
I both enjoy it and it's the way I feel most comfortable.
It's been said that (the character) Father Corrigan in "Let the Great World Spin" is based on Daniel Berrigan. As you may know, the Berrigan brothers (Daniel, Phil and Jerry) have a long connection with Syracuse. So, can you elaborate on the connection between your character and the Berrigans?
Yes, I love the Berrigans. So originally I was calling my character Berrigan before I called him Corrigan. It was a way to enter the character. To give him flesh and blood and indeed soul. I think the Berrigan brothers shaped our times or at the very least prevented them from entirely collapsing. I have enormous admiration for them.
And on another Syracuse note, George Saunders is there in Syracuse. I love his work. I think he's one of the great voices of our times. And I think we have similar ideas on literature and empathy. I'd walk a hundred miles for a new book of his. Powerful stuff, political and poetic and funny at the same time. If I could write like Saunders, I'd be a happy man.
Can you elaborate on the 'literary feel' of Syracuse. You mention George Saunders, but did you also have in mind David Foster Wallace, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, Mary Karr and others with Syracuse connections?
I certainly do like the work of all these writers you mention. There is something "Dublinesque" about the town and it has given rise to many voices. Something symphonic there, I suppose.

The Gifford Lecture Series 2015-2016 season begins earlier this year, in September. All lectures begin at 7:30 p.m. in the Crouse Hinds Theater in the John H. Mulroy Civic Center, 411 Montgomery St., Syracuse. The series is a fundraiser for the Friends of the Onondaga County Public Library.
Series subscriptions are $175 and can be purchased online and at the Oncenter box office at the War Memorial, 760 S. State St., Syracuse. Or call the box office at 315-435-2121. Single tickets are $35, $40 and $45 and go on sale Aug. 17. For more Gifford Lecture Series information, visit the FOCL website or call 315-435-1832.
Upcoming speakers:
Stephen Greenblatt, writer of "The Swerve," on Oct. 14.
Greenblatt is a literary critic, theorist and scholar. He received the 2011 National Book Award and 2012 Pulitzer Prize for "The Swerve." Greenblatt is the Cogan University Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University. He has written nine books, edited six collections of criticism and is general editor of "The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Eighth Edition."
Alice McDermott, writer of "Charming Billy," on Nov. 3.
McDermott graduated from the State University College at Oswego in 1975. She won an American Book Award and the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1998 for "Charming Billy." Her latest book "Someone" (2013) was longlisted for the 2013 National Book Award in the fiction category. McDermott is Johns Hopkins University's writer-in-residence university professor and lives in suburban Washington, D.C., with her husband and three children.
Rosalind "Roz" Chast, author of "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" on March 29, 2016.
Chast is a cartoonist whose works regularly appear in The New Yorker. "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" was a finalist for the National Book Award in the nonfiction category in 2014. She also has published "Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons of Roz Chast, 1978-2006" and she illustrated Steve Martin's "The Alphabet From A to Y, With Bonus Letter, Z."
Joy Harjo, poet of "The Woman Who Fell From the Sky," on April 19, 2016.
Besides being a poet, Harjo is a writer and musician. She is a member of the Mvskoke Nation. She has published seven books of poetry, including "How We Became Human-- New and Selected Poems" and "She Had Some Horses." In 2009, Harjo won a Native American Music Award (NAMMY) for Best Female Artist of the Year for "Winding Through the Milky Way."
George Saunders, writer of "Tenth of December" on May 24, 2016.

The Syracuse University professor was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award and winner of the first Folio Prize for "Tenth of December." He also has written "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," and "Pastoralia." Saunders was a MacArthur Foundation and Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellow.