Edna O'Brien: how James Joyce’s Anna Livia Plurabelle shook the literary world

In his 50s, as his genius escalated and transmogrified, James Joyce admitted that he was at the end of English, saying he could no longer use ordinary words with daytime association, as this was a book of the night, “bauchspeech from his innkempt house”. The Work in Progress, as it was called, would be Finnegans Wake, which took 17 years in the doing. He wrote on the lid of a green suitcase that he had purchased in Bognor Regis, on a lacklustre honeymoon, wrote at night and laughed a lot at his own puns and polyglot language. His wife, Nora Barnacle, would get out of bed and tell him to stop writing and therefore stop laughing and moreover the work was just chop suey. She was the one person who was not afraid of him and he loved her for it.

He had one-tenth normal vision and his list of ailments read like a footnote to the work – glaucoma, iritis, cataract, crystallised cataract, a nebula in the pupil, conjunctivitis, torn retina, blood accumulation and abscesses. He felt himself brother to Dean Swift, “whose glauque eyes glitt bedimmd to imm! whose fingrings creep o’er skull: til, qwench!” He wrote with thick coloured crayons and the help of three magnifying glasses. Sometimes his concentration was such that he almost lost consciousness and in extremis said, as when writing Ulysses, that he was only “a transparent leaf” away from madness. It is interesting that this tumble of language, this transubstantiation of words, these heavenly and unheavenly vocables, poured out from him without any thought of his blind eyes, as they came directly from the unconscious mind. It was when rereading and correcting that he became aware of impending wreckage. Yet he returned unremittingly to the task, with new, convoluted polyphonic words, building his Tower of Babel and fulfilling his prophecy of keeping the professors and the literati puzzled for hundreds of years.

Despite his antipathy towards, and mockery of, Freud, he was now invading the world of dream and he told the French journalist Edmond Jaloux that his intention was “to suit the aesthetic of the dream, where the forms prolong and multiply themselves, where the visions pass from the trivial to the apocalyptic, where the brain uses the roots of vocables to make others from them which will be capable of naming its phantasms, its allegories, its allusions”. At this point one is inclined, like Molly Bloom, to cry out, “O rocks! ... Tell us in plain words.”

As instalments of the work appeared in literary magazines, bile and condemnation proliferated. It was “linguistic sodomy”, the work of a shipwrecked mind and a monstrous leg-pull. Only Beckett saw Joyce’s radical intention of grinding up words so as to extract their true purpose, then crossbreeding them and marrying sound with image to compose a completely new kind of language.

Elsewhere, Joyce was assailed. DH Lawrence said that the instalments were all “old fags and cabbage-stumps”, Nabokov deemed them “a cold pudding” and HG Wells warned Joyce that he had “turned [his] back on common men”, with the result being “vast riddles”, “a dead end”. Ezra Pound, Joyce’s most robust advocate, said that “nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clap can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization”.

Joyce was all alone and discouraged. Was he “an imbecile in my judgment of language?” he asked, then resolutely declared, “I cannot go back.”

Even his faithful friend and patron Harriet Shaw Weaver began to have doubts about his puns, his aqueous passages and his riparian geography, fearing that he was losing touch with those readers astounded by the genius of Ulysses. He sought to allay her fears. He sent her keys to the more obscure words, but the keys were themselves mind-boggling. “Wolken” was “a woollen cap of clouds” and “passencore” tallied with “pas encore and ricorsi storici of Vico”. His monthly income from her had to be doubled, because the harder he laboured the more he drank and tipped lavishly in restaurants. Then in October 1927 she received the following short note – “I am working very hard on the final revise […] on which I am prepared to stake everything.” This was “Anna Livia”, his melodic chapter with which he hoped to win over recalcitrant readers. He wrote seven versions in all, constituting thousands of hours of labour, each episode more enriched, more exuberant and more transmutative. What he was doing was leaving a literary ghost mark for a world that was unprepared for it. Anna is both woman and river and “her fluvial maids of honour”, from all corners of the world, constitute 350 river names. It appeared in Criterion magazine, and at the instigation of TS Eliot it was published by Faber for one shilling net. Joyce composed a ditty to boost sales:

It begins in gay, effervescent mood, as two washerwomen on opposite sides of the River Liffey regale each other with scathing gossip. The sounds are of water, birdsong, bird cries, the beating of the battler on convent napkins, baby shawls, combies and sheets that a man and his bride embraced on. So they tuck up their sleeves, loosen the “talk-tapes” and egg each other on to tell it “in franca lingua. And call a spate a spate.” We are introduced to Anna, a shy, limber slip of a thing, “in Lapsummer skirt and damazon cheeks”, her hair down to her feet, “her little mary” washed in bog water, with amulets of rhunerhinerstones around her neck. “You’ll die when you hear.” We learn of her nymphet shame in the sloblands of Tolka and the “plage au Clontarf”, smacking cradle names on her paramours, “lads in scoutsch breeches”, the surf spray on her face and “the saywint up [her] ambushure”. From the city, she graduated to the “dinkel dale of Luggelaw” and there, under the silence of the sycamores, many are allowed to roam in her kirkeyaard, including a heremite named Michael Arklow, who plies “his newly anointed hands” into the “strumans” of that fabled hair. To give some idea of Joyce’s exigent method of writing, that same hair, which was borrowed from the head of Livia Schmitz, wife of Italo Svevo, also resembles the Dartry reservoir, streaked red from the canisters thrown in from the nearby dye works, and Joyce being Joyce, it transforms and ends up being the colour of bog land at sundown.

Joyce had to increase his income because the harder he laboured the more he drank and tipped lavishly Anna sets her cap at Bygmester Finnegan, a “duddurty devil”, rumoured to have committed some fiendish sexual act in Phoenix Park. She dispatches her boudeloire ninnies and backwater sals to call on Finnegan, in residence on a barge in Howth. She warns them to go “aisy-oisy”, letting on that she doesn’t care. In time, Finnegan takes her as wife, having chosen her for her seven hues. Joyce’s rapturous description of Anna’s bridal preparations belongs easily in The Song of Songs:

First she let her hair fall and down it flussed to her feet its teviots winding coils. Then, mothernaked, she sampood herself with galawater and fraguant pistania mud, wupper and lauar, from crown to sole. Next she greased the groove of her keel, warthes and wears and mole and itcher, with antifouling butterscatch and turfentide and serpenthyme and with leafmould she ushered round prunella isles and islets dun quincecunct allover her little mary. Peeld gold of waxwork her jellybelly and her grains of incense anguille bronze. And after that she wove a garland for her hair. She pleated it. She plaited it. Of meadowgrass and riverflags, the bulrush and waterweed, and of fallen griefs of weeping willow. Then she made her bracelets and her anklets and her armlets and a jetty amulet for necklace of clicking cobbles and pattering pebbles and rumbledown rubble, richmond and rehr, of Irish rhunerhinerstones and shell-marble bangles. That done, a dawk of smut to her airy ey.

Anna is more Celtic geisha than traditional wife. In the “way of a maid with a man” she tickles his pontiff’s fancy with tricks and ruses, doing a turn on the fiddle, legging a jig, singing a hymn or warbling “The Rakes of Mallow”. Her cooking comprises “blooms of fisk” and “staynish beacons on toast”, with wishy-washy tea, “Kaffue mokau” or fern ale in “trueart pewter mug”. Anything to plaise him. She procures all the nice little whores, the lizzies and the doxies, “to hug and hab haven in Humpy’s apron”, while wishing she did not have to. She gives birth to three children, Shem and Shaun and Izzy, named after Chapelizod who pines for her Tristan. In time, the father’s affections veer towards the daughter and Anna wishes that he would rush upon her darkly, as he used, “like a great black shadow”.

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