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Messing With History : CLAIRVOYANT: The Imagined Life of Lucia Joyce By Alison Leslie Gold , (Hyperion Books: $19.95; 159 pp.)

August 09, 1992|Brenda Maddox | Maddox, author of "Nora: The Life of Nora Joyce," is working on a biography of D.H. Lawrence

James Joyce had two children. They had Italian names--Giorgio (born in 1905) and Lucia (born in 1907)--because Joyce and his common-law wife Nora had left their native Ireland for Trieste, where Joyce eked out a meager living teaching English.

The children had a scrappy life, suffering first poverty, then rootlessness. In 1915 the Joyces moved to Zurich because of the First World War; then in 1920 to Paris where the artistic climate was better for avant-garde novelists. The whole family suffered from the notoriety that swamped Joyce following the publication of "Ulysses" in 1922. As a refuge, Giorgio and Lucia had a private world in which they spoke to each other in the Triestine-Italian and Swiss-German dialects of their schooldays. They came to bad ends.

Giorgio, who had a fine voice and trained as an opera singer, was ruined by becoming his father's errand boy and later the puppet-husband of a wealthy and much older American divorcee. He died an alcoholic in 1976. Lucia, trained fitfully as a dancer and graphic artist, never married. In her mid-20s she fell unhappily in love with, among many others, Samuel Beckett, and became increasingly disturbed. She was diagnosed schizophrenic in the early 1930s, was frequently hospitalized, and after 1936, never lived outside an institution.

When Joyce and Nora fled France for Zurich in 1940, bureaucratic complications left Lucia behind in a mental clinic in Occupied France. She never saw her parents again. Joyce died in Zurich in 1941; Nora, also in Zurich, in 1951. Thereupon, Lucia's guardian and Joyce's patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver, had her moved from France to England, to St. Andrew's Hospital, Northampton, where, with the advent of chemical treatment to control schizophrenia, she lived a placid and reasonable life, receiving many visitors, until her death in 1982.

Now there is no reason why a writer should not borrow these facts for fiction and take liberties with them. Shakespeare was hardly scrupulous with the details of the lives of Henrys IV and V, and Margaret Mitchell did curious things with the chronology of the American Civil War. But there must be a point to doctoring reality. Shakespeare's history plays enlarged a greater truth about Englishness; Mitchell had a rattling good tale to tell about Scarlett O'Hara and the ante- and post-bellum South.

Alison Leslie Gold's novel, "Clairvoyant," has no such justification. It takes as its jumping-off point Jung's celebrated statement after treating Lucia in the early 1930s. Joyce was then known to be engaged in a book even more incomprehensible than "Ulysses." What was the difference between father and daughter? Jung had no problem in answering. They are like two people going to the bottom of a river, he said: one falling, the other diving. Gold seems not to have taken Jung's point: that there is a very sharp line between the artistic mind and the shattered one. To suggest that Joyce to the end of his life believed that his daughter was clairvoyant, not mad, misrepresents Joyce. He put off accepting the truth, far longer than did his wife, his son and their friends, because he could not bear it. As a father, he was foolish-fond; he despairingly tried to persuade himself and the world that his beloved child was merely eccentric or gifted.

But he too accepted reality when it hit him--or rather, when it hit his wife, at whom Lucia threw a chair; when the curtains were set on fire, and when Lucia began sleeping outside and getting picked up by the police. When in the late 1930s Joyce paid his visits to her locked ward in Paris every Sunday, he did not think it was a visionary he was seeing but his very sick daughter, whose guards were never very far away.

Joyce knew the difference between madness and art as well as Jung did. "Finnegans Wake" is not the word-salad of a lunatic; it is rather the super-controlled composition of a polylingual wordsmith who programmed his book with explosive meanings. We shall probably never know--theories are rife--whether the Wake , in which one of the central puns is about committing "insects," is actually a coded confession of father-daughter incest. If so, Joyce knew all the more what he was doing when he locked away the meaning of the book.

So much is fabricated in "Clairvoyant" that anyone who reads it unaware of the real lives of James and Lucia Joyce will be led far off the mark. Even the engagingly candid "Afterword" does not come clean with the reader. The author confesses that she has made a salad of the scholarship of others and has added her own invented facts as well. Then she adds delphically that although she has made free with the facts, she has taken great care "to respect the private and personal lives of the subjects" and that "No use has been made of medical records or of intimate letters that invade family privacy."

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