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Portrait of a daughter as a lost cause

Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake, Carol Loeb Shloss, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 548 pp., $30

March 07, 2004|Denis Donoghue | Denis Donoghue is university professor and Henry James professor of English and American letters at New York University and the author of many books, including "Yeats," "The Practice of Reading" and "Speaking of Beauty."

James JOYCE and Nora Barnacle had two children, Giorgio and Lucia. Giorgio was born on July 27, 1905, Lucia on July 26, 1907. All that most people have heard about Giorgio is that he inherited his father's tenor voice and aspired to become a professional singer. All they know -- or think they know -- about Lucia is that for a while she was in love with Samuel Beckett and that, not necessarily as a consequence of her disappointment with his response, she went mad and died many years later in St. Andrew's Hospital, Northhampton, England. She is also thought to have enjoyed the miserable privilege of being featured in Beckett's novel "Dream of Fair to Middling Women" as Syra-Cusa, of whom the hero Belacqua reports that "she lives between a comb and a glass."

Carol Loeb Shloss thinks that Lucia has been hard done by, and she has written a large-hearted biography to prove it. Lucia had some talent as a dancer, a writer and a book designer, but she could not turn these gifts into a life. She studied dance in Paris with Raymond Duncan -- Isadora's brother -- and later with Margaret Morris and Jean Borlin. There were also lessons in eurhythmics at the Jaques-Dalcroze Institute. And a few lessons in singing.

Lucia was never short of teachers. Or of lovers. After Beckett, she was involved with Alexander Calder, Albert Hubbell and Alexander Ponisovsky. Sex was never a problem. But Lucia's home life was arid. Nora, who doted on Giorgio, did not have much time for Lucia and by 1935 had largely given up on her. She was probably tiresome to deal with, emotionally demanding and sometimes impossible, but she did not deserve to be excluded from Nora's affection and Giorgio's. She started showing signs of mental illness in 1931 and was diagnosed as suffering from dementia praecox. But the diagnosis is still doubtful. Her friends disagreed about her condition: Some of them thought she was mad, others felt that she was just strange. Harriet Shaw Weaver did not think she was mad, but Maria Jolas thought she was. Stuart Gilbert concluded that her insanity was a pose, to begin with, but that with long practice she acted herself into the condition of madness. The doctors could do nothing for her. Even the great Dr. Carl Gustav Jung was helpless. Or maybe Lucia refused his help. "To think that such a big, fat materialistic Swiss man should try to get hold of my soul," Shloss reports her as having said of Jung's ministrations.

What was the matter with her? Shloss doesn't claim to know, but she stops short of saying she was mad. "Joyce's daughter may have had problems," she says, "but she was no lunatic." To have had problems doesn't meet the case, though her not being a lunatic is what we would like to know. Joyce said, after years of consultations, conflicting diagnoses and psychiatric speculation, that his daughter had "one of the most elusive diseases known to men and unknown to medicine." Shloss comes up with more questions than answers:

"Why was Joyce's own sense of the beauty and talent of his child so at odds with the opinions of other people in his circle? Why should Joyce's primary biographer [Richard Ellmann] have judged Joyce to be a man of extraordinary discernment in some matters but foolish in judging Lucia? Why was Joyce upbraided for trying to save Lucia instead of admired for the steadfastness of his love?"

Shloss has written this book on the conviction that Joyce knew Lucia "much better than anyone else, including well-meaning family friends." Lucia, she claims, "was a person of great seriousness and intensity." Many who "lived in her presence drew light from her being."

If Joyce is the hero of Shloss' book, he is surrounded by villains. Nora is first on that list, guilty of jealousy and incomprehension. In 1931, she bullied Lucia into giving up her dancing, the art in which she seems to have been most gifted. Giorgio is also presented as crass. He had no plan for Lucia except to have her placed in an institution and kept there. After Joyce's death on Jan. 13, 1941, Giorgio wrote to Jolas: "I hope Dr. Delmas has not put Lucia in the street as needless to say I cannot pay him nor can I communicate with him." Shloss comments on this sentence:

"Few words could have better displayed the alien nature of Giorgio's birthright. Heir to neither his father's passion nor his compassion, unable to imagine the magnitude of another human being's fear or loneliness, unwilling to value the singular nature of his sister's bright, misplaced, and mistimed originality, he abandoned Lucia. In one sentence he dismantled the fragile lines of communion that had bound her to life and to the hope of human understanding."

"Abandoned" is rough. Even after his father's death, Giorgio was not Lucia's keeper. But he didn't expend much imagination on trying to save her mind.

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