Book review: The Joyce Girl

Mixing fact with fiction, a novel about James Joyce and his daughter Lucia claims that they had an incestuous relationship. This is not just nonsense, says Frank MacGabhann, but literary child abuse.

Book review: The Joyce Girl

Annabel Abbs

Impress Books, €11.75

IMAGINE this. An English person looking to publish her first novel submits it to a UK publishing house.

It is a novel based on the life of a child of a renowned English writer — CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien or even Winston Churchill comes to mind.

In the final chapter, she describes in graphic detail the indulging by the very young pre-teenage son and daughter of that writer in sex acts with each other.

Would such a novel be published by a reputable publishing house in the UK? Might it just help to be published if the renowned writer in question were Irish?

This book is a novel about key years in the life of Lucia Joyce, Joyce’s only daughter, who was confined to a mental institution for the last 47 or so years of her life.

The novel begins in September 1934 near Zurich with Lucia in the office of Dr Karl Jung, renowned psychoanalyst and disciple of Freud, and ends there four months later in December.

Lucia, prodded by Jung, ‘remembers’ something that happened nearly 20 years before.

In between, there are more sessions with Jung and many flashbacks to Paris and places in England starting in 1928 with Lucia telling Jung her story from her point of view.

In the novel we are privy to Lucia’s inner thoughts. Jung has Lucia describe her life to him, including her incipient success as a modern dancer to the delight of her father and her subsequent estrangement from her older brother, Georgio, due to his increasing attachment to Helen Fleischman, the rich American heiress whom Georgio later married.

The author, Annabel Abbs, is probably accurate in having Jung ask Lucia about the sleeping arrangements in the Joyce household when she was young.

It is indeed problematic that Lucia slept with her parents until she was well into her teens. However, the novel tries to point the reader in the direction of incest between Joyce and his daughter.

After Lucia relates about her trying to get her father’s attention, the author has Jung ask her, while lowering his voice, “the sort of attention [your father] paid you when you shared a bedroom, perhaps?”

Lucia also speculates that her father looked at her lewdly. However, the syllogism does not work here. There is no premise to base it on.

There is no evidence whatsoever that Joyce abused his daughter or that Jung believed this.

The speculative leaps that the novel tries to make about Joyce and Lucia go nowhere, except perhaps for the purpose of marketing the book.

The author has revealed that she only discovered Lucia Joyce in 2012.

She writes, “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 [emphasis added] the rest.

"Only a novel was going to give me the emotional truth [emphasis added] of Lucia. Only fiction could provide the emotional access to the past I was looking for.”

This is psychobabble. In three short years this marketing and advertising consultant goes from a tabula rasa about a person to indicating incest and having that person participate in sex acts as a young child with her brother, without a shred of evidence. Thanks to emotional truth, of course.

And when she says ‘imagine’ she means ‘invent’. And that is exactly what she did.

While she clearly has to invent dialogue and musings by Lucia, she invents sex between the Joyce children at the ages of nine for Lucia and 11 for Georgio.

Writing in her webpage, Abbs admits that the final version of the novel is very different from the first, “Impress [the publisher] asked for extra scenes . . . I was also asked to make the ending more explicit [emphasis added].

The ending is the climax with the sex acts between the children. This is apparently the ‘emotional truth’ that the author found.

This is not a literary device. In this reviewer’s opinion, this is dishonest and very close to literary child abuse and child pornography. This may well have been added at the suggestion of the publisher for marketing reasons.

There is no evidence whatsoever that these sex acts took place. Putting them in such a novel is reprehensible. All of the characters in the novel are real.

That is the problem with writing a novel like this about a real person. Is it fact, or is it fiction, or is it ‘faction’?

Lucia’s life would have been difficult enough, even without having a genius for a father.

Born in a pauper’s hospital, living in poverty, moving from rented pillar to rented post, going hungry, her nomadic upbringing exacerbated not simply by having to make new friends, but also by having to make friends in a new, foreign language.

She tried, without great success, to become a modern dancer and tried her hand at book illustration. At 20 she fell hopelessly in love with Samuel Beckett, Joyce’s assistant.

Beckett may well have used Lucia to ingratiate himself further with her father. When Beckett eventually told Lucia that he did not wish to have a romantic relationship with her, Lucia started to go downhill, accelerating with further unrequited affairs.

When, on Joyce’s 50th birthday in 1932, she threw a chair at Nora in a rage, her brother, Giorgio, had Lucia committed to a mental hospital. She was just 25 and it marked the first of many confinements in mental institutions for the rest of her life.

The author is fortunate in that she does not have to invent any other character, apart from Lucia. They are all there in technicolor: Joyce, Nora, Georgio, Samuel Beckett and other boy friends, Emile Fernandez, Alexander Calder and Alex Ponisovsky.

Throw in Zelda Fitzgerald, Isadora Duncan’s brother, the Coupole Brasserie and all the ingredients are there, ripe for a great story. However, perhaps something is missing for a more marketable novel ...

The book is otherwise well-written, especially for a first-time novelist with, for the most part, tight dialogue and interesting ruminations of Lucia, such as: “All this talk of muses.

"What good has being Babbo’s muse done for me. It has imprisoned me, manacled me to him. And yet it’s all I have left now. Everything else has fallen away.”

The book does give the atmosphere of a bohemian girl being stifled, although the author overdoes it with Nora being the villain of the piece. Neither was Joyce the self-effacing onlooker that the author portrays.

Alone among all the characters, Abbs has Nora speaking ‘Oirish’, not the Hiberno-English that she would have used speaking English in Galway or the Trieste dialect of Italian that the Joyces actually spoke in Paris. This is a flavour:

“Mother o’ Mary - What sort o’ trollop are you? I told you to stop moonin’ at him.

I told you to stop leadin’ him on! Now put me parlour back.”

Shure, all that’s wantin’ is the pig back in the parlour . ..

Beckett is described as speaking with a “soft Irish brogue [sic]”.

Reading this book makes one realise that perhaps Stephen Joyce, grandson, last surviving descendant of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle and fierce guardian of the Joyce estate, was right to be vigilant to the point of paranoia about protecting the family from fantasists and American PhDs as long as he could.

It is fair to ask if a reputable publishing house in the UK would have asked the author to make that final chapter “more explicit” if the renowned writer depicted were Lewis, Tolkien or Churchill.

And it is fair to say that if the reader wishes to learn about the tragic life of Lucia Joyce, this book should be given a miss.

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