Five Fascinating Facts about James Joyce

1. James Joyce was born in the same year as another notable modernist writer, Virginia Woolf. But the similarities don’t end there. Both were born in 1882, but both writers also died in the same year, 1941. Both wrote landmark modernist novels, published in the 1920s, whose principal action takes place over just one day in mid-June (the novels in question are Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway). Both pioneered the stream of consciousness technique associated with modernist writing.

2. James Joyce was scared of thunder and lightning. Joyce’s fear of thunder and lightning – the technical name for which is astraphobia – stems from his childhood, when his fervently Catholic governess told him that thunderstorms were God manifesting his anger. This fear stayed with Joyce into adulthood. It even probably helped to inspire a 100-letter word which Joyce coined in his final novel, Finnegans Wake (1939), Bababadalgharaghtakamminapronnkonnbronntonnepronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordeenenthurnuk, which appears on the first page and is meant to designate the symbolic thunderclap that accompanied the Fall of Adam and Eve.

Joyce13. He gave us the word ‘quark’. This word for a subatomic particle was taken from Finnegans Wake, where three seabirds give the cheer to King Mark: ‘Three quarks for Muster Mark!’ Physicist Murray Gell-Mann liked the word, and so proposed it for the particle in the 1960s. One of the other suggestions, favoured by Richard Feynman among others, was ‘parton’ – though whether Dolly was the inspiration here is unclear.

4. His masterpiece, Ulysses, was published on his fortieth birthday – and wasn’t. In fact, much of the novel had already appeared in print in two magazines, the Little Review and the Egoist, by the time the novel was published by Shakespeare & Company on 2 February 1922. (Joyce very deliberately made the publication of the novel coincide with his own birthday.) And even then, only two copies actually appeared on that day: these were whisked to Paris by morning train to Sylvia Beach, who ran the publishing house. Beach kept one copy, while Joyce took the other copy out with him to mark the occasion. We covered the interesting story behind Joyce’s Ulysses in an interesting post last year.

5. Joyce met fellow novelist Marcel Proust for a disastrous dinner in 1922. This was the year that Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses was published (and the year Proust died, in November; the meeting took place in May). The two writers spent the meal discussing their ailments, before eventually admitting that they hadn’t read each other’s work. Also present at this historic dinner party – which took place on 18 May 1922 – were Picasso and Stravinsky.

Image: James Joyce with Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier at the offices of Shakespeare & Company, 1938 (photograph by Gisèle Freund), public domain.

43 thoughts on “Five Fascinating Facts about James Joyce”

    • This is exactly what I think of great books. Theyre difficult to understand, they play with references, with time and complex images. One needs to read them, re read them and one has the feeling theyre endless as one always sees something new in them…

    • I feel your pain. It took me 6 goes but when I finished I felt such a sense of appreciation for his work. There are deadly dull passages and soaring magical ones. You might have got stuck in one of the former but the sun does come out just a few pages on…

  1. I love Joyce and all his writings but this post was as fascinating as it was hilarious! It gives me great hope, as a writer and son-to-be author that the fact I’m slightly mad is perfectly fine – I’m in good company!

  2. I think it’s almost impossible to enjoy ‘Ulysses’ without a comprehensive knowledge of Irish history and culture – so many refs will go over your head otherwise. It is a masterpiece IMHO and a much more weighty piece of literature than ‘Mrs Dalloway’, however Woolf’s novel is also significantly important for any student of the literary Modernist ‘movement’. For more on Joyce:

  3. hey thanks for stopping by my blog serial, the zombie detective! Still getting it up and running. And thanks for the article on Joyce – don’t know how I missed this but as I was about to do an article on him its very helpful!


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