I’ve already shared a few words from one of my favorite authors of all-time, Ernest Hemingway (and there will be many more of Hem’s words to follow). So, I thought I’d balance the scales and share a few words from one of my least favorite authors of all-time, James Joyce. I know there are legions of James Joyce fans out there — I’m just not one of them.
James Joyce is the reason I hated every English class I took in college. English professors spend a lot of time arguing James Joyce is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. I’m convinced it’s all part of a loyalty test for potential English majors. A test I failed in spades. Often considered Joyce’s Magnum Opus, Ulysses might not be the worst book I’ve ever read, but it’s probably the worst “important” book I’ve ever read. Ulysses is basically a collection of run-on sentences, some of them 40-pages long. I got to the end of the first chapter and thought, I don’t get it. I got to the end of the book and thought, I still don’t get it. Until a few years ago, when I was devouring Pat Conroy’s novel, South of Broad. The main character in that book, Leo Bloom King (his mother named him after the Ulysses hero), describes Joyce’s Ulysses as, “the worst book ever written by anyone.” I cheered. Out loud. It was a glorious moment.
And Joyce’s other “literary masterpiece”, Finnegans Wake? That’s a strong candidate for the biggest question mark in the history of literature. I abandoned it on page 3. Hell, I’m not sure even English professors understand Finnegans Wake. If anyone ever tells you they truly understand Finnegans Wake, they are either lying . . . or high. Here’s a random sample from page 3 (right after I waded through this paragraph, I threw the book out of my third story dorm window). I mean . . . WTF?!?! It looks like a cat sat on his keyboard.
But wine does make an appearance in Finnegans Wake — it’s buried in tongues (can I get you a glass of rhubarbarous maundarin yellagreen funkleblue windigut?), but it’s there. Joyce compares his favorite white wine, Fendant de Sion (a Swiss wine made from the Chasselas grape), to . . . wait for it . . . the urine of a duchess. Not just pee (wine has certainly been compared to pee before), but royal pee. The mind reels. And just to prove I’m not making this up, here’s the passage:
Personally, I think the cat sat on his keyboard again, but according to the Finnegan experts (yes, they exist), the translation for that gaggle of letters boils down to this: Shem told his drinking buddies the wine came directly from the vat of a duchess, saying, “What are you grinning at? You could fancy it was her urine”.1
Fanny Urinia is secret Joyce code for Fendant de Sion. Obviously.
James Joyce was one of Hemingway’s drinking buddies in Paris. Joyce had a chaffing personality (especially when anyone started talking about his writing) and often got himself into trouble in bars. Reportedly, Joyce and Hemingway once faced a potential bar fight, and Joyce hid behind Hemingway yelling, “Deal with him, Hemingway, deal with him!”.
I’m actually kind of surprised Hemingway didn’t punch Joyce.
And while Hemingway wasn’t a picky drinker, Joyce was. One of Joyce’s favorite libations was absinthe (which could explain most of Finnegans Wake). If you’re at all interested in the history of absinthe, you can read my post about The Green Fairy here. But when it came to wine, Joyce drank almost exclusively white wine, his favorite being, “her most excellent excellency’s the Archduchess’s most excellent piss (Pardon! Fendant de Sion)”.1 Joyce seems pretty committed to that description.
Occasionally, Joyce stumbled into the land of the lucid, and wrote something earth dwellers can understand. Joyce disliked red wine, and described his feelings with these words (which would actually make a pretty good Tweet):
I have another James Joyce wine quote, but my head is about to explode, so I’ll save it for another day. I’m gonna go read some Hemingway and cleanse my palate.
1Critical Companion to James Joyce: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work.