The foreword to this edition of the book is determined to, at once, paint its author as a genius worthy of Joyce’s friendship and to divulge to us the most sensational instances of their meeting before we even get a chance to read about it ourselves.
Forgiving the clumsy beginning, we’re then introduced to a token of this particular genre whose most remarkable predecessor—and, surely, a direct model was Conversations with Goethe. Like Eckermann’s Goethe book, Arthur Power’s book is autobiographical in structure but slight on the ‘auto’ at just the instant when the star-artist arrives on the scene of our narrator’s life. At this point, minimal narration segues into a lot of lit-talk.
Though the forward by David Norris suggests that Mr. Powers is humbly portraying a younger, bohemian, ‘romantically-inclined’ version of himself in the shadow of a great genius, one can’t help but think that perhaps Mr. Powers thought, in fact, that he was the one best equipped to match wits with the great Joyce. After all, we’re only warned in the beginning by Powers, ‘My point of view has changed and coincides more with his, but such was it then, and as such I have left it.’ As close to Joyce’s mind as Powers’ mind might have become later, Powers never gives the reader any direct indication that he later disavowed his hatred of Ulysses. He preferred Joyce’s previous works which he thought were more ‘romantic’: Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce’s frequent defenses give us some of the most personal insights into the heart of one of the most important books of the twentieth century. Of the work of his latter period, he says,
The important thing is not what we write, but how we write, and in my opinion the modern writer must be an adventurer above all, willing to take every risk, and be prepared to founder in his effort if need be. In other words we must write dangerously: everything is inclined to flux and change nowadays and modern literature, to be valid, must express that flux. In Ulysses I tried to express the multiple variations which make up the social life of a city—its degradations and its exaltations. In other words, what we want to avoid is the classical, with its rigid structure and its emotional limitations. The mediaeval, in my opinion, had greater emotional fecundity than classicism, which is the art of the gentleman, and is now as out-of-date as gentlemen are, classicism in which the scents are only sweet, but I have preferred other smells.
And we get plenty of other smells. Not many other novels before or after Ulysses feature a prominent scene with its main character on the john.
Arthur’s experiences with Joyce are set almost entirely in his living room. Much of Joyce’s lifestyle is hardly surprising to read about. He hated all things bohemian. He didn’t like to go to parties and he didn’t feel comfortable around people.
His wit and black humor are reserved for one-on-one conversations (specifically with Powers in this case) as in one instant where Joyce tells the story of a late acquaintance. He was a fellow Irishman named Tuohy, who became jealous and antagonistic when Joyce became an international celebrity. He once annoyed Joyce by mock-clapping when he entered a room. When Joyce learned that Tuohy had committed suicide in America, Power’s tells us that Joyce ‘showed no emotion.’
—I am not surprised, he said. He nearly made me want to commit suicide too.
Unlike Conversations with Goethe, which is made up of warm, congenial insights into many subjects between friends, Conversations with James Joyce is made up almost entirely of literary arguments. It is impressive that Powers was able to honestly capture (to the best of his memory) the biting, sarcastic quips that Joyce reserved for the former’s favorite writers.
After pages of Joyce tearing apart the beloveds of western literature, it is refreshing to hear how much he appreciates Proust. In this book, however, Joyce’s appreciation of an artist is often traded for Power’s dislike of the same. ‘You should give him more patience,’ he tells Powers, ‘…certainly no one has taken modern psychology so far, or to such a fine point.’
When Powers asks if Joyce is interested in Dostoyevsky, he replies, ‘Of course.’ Dostoyevsky, in fact, earns a brief but high place of praise in this book, probably higher than most other names mentioned.
He is the man more than any other who has created modern prose, and intensified it to its present-day pitch. It was his explosive power which shattered the Victorian novel with its simpering maidens and ordered commonplaces; books which were without imagination or violence.
The book ends abruptly on an unfortunate and sad, yet totally puzzling note—a rift in their friendship. What’s puzzling about this rift is that it is not only vague—having grown in the soil of Joyce’s ‘ill humour’ which came about one night over a meal—but that seems to rest almost entirely on a gross misinterpretation of a statement that Joyce made to lighten the mood.
When Joyce tells Powers about the birth of his grandson, Powers, ‘not being a family man who dotes on children,’ and who was ‘feeling very bitter at that time about the world in general,’ replies to Joyce with a passive, inconsiderate, ‘Is that all?’ When Joyce replies, heatedly, with, ‘It is the most important thing there is,’ Powers, rather than taking it to mean that family is incredibly important to Joyce, speculates to himself,
‘the most important thing there is’ meant that another Joyce had been born into the world. Even to this day, I am still in doubt, for Joyce’s estimation of merit would on occasion suddenly flare up to a point of madness.
‘I cannot see what’s so important,’ Powers replies shamelessly. ‘It is something which happens to everyone, everywhere, all the time.’
The fact that Powers qualifies this callous statement by mentioning his not being a family man, by his irritation at Joyce’s alleged self-perception, and also by his unspoken agreement with Beckett of the world that ‘It had gone on long enough,’ leads one to assume that, inevitably, Powers was of the mind that his own position and attitude was justified. What would seem to be his apparent inability to read the situation years later, or at least, to see how it would appear to the common reader on paper, is comical.
The personal comedy gives way to sadness, however, as Powers rushes through their subsequent, brief meetings before Joyce’s death, which he hears about over the telephone. Thus, the book concludes,
It had not ended, but had lessened as so many friendships lessen when distance puts its cold hand between them, damped as they are by circumstances and time, and by differences of personality. A personality can fuse with another personality for a time, but when that time is over we gradually re-enter the Solitude of ourselves. Then all that remains is the memory of the fire which once warmed us both, and it is fragments of that memory which I have tried to reconstruct.
This memory reconstruction, this fragment is, this already brief friendship is the closest thing we have to discovering Joyce the man. But such is surely as Joyce would have preferred it: that he left behind, not traces of his life, but only his work.