On this day…16 November

On 16 November 1924 Joyce announced the latest breakthrough with his new work.

The pieces that Joyce started writing in 1923 seemed entirely disparate though Joyce felt sure they would grow into one another to form his new work. Joyce used metaphors of tunnelling to describe the process he was engaged in, and in November 1924 he announced a breakthrough.

Joyce’s first drafts for his new work seemed to be on totally disparate subjects: the heel-tapping King Roderick O’Conor, the story of Tristan and Isolde, an anachronistic  meeting of St Patrick and Bishop Berkeley, and so on, they seemed too disparate to possibly connect together.

When Harriet Weaver expressed her incomprehension at the Patrick and Berkeley piece, Joyce wrote to her in October 1923 to explain what he was attempting to do. The pieces, he claimed, were not actually fragments but were ‘active pieces,’ organic elements which, as they grew and matured, would fuse into one another to form his new book. At this stage it seems clear that Joyce himself was not certain how or when this would happen but he remained confident in his method.

According to Frank Budgen, Joyce had told the sculptor August Suter in the early days of his work on Finnegans Wake, that what he was doing was tunnelling into a mountain from two sides. If his calculations were correct, he thought, the tunnels would meet in the middle, though there was always some risk this wouldn’t happen.

Later in October 1923, Joyce, who was in the midst of trying to find a new flat to live in, described to Harriet Weaver how he was writing off the back of a suitcase and was trying to get as much tunnel-boring going as possible before he had to move again. He was also facing another eye operation which he expected would delay his progress.

By August 1924, Joyce still didn’t seem to have knocked his tunnels into one another, and he wrote to Weaver that he had been ‘thinking and thinking’ about how to get the two parts to fuse, and he hoped that, while he sat with his mouth open, the solution would soon appear on the horizon! When they met in Paris in October, he introduced her to Vico’s New Science which had influenced his latest writing. He explained Vico’s ideas to her and presented her with a copy of New Science.

Then, on 9 November, he announced a breakthrough, saying that he had solved the first one of the problems, and that one of the partitions between his tunnels had finally given way. He followed this on 16 November by announcing what seemed to be the complete joining up of his tunnels: now, he wrote, he was pulling down more earthwork and the tunnellers were hammering away on all sides. As if he was standing in the middle of this tunnel, he told her there were still complications to the left and the right, as well as problems with writing and with the perplexity of the reader, but it seemed at least for the moment as if there was light at the end of his tunnels.


Sources & Further Reading:

Budgen, Frank: James Joyce and the Making of ‘Ulysses’ and Other Writings, with an Introduction by Clive Hart, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – new and revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. I edited by Stuart Gilbert, London: Faber & Faber, 1957.

– -: Selected Letters of James Joyce, edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1975.

Lidderdale, Jane, & Mary Nicholson: Dear Miss Weaver – Harriet Shaw Weaver 1876-1961, London: Faber & Faber, 1970.