On 4 November 1927 Joyce wrote to Harriet Weaver about his reading of ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle.’
On 2 November Joyce had read the ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ chapter to a group of twenty-five friends, after which he suffered cramp and fatigue. Clearly one of Joyce’s favourite parts of the book, he later recorded the opening and closing parts of the chapter.
Joyce started drafting the ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ chapter in January 1924, and a version of it was supposed to appear in the Calendar of Modern Letters in London in 1925, but the English printers refused to set the piece and Joyce withdrew it. It appeared in print for the first time in Adrienne Monnier’s magazine Navire d’Argent in October 1925, but without its pyramidal opening and without many of the river names that Joyce wove into it later. It also appeared in Samuel Roth’s Two Worlds magazine in 1926 in a pirated version, and Joyce was still revising it for publication in transition no. 8 at the time the reading took place.
Joyce finished work on ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ on 27 October 1927, but two days later he wrote to Weaver saying he was still working on the final revisions in advance of his reading. The reading itself took place on Wednesday 2 November 1927 in front of an audience of 25 friends. When he wrote to Harriet Weaver again on 4 November he claimed, with his usual modesty, that his reading seemed to have made a profound impression on those present.
Indeed, if Archibald MacLeish is anything to go by, it did make a profound impression. MacLeish wrote to Joyce the day after the reading to say that he still hadn’t found the words to express how Joyce’s reading had moved and excited him. He had been reduced to silence, he wrote, by the power of Joyce’s words and felt that this piece of writing was something that even Joyce could be proud of.
The stress of the reading left Joyce doubled up with fatigue and cramp for days afterwards, but that didn’t stop him doing further work on the chapter. On 9 November, still suffering from exhaustion, he wrote to Weaver again to say that since transition no. 8 had been published, containing a version of ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle,’ he had added another 152 river names to the text. Writing to his Zurich friend Claude Sykes ten days later, he reckoned he’d spent 1200 hours working on ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ – the equivalent of 150 eight-hour days!
Sources & Further Reading:
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, vol. III edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1957, 1966.
Norburn, Roger: A James Joyce Chronology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.