This year I had been craving for a different reading experience, and if you have taken a look at My Best Books of the Year, you will notice that many are from small presses. That’s not surprising. Small independent publishing houses take greater risks in releasing extremely interesting titles from upcoming or forgotten authors, in a way mainstream publishers do not.
Besides the publishers displayed on my Best Books list, Galley Beggar Press is another publishing house to watch out for. A few years ago I had read one of their titles – Randall by Jonathan Gibbs – and was quite impressed.
So I decided to try out another title, and eventually settled for Lucia.
Here are the bare bones of Lucia Joyce’s life as is known to the world:
Lucia was the daughter of the famous novelist James Joyce and Nora Barnacle. They also had a son named Giorgio, who was elder to Lucia. At a young age, Lucia blossomed into a talented dancer and had the makings of a wonderful career in front of her, but it all careened to a halt. She stopped dancing. It is possible that she was forced by her family to abandon it, or maybe she did it of her own accord. No one really knows.
We also know that she had fallen in love with Samuel Beckett who was an apprentice with James Joyce, but this love was not reciprocated. Lucia also had a difficult relationship with her mother Nora, and increasingly became prone to throwing tantrums.
Her family quickly put her in a mental asylum for suspected schizophrenia where she remained for the last 30 years of her life till her death, well after both her parents and her brother died. Her family did not bother to visit her in all this time. We also know that all her correspondence and all material concerning her was destroyed by the subsequent members of the Joyce family.
She was relegated to the margins and silenced. The exact circumstances surrounding her fate remain vague and mysterious.
Those are the facts as we know it.
Lucia by Alex Pheby is an attempt to recreate her story. But this is no ordinary biography. This is a fragmentary and questioning narrative, and told from multiple points of view, but never Lucia’s. That said, while Lucia’s voice is not heard, she remains the vital centre of the novel even when absent.
When the novel opens, it is 1982, Lucia is dead, and her funeral arrangements are being made. Even in her death, she is belittled.
Skinny. So skinny. Not in the way all corpses are, but translucent and matt, dead to the touch, pliable and inelastic, utterly without substance.
The second chapter is set in May 1988, where all of Lucia’s papers, correspondence, letters are being burned and obliterated by a man hired by a member of the Joyce family to do so. The name of that family member is struck out in black in the novel, but you would not be wrong in assuming that it is Stephen Joyce, Lucia’s nephew.
We are then taken many years back to a time when Lucia was young and attached to her pet rabbit, which at that moment is being tortured by her brother Giorgio. Why is Giorgio committing this heinous act? So that Lucia will keep silent about his incestuous relations with her, or his sexual abuse of her for that matter. This chapter is particularly harrowing, and sets the tone for how badly the men in the Joyce family come across.
Incest does not stop only at Giorgio. Pheby implies that James Joyce and Lucia’s uncle are guilty of it too.
Of James Joyce…
Say he is sitting in the living room and there is the proper object of his affections – his wife, Nora – and he is aroused by her, but then she leaves while he is reading the paper, and you, Lucia, replace her in her chair. When he puts the paper down he sees you, in his state of arousal. Is it any wonder, in the blurry world in which he exists when he has his reading glasses in place rather than the glasses he has for distance, that his arousal is transferred to you?
Are the Joyce men as horrible as Pheby makes them out to be? There’s no proof, but that’s irrelevant because the evidence has been extinguished. That gives Pheby or any other writer enough license to give their own take on how the events played out.
If there are those of you reading this who know Giorgio, you might say that this never happened. But how do you know?
If one has secrets, and then burns the evidence of those secrets on a pyre, ne invites speculation, and speculation is infinite in a way that the truth is not.
Why shouldn’t Giorgio have tortured Lucia’s rabbit to prevent her from speaking? All things that are possible are, in the absence of facts that have been destroyed that might have proved them incorrect, equally correct.
The moral of the story is: do not destroy documentary evidence of the truth, since it will come back and bite you in the arse.
Indeed, what goes around comes around. So, if the Joyce family went to great lengths to destroy Lucia’s real story, they are hardly in a position to complain if people frame their own versions, and show the family in a bad light. After all, no one can corroborate anything, so speculation is bound to run rife.
Lucia being silenced, cut out, snubbed by all is the dominant theme that runs throughout the novel, not only when she is alive but even after her death. It’s not just her family though. Her lovers marginalize her too. And so do the staff at the mental asylum where she is subject to horrific experimental treatments and where she is kept for most of her later life.
And of course, there’s Samuel Beckett, who pretended to take an interest in her only because he wanted to have a closer bond with James Joyce and further his career.
Sprinkled between all these chapters are the Egyptian sections, showing an archeologist discovering a tomb, which has been desecrated. The archeologist sets out to clinically examine what could have possibly led to the tomb being disturbed, consequently snuffing out any possibility of a smooth transition of the diseased into the afterlife.
In a way, these Egyptian sections mirror Pheby’s own task of examining Lucia’s story from all angles, however disjointed they may be. Essentially, he is looking at narrative shards, piercing and shattered, that offers a glimpse of Lucia but can never be pieced together into a linear and coherent whole.
Throughout the novel, Pheby’s prose is detached, searching and incredibly compelling. Incest, animal cruelty, and crippling mental asylum treatments can be gruesome topics, and a detached tone possibly helps blunt some of the ghastliness of these acts. At the same time, the disturbingly detailed accounts also display anger and fury simmering under the surface, and can be heartbreaking one moment, and uncomfortable the next. But the writing remains wonderfully edgy, immersive and absorbing throughout and never lets up. The Egyptian sections are also brilliantly done and help tie up the chapters together.
Then there are quite a few chapters on the Little Match Girl. The obvious inference was the silent film adaptation made by Jean Renoir called La Petite Marchande d’Allumettes (The Little Match Girl) in which Lucia was cast as a toy soldier. But it was also originally a disturbing fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, about a dying child’s dreams and hopes. In a way Pheby is drawing parallels between the Match Girl’s heartbreaking plight and that of Lucia’s, whose dreams of becoming a successful dancer and retaining her individuality were cruelly thwarted. And as has been the trend all through her life, eventually her part in this film is edited and cut out.
The dancer Lucia Joyce, daughter of the famous writer James Joyce, performed for the famous director Jean Renoir at Les Ateliers du Vieux Colombier, Paris, France in the summer of 1927, and her performance was filmed. She had been commissioned to perform for a role in Renoir’s La Petite Marchande d’allumettes, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s La Petite Fille aux allumettes, but her dance was cut from the final edit. She was removed.
This is apt.
Truth and beauty, perhaps they are inseparable, and so lies and ugliness.
Lucia then is another worthy title from the Galley Beggar Press list and makes for fascinating reading. Highly recommended!