“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”—James Joyce, “The Dead,” in Dubliners (1914)
The end that James Joyce imagined for himself came in winter, but it wasn’t in Ireland, but in Zurich, Switzerland, where he died on this day 75 years ago at age 58. The immediate cause of death was peritonitis brought on by a perforated ulcer, but he might be said to have been dying by degrees for some time before this, as his days were darkened by10 eye operations, the divided reception given his latest novel, Finnegans Wake, double exile (first from Ireland, then from Nazi-occupied France), his son’s inability to find a stable life and career, and his daughter Lucia’s schizophrenia.
I wrote that Joyce had been exiled from Ireland, but in the literary sense he never really left. He returned to his homeland obsessively in fiction, from the short stories in Dubliners that put him on the literary map to Finnegans Wake.
There is, above all, his masterpiece, Ulysses, which tracks the progress of one man, Leopold Bloom, and two other people in his life—wife Molly and possible surrogate son, Stephen Dedalus (Joyce’s stand-in)—over the course of 24 hours in Dublin.
In the geographic and temporal particulars of that fiction, Joyce created an entire universe accessible to all fascinated by the dazzling power of language. There is, for instance, one particular “epiphany” (Joyce's phrase) that occurs to Bloom on the “special affinities…between the moon and woman”:
“Her antiquity in preceding and surviving succeeding tellurian generations: her nocturnal predominance: her satellitic dependence: her luminary reflection: her constancy under all her phases, rising and setting by her appointed times, waxing and waning: the forced invariability of her aspect: her indeterminate response to inaffirmative interrogation: her potency over effluent and refluent waters: her power to enamour, to mortify, to invest with beauty, to render insane, to incite to and aid delinquency: the tranquil inscrutability of her visage: the terribility of her isolated dominant resplendent propinquity: her omens of tempest and of calm: the stimulation of her light, her motion and her presence: the admonition of her craters, her arid seas, her silence: her splendour, when visible: her attraction, when invisible.”