Swine Before Pearls

Selected Joyce Letters edited by Richard Ellmann Viking; 440 pp.; $5.95

JAMES JOYCE ONCE wrote a friend that Finnegan's Wake would keep the scholars guessing until doomsday. Doomsday might be a little sooner than Joyce thought, although I doubt whether, after the Revelation, even the God Joyce thought was the shout of young boys in the playing-field will be able to make much sense out of that prose-poem.

More inscrutable, in another sense, is Joyce's correspondence. His letters helped enormously in discovering the schematic layout of Ulysses and some of the obscurities in Finnegan's Wake. But they also open up another realm for the scholars of hither and yon; they sketch out the tracery of ganglia and dendrons that made up Joyce's character, from the tip of his penis to the top of his cerebrating cells. In Richard Ellmann's collection of Joyce letters this sketch becomes fuller in direct proportion to the descent of the nervous charge from the brain to the genitals.

Selected anythings are usually not great as profiles of writers, probably because it's good to get a feel for the rough edges, the incomplete thoughts, and the out-and-out failures to appreciate what a writer does at his best. As for Joyce's "anythings," Ellmann chose the letters for this collection mostly on the basis of their general interest. And the interest never seems to sag just paging through these letters. Still, readers might rightfully doubt if they can do justice to what Ellmann calls "Joyce's principal assertions of his character and of his literary aims."

What's valuable about this new collection is the inclusion of ten letters (and one postcard) that were never published before, as well as substantive additions to 23 previously censored letters. Or maybe only partially valuable, because some of these letters would bore even the Englishman Haines from Ulysses.

What's really lewd, obscene, perverse and generally captivating about these new letters is a series from Joyce to his wife Nora in the latter half of 1909. These letters will immediately become a part of that strange sub-genre of literature characterized mainly by soiled finger-marks on the margines of pages: the Dirty Parts. It's doubtful that these letters will mean anything to Joyce scholarship. They mostly suggest what Joyce-the-Man was like, clarify some affinities between Joyce and the characters of his novels, and map out the origins of his works, if not the works themselves. But then, Joyce scholarship will probably look down upon his correspondence with his wife as libidinous esoterica, not really part of the world of ideas.

Ellmann adequately explained the circumstances surrounding Jim Joyce's letters to Nora in his biography, but he was muzzled by the Joyce estate when it came to actually divulging their content. All he could say then was that they "veered between blunt sexual excitation and extreme spirituality." Only now can we see the complete picture of the heaven and hell of Joyce's passions.

IN 1909, EARLY in his career, Joyce returned to Ireland after five years of self-imposed exile, leaving his wife behind in Trieste. Joyce looked up an old comrade, a friend who years before had also wanted Nora. The friend told him that Nora had been seeing them both during the dearest moments of Joyce's courtship and that she had deceived him. Joyce took this all too seriously, writing his wife hours later that it might possibly be all over. Joyce's jealous friend had in fact fabricated the betrayal, but for the next few weeks Joyce sent out letter after tormented letter "crying for my poor unhappy love," mixed with vicious comments like, "In Dublin here the rumor here is circulated that I have taken the leavings of others."

It is one of the small failures of Ellmann's new collection that Nora's reply to Joyce's paranoid accusation is never mentioned. Ellmann called it "a pathetic yet strangely dignified letter" in his biography. It was lost but can be partly reconstructed from a letter Joyce sent to Nora dated August 31, 1909: a condescending missive saying "you are not, as you say, a poor uneducated girl."

Joyce's first reply to his wife's response, that August 31st letter, is a key that unlocks one of the most lyrical moments of filth in the canon of Dirty Parts. It is a strange moment for Joyce, an attempt to become closer to Nora through a type of innocent lechery: There is a place I would like to kiss you now, a strange place, Nora. Not on the lips, Nora. Do you know where? The letters continue in this vein, rising sometimes to quite literal climaxes; and Joyce intended this masturbatory spontaneous writing for himself and his wife.

The strangest thing about the epistolory method is the way Joyce shifts from the guilt-ridden accuser of betrayal to the brute animal, form addressing his letters, "My darling little convent girl," to "My sweet naughty little fuckbird." The letters are not all too significant, although Joyce does make at least one rather bold assertion: That he could sniff out his wife's gases in a roomful of women emitting similarly odiferous noises.

It would be safe to say that a strong anal-complex is evident here. Agains and again Joyce talks of his wife's underwear, urging her at one point to buy some "whorish drawers...and also discolor them just a little behind." His obvious pleasure with his wife's propensity for gushing flatus in the act of union is not altogether new to Joyce's readers. Bloom saw the "mellow yellow smellow mellons" of Molly's rump as a kind of ultimate healer of all his tensions, of his conflicting sense of envy, jealousy, abnegation, and equanimity, because they were "insusceptible of moods of impression or of contrarities of expression, expressive of mute immutable mature animality."

Figuring out Joyce esoterica is a lifetime pursuit, and nobody has ever come up with a consistent theory to explain it all. But just maybe it can all be reduced in the same way that Bloom's world was reduced to Molly's backside, to one image: discharges Joyce like to call "quick little merry cracks." But those old farts are for the scholars to decipher; in the meantime, Richard Ellmann should be thanked for giving us more pages with margins to be heavily soiled.