Diary: Alex Pheby, The death of James Joyce, as seen by his daughter Lucia (Northampton, 1941)

It is coming up to six o’clock. When is he going to get up?

It is imbecilic to lie beneath the earth. What is he doing under there?

What is there to do? Watch through the soil the goings on above?

If he is the center of the world, and he is beneath the surface at a distance of six feet, then he is only a distance of six feet from any point on the surface. This much is demonstrable in calculus and hence must be true if the propositions are true, which they all are (check them). Therefore, it is irrelevant whether he is interred in Zurich, or Dublin, or Paris, or Trieste, or on the banks of the river Nene. He can never be more than six feet away, and why send a letter? Don’t they have telegrams in Switzerland? They have them in France. In France it is even possible to find a friendly acquaintance to deliver news on one’s behalf—one telephones that acquaintance (one who lives closer to the recipient of the news than the one who has news to deliver) and asks politely whether that acquaintance wouldn’t mind awfully popping in to tell someone. That is if the someone doesn’t have a phone of their own, or isn’t under the care of some person or organization that possesses a phone that may be rung very easily, and if you have a sore finger just ask to speak to the operator; they’ll put you through.

Or send a telegram.

To open a newspaper—something that Lucia is encouraged to do, after all, it is not good to dwell on matters internal indefinitely, there is a world outside the confines of your own skull, outside the walls of the garden, on the other side of closed eyelids, keep in touch with current affairs—and discover news that you ought properly to have heard from the horse’s mouth is distressing. Can it be dismissed as a mistake?

Editors of newspapers make mistakes every day—there is even a section in the newspaper which lists and then apologizes for the various mistakes that have been made in the previous day’s edition. If you ever have any specialist knowledge of this or that matter and then you read an article in a newspaper on the same topic you are always amazed at how inaccurate the content of these articles is. They often have even the general gist wrong. So why would anyone believe a word of it?

In the garden there is a small, round, cast-iron table painted white. You can easily run a finger around the edge of it—one circle—without stretching. It is not solid, but latticed. While the index finger of the right hand cannot quite make it through the holes, the little finger can, up to the second knuckle, but you must take it out before the finger goes red, then blue, and eventually white.

Beside the table there is a cast iron chair, too heavy to lift easily if you wish to shift position, but if you call over someone to help, it can be done. If you ever observe another woman who has sat on this chair, if she is wearing shorts in the summer, if she has sat there for some time staring down the garden, then, when she gets up, you can see the pattern of the lattice that makes up the seat of the chair on the backs of her legs in red. This pattern is the same as the pattern on the table.

On the table there is a porcelain cup and a saucer in which mint tea is cooling, and there is a pastry, untouched. There are cigarettes and matches. This is in the summer, though. At that time of year there is a newspaper there, too, to one side. In the winter you can stare from the upstairs window at this table, and remember the backs of women’s legs, and the smoking of cigarettes, and the weight of cast iron, and compare it to the tray you place on your lap as you sit on the edge of the bed, and on which there is no room for the paper. That is placed on the writing table all the way over on the other side of the room facing the wall on which there is a picture of another garden in which there is no iron table and chair, nor any women, but which does have a pond.

—Have you read the paper yet?

There are all sorts of thoughts that go through your head that need not be expressed despite the urgency with which they are felt. Ought not, in fact, be expressed if there is any hope for a manageable existence in the world. If you are addressed even in the politest terms, it can produce thoughts that are violent—violent in form, violent in content, violent in style—these thoughts ought to remain thoughts, and not come out into the world as actions.

—Not yet.

—Well, remember, there is a world outside one’s own head and it’s always wise to keep abreast of current affairs.

So much is certainly true. If you imagined it was not true then the number of times you have heard this repeated, the weight of the words as they pile up over years, would force you to reappraise your denial of these facts. Why else would they be said so often?

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A bed is a very comfortable place, and if you stretch out your legs and lay the tray on your lap and sip at the coffee which is served today in a shallow bowl around the edge of which swallows beat their wings, provided the pillows are sufficiently plumped, it is a very pleasant experience. You do not have to strain to see the garden; the window is right there. While there is no snow, the sky is white and grey and heavy, and there is every possibility that there will be snowfall by the evening. Then, when you move to the window after supper and look out, the lights from the rooms below will illuminate the untouched snowfall in squares of flickering orange and yellow. The silhouettes of the trees will be heavy. If you do etchings, the white lines are very important, and these trees will look like that—white lines contrasting with the black silhouettes to give an effect that …

—I’ll be back in a little while for the tray.

What does the absence of something look like?

What does the lack of a telegram on a tray look like?

If the tray is wood, it looks like wood. If the tray is melamine, it looks like melamine. And what does the absence of something sound like? If it is the movement of an attendant in the hall and quiet conversation in the next room then it sounds like that. If it is the sound of blood rushing in the ears and the pause between the beating of the heart then it sounds like static, like a poorly tuned wireless, like the numb, waterlogged sensation in the inner ear when one receives a blow one is not expecting, right across the cheek with a flat hand, but which also drives air at the ear drum and perforates it if you are unlucky.

How does the absence of news feel? Like nothing, in the experiencing of it, but later, when one looks back and thinks, after the storm has passed and the snow has stopped falling and morning is here on the twenty-third, but of which month you aren’t quite sure, then it feels very unusual. It feels like idiocy. It feels like betrayal. It feels like an innocent time that has been proven to be a lie and the pleasures of which must now be shied away from forever. No such pleasure would have been possible if the news had been delivered: it would have punctured it like an inner tube is punctured by a glass shard from a discarded bottle knocked from a window sill in the early morning. If you imagine by a cat mewling to be let in that makes you one sort of person. If you imagine by an angry lover trying the locks that makes you another. You are punctured either way and flat and useless. You are a burden to be repaired before normal service can be resumed.

The newspaper is there on the writing desk, and you’ve always thought that there was something perfect about a nicely folded newspaper, something redolent of civilisation’s triumph over chaos that war and death and tragedy can be rendered so affectless. Somewhere you’ve heard of butlers ironing newspapers before presenting them to their masters and this is very good. It is not sufficient to take the suffering of others, reduce it to ink, and present it in absolute order in columns on a page; you must also find a way of making one man serve another man to the extent that he will spend his time heating an iron on the fire in the early morning. He will lick his finger and hear it hiss when he applies it timidly to the flat, then let the metal cool until it will not scorch or make the ink run, and then make perfectly flat what is already flat. He will then process to the other man’s room with the paper held in front of him while all the time he could be eating, or shitting, or paying these attentions to the people of his own life.

You have always thought this, Lucia, but when you open that paper today, if you ever sip the coffee, now cold, to completion and replace the bowl with the swallows on the tray and remove the tray from your knees and place it on the bedside table and take the few steps over to the writing table where the paper is folded, if you ever do that, you will not be able to think it again. There are things you can read in that paper that will make affect of the affectless, and no amount of flatness of tone, or style, or coldness of delivery will render those words painless for you. For you alone. This should not be the first word you hear on the subject. What option do you have but to consider it a mistake?

Your father is dead.

James Joyce’s daughter Lucia was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the mid-1930s and institutionalized until her death in the 1980s. The Joyce estate destroyed records relating to her, and little is known of her life. Alex Pheby offers an imaginative reconstruction of the experience of Lucia and those around her in his novel Lucia, out this month from Biblioasis.

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Image: Berenice Abbott, Portrait of Lucia Joyce, 1927–28, printed 1982, Gelatin silver print. Gift of A&M Penn Photography Foundation by Arthur Stephen Penn and Paul Katz, 2007. The Clark Art Institute, 2007.2.187