When James Joyce’s Lingua Franca is a Family Affair

By Helen Solterer

As the centenary of James Joyce’s Ulysses gets off to a boisterous start this month, critics and writers are celebrating his multilingual writing. This soundscape of the novel resonates personally for me. Before I could even put it in words, it was part of my family life. During summers in Dublin as a child, I spent hours listening to the rhythms of storytelling in my grandparents’ house; Dubliners whose English had riffs in French, Italian, even half-dead Latin. Dizzy with the sounds, I was hooked by all that energetic play with language.

Much of what I heard in the ’60s were echoes and new sounds of an adventure in literature that my grandfather, Conn Curran, had shared with Joyce. They had met as 20-year-olds, studying at the University in Dublin. Over some 40 years, in their war-torn towns, they kept at this adventure: Joyce always asking for more words for his Work in Progress; Curran seeking avant-garde art terms. They were bound together by their deep desire to create new ways of telling stories about their people to the wider world. Family and friends from New York to Paris were caught up in this venture too.

When I first met Joyce on the page in an American college course, my childhood experience appeared of little relevance. Criticism, I learned, required analyzing words considered obscure or erudite. The price to pay for becoming a ‘theorist’ was keeping your distance from the fiction you studied. I felt estranged from what I knew and went elsewhere. Like all 20-year-olds, I had my own adventures to pursue, and professing Joyce — canonized as ‘Mr. Literature’ — was not one of them. Now, I react differently. When I read Joyce, I hear again something of the lingo of my grandfather’s Dublin crowd. Without even trying, I sense the life force of their languages, as powerful for them as for Joyce. Playing with as many as they can, they work to put their own people and places on-the-map.

It was gutsy to create such a lingua franca in the wake of the outlawing of one of their own languages. Poet translator Seán Ó Tuama, who knew Joyce’s and Curran’s generation, pointed out that only a few thousand Dubliners knew Irish in their time. After nearly a millennium of rivalry with Anglo-Saxon and English, and oppression by imperial British, their Irish language had not easily survived. Tuning into its cadences with Irish speakers in Galway or Aran was a combative first step. Unleashing its verve into their English was liberating for them.

Experimenting with other languages from the European continent was a second, exhilarating step. French, Italian, Spanish certainly beckoned as the literary languages of Rimbaud, Dante, Cervantes. They also still resonated as the vernaculars that many Irish who had left home before them had learned out of necessity, or choice. Joyce, Curran, and their circles tapped into all these Romance languages as a way to bring more of the world into their English. It was one more quick-flowing current of contact with others. They were cultivating a community of ‘migrators’ as their friend Eugene Jolas called all those creative people busy devising a new language for fiction in the 1920s and 1930s.

A handwritten ‘Happy New Year’ note from James Joyce to Conn Curran.

For Joyce, Curran and their friends, writers Padraic and Mary Colum, choosing to play with ‘foreign’ languages or ‘going native’ in what could be one of their own was never an either/or proposition. On the contrary: making both choices called out to them. Creating such a lingua franca engages people from many different cultures. It was an intrepid choice then, when thousands were living out the consequences of the Great War and the struggle for Irish independence. It still is an intrepid choice in our world, for people confronting the latest nationalistic brands of violence.

Now, I recognize another reason why I think, teach, and express myself in French in my multi-lingual university, Duke; in my Spanish-speaking state of North Carolina. A second or third language is an extraordinarily creative resource. It enables people to articulate what they have lost, to portray the people who count for them, to imagine and claim a new world as their own. Making it through Ulysses is one way to confirm this insight. There’s one right here too. Students testing out another language in Romance Studies at Duke University show me this every week. So do the bilingual students of all ages with whom I work at the Iglesia Emmanuel in Durham — just as strongly as my grandparents’ friends and their talk all those years ago.

Helen Solterer is a professor of French and Francophone Studies at Duke University

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