Exploring the art of prose


Writing the Complete Character: Frank Budgen on James Joyce


By Mark David Kaufman •

James Joyce once observed that he had included so many “enigmas and puzzles” in Ulysses that professors would be preoccupied with the book “for centuries”—an effective way, he added, of “insuring one’s immortality.” Such remarks, along with what literary critic Hugh Kenner called “the copious and often futile literature that has grown up around the name and legend of James Joyce,” have inevitably resulted in an image of the novel, in the popular mind, as embracing complexity for complexity’s sake, an exercise in self-righteous virtuosity intelligible only to professional scholars who surrender their lives to deciphering its mysteries. But this reputation belies what is arguably the central quality of both Ulysses and its author: a great and unflinching humanity. This Bloomsday, June 16, as both Joyceans and the Joyce-curious around the globe gather (virtually) to toast one of the twentieth century’s most luminous literary personalities, we do well to reflect on the accessibility, rather than the obscurity, of the man and his creation.

There remains no better introduction to Joyce and his craft than Frank Budgen’s 1934 James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses, currently accessible for free through the University of Wisconsin’s online James Joyce Scholars’ Collection. This unassuming volume—part memoir, part commentary—offers a candid and personal portrait of the artist. Budgen, an English painter engaged in wartime propaganda work for the British Consulate in Zürich, first met Joyce in the early summer of 1918, and over the next year and a half frequently discussed the composition and progress of Ulysses with his drinking companion. Joyce was remarkably open with the intelligent and sympathetic Budgen, and he continued to send the painter updates and manuscripts after relocating to Trieste and later to Paris, where the novel was published in 1922.

In addition to synopses of each chapter of Ulysses and a preview of Joyce’s subsequent “work in progress” (Finnegans Wake), Budgen provides a rare look at the man behind the myth. He recalls, with painterly precision, his first sight of the lanky Irishman, whose walk “suggested that of a wading heron” and whose “heavily glassed eyes” caused him to navigate with uncertainty a darkening garden terrace. At once confident and vulnerable, the Joyce of Budgen’s memoir slowly emerges over the course of their many talks in local watering holes, like the Augustiner Restaurant, where the writer would invariably order white wine, and their leisurely wanderings around Zürich, particularly along the Bahnhofstrasse, where the chorus girls referred to Joyce as “Herr Satan” (presumably because of his goatee). Here we find a Joyce whose writing is an expression of his own sense of the comédie humaine, a Joyce who would occasionally break into a “fantastic dance” for no apparent reason and who enjoyed a good joke, inspiring Budgen to pen what is surely one of the best descriptions of laughter in English letters:

A laugh is a significant gesture. Joyce’s laughter is free and spontaneous. It is the kind of laughter called forth by the solemn incongruities, the monkeyish trickeries and odd mistakes of social life, but there was no malice in it or real Schadenfreude. His is the kind of laugh one would expect to hear if the president of the republic took the wrong hat, but not if an old man’s hat blew off into the gutter.

Throughout his study, Budgen emphasizes that there was “nothing snobbish” in Joyce’s “devotion to his material.” Certainly, the novelist’s aims were ambitious—he told Budgen that he wanted “to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book”—but behind it all lay a delight in the commonplace. Indeed, the writer’s decision to document the minutiae of life on a more or less ordinary Dublin day through the thoughts and actions of ordinary Dubliners attests to his essentially democratic aesthetic. Even his decision to take Homer’s Odyssey as a template had less to do with heroism than humanism. In one particularly illuminating conversation, Joyce asked Budgen whom he considered to be the most “complete” literary character. Budgen suggested Goethe’s Faust, but Joyce rejected the idea, noting that readers actually know very little about Faust (“Is he an old man or a young man? Where are his home and family?”). Ulysses, on the other hand, is a son, a husband, a father, and a companion-in-arms. He transforms from a “war dodger” tricked by a “Greek recruiting sergeant” to a capable and clever commander. “The tank is his creation,” Joyce asserted. “Wooden horse or iron box—it doesn’t matter. They are both shells containing armed warriors.”

In addition to clarifying the impetus behind Joyce’s own “complete” character—Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Ulysses—this exchange reveals how much the First World War, then in its final months, informed the compositional context of the novel. At a time when soldiers from all over Europe were beginning to leave the trenches to start their long journeys home, Joyce’s novel spoke to the experience of alienation and betrayal, offering in response a modern incarnation of the mortal hero who counters tragedy with perseverance, brutality with dignity, and hardship with invention. For Joyce, a complete man is not a perfect man; he is simply a “good man,” someone who, for all his imperfections, keeps his prow pointed at the horizon of the good in his capacity as son, father, husband, and friend. Yet in order to be all of these things one must live fully and multidimensionally. From this perspective, according to Joyce, not even Christ is truly complete. “He was a bachelor…and never lived with a woman. Surely living with a woman is one of the most difficult things a man has to do, and he never did it.”

For Joyce, writing—like marriage—did not come easily; it was a labor that required almost supernatural degrees of patience and dedication. When Budgen asked his friend how the novel was coming along, Joyce revealed he’d been struggling all day over two sentences: “I have the words already. What I am seeking is the perfect order of words in the sentence.” Joyce’s remark brings to light one of the defining qualities of modernist art: an intense awareness of one’s medium, an attentiveness to the materiality and historicity of paint, clay, or language itself. Words are not simply conveyors of information. In the writer’s hands, they are living things, “quick with human history as pitchblende with radium, or coal with heat and flame…. The commerce of life new mints them every day and gives them new values in the exchanges, and Joyce is ever listening for living speech from any human lips.” As Budgen reveals, Joyce was “a delicate recording instrument.” Never leaving the house without a small notebook in his waistcoat pocket, he was an obsessive scavenger, picker, and collector. “[The] word that fell from the lips of car-driver,” Budgen recalls, “would be noted on the waistcoat pocket block, receive its shape and setting and be heard again with a new intonation in the mouth of one of the personages of his invention—wandering Jew, troglodyte or bartender, but for sure a phantom portrait of one of his neighbours.”

That Joyce was far more interested in real human behavior than in any idealized representation of humanity becomes clear in an anecdote he related to Budgen and another friend, Paul Suter:

“A German lady called to see me to-day. She is a writer and wanted me to give an opinion on her work, but she told me she had already shown it to the porter of the hotel where she stays. So I said to her: ‘What did your hotel porter think of your work?’ She said: ‘He objected to a scene in my novel where my hero goes out into the forest, finds a locket of the girl he loves, picks it up and kisses it passionately.’ ‘But,’ I said, ‘that seems to me to be a very pleasing and touching incident. What did your hotel porter find wrong with it?’ And then she tells me he said: ‘It’s all right for the hero to find the locket and to pick it up and kiss it, but before he kissed it you should have made him wipe the dirt off of it with his coat sleeve.’”

“And what did you tell her?” said Paul and I together.

“I told her,” said Joyce “(and I mean it too) to go back to that hotel porter and always to take his advice. ‘That man,’ I said, ‘is a critical genius. There is nothing I can tell you that he can’t tell you.’”

Just as one learns more about love from the simple gesture of wiping a locket, human nature emerges not through ideas and abstractions, or through singular acts of heroism, but through the most mundane details. For Joyce,

[How] a man ties his shoelaces or how he eats his egg will give a better clue to his differentiation than how he goes forth to war. This must be true, for a man goes forth to war so seldom that he has no scope for individuality in the doing of it. On this heroic occasion he must do as others do. His dress is ordered for him. His careless shoestring brings down on him wild incivility. Cutting bread displays character better than cutting throats.

Once again, the omnipresent war serves as a crucial foil for the lesser dramas and comedies through which people of character reveal themselves. Indeed, there is profound optimism in the idea that our violence does not define us as much as the way we like our eggs.

Ulysses performs this notion by taking a seemingly unexceptional day—June 16, 1904—and transforming it into a cosmopolitan reflection on the collective human experience. Unapologetic in its critique of nationalist agendas as it is forthright in its representations of public and private spheres—from the local pub to the marriage bed—Ulysses is exactly what its author intended: a comprehensive panorama of a city and its citizens, warts and all. Ultimately, James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses is Budgen’s attempt to emphasize this fundamentally human dimension of Joyce’s masterpiece, which readers often miss when they become too preoccupied with the novel’s formal experiments or its underlying interpretation. “The life of the book comes first,” Budgen teaches us, “and the philosophy afterwards.”


MARK DAVID KAUFMAN is an Assistant Professor of English at the United States Air Force Academy, where he teaches courses in writing, literature, and film studies. His work has appeared in The Public Domain Review, James Joyce Quarterly, Twentieth-Century Literature, Virginia Woolf Miscellany, The Space Between, and elsewhere. You can find him at markdavidkaufman.com.


Featured image by Jared Lisack courtesy of Unsplash