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James Joyce. How could they turn him down?

Our next guest blog in South African English month is from Professor Tony Voss. Professor Tony Voss was educated in South Africa and the USA and has taught English literature at various universities around the world. He retired his position as head of the English Department of Natal University in 1995. He continues a research interest in Shakespeare, South African literature and Maritime history, and is currently documenting the journeys of the 19th-century South African schooner Mazeppa.


During Scottish-English week the question was posed, via a tweet: What would Burns’s poetry have been like had he followed through on his plans to emigrate to the West Indies? The question this month is: What if James Joyce, or Samuel Beckett had become a South African? In 1907, Joyce seems at least to have considered emigration to South Africa. In the Cornell University Library is a letter addressed to Joyce from the South African Colonisation Society, signed by the secretary of the education committee:

‘I much regret to inform you that we have no vacancy on our books of the kind you require in South Africa, and I cannot encourage you to hope that there will be any such post available for some time to come’.

How could they turn him down?

Ulysses certainly shows that Joyce was aware of South Africa. In the first few pages Buck Mulligan describes Haines as:

‘the oxy chap downstairs. He’s stinking with money …  His old fellow made his tin selling jalap to Zulus or some bloody swindle or other.’

‘Jalap’ sounds as though it could be a South African word but is a purgative drug and takes its name from Xalapa in Mexico, like jalapeño. ‘Zulus’ is the first in a network of South African references looking back a generation from 1904, to the decade after the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and the Eerste Vryheidsoorlog of 1880-1881. Stephen associates Shakespeare with the jingoism of the war of 1899-1902: ‘His pageants, the histories, sail fullbellied on a tide of Mafeking enthusiasm’. Joyce saw that for Imperial Britain ‘The Boers were the beginning of the end. Brummagem England was toppling already and her downfall would be Ireland, her Achilles heel …’

For the course of the war of 1899-1902 Joyce had been a student at University College Dublin. He seems at least to have had socialist sympathies at this stage. Perhaps he read the radical James Connolly’s writings in The Workers’ Republic. On 18th November 1899, Connolly wrote:

‘And what about the war? Well, I think it is the beginning of the end. This great, blustering British Empire; this Empire of truculent bullies, is rushing headlong to its doom.’

These proper nouns ‘Zulus’, ‘Boers’, ‘Mafeking’ have become part of English. The most powerful South African common noun in Ulysses will be very familiar: at one point in the novel Stephen thinks of gypsies:

‘Shouldering their bags they trudged, the red Egyptians … the ruffian and his strolling mort … to Romeville … Across the sands of all the world, followed by the sun’s flaming sword, to the west, trekking to evening lands. She trudges, schlepps, trains, drags, trascines her load. A tide, westering, moondrawn, in her wake. Tides, myriadislanded, within her …’

Here South Africa has trekked into the wordhoard of Ulysses in some form other than a proper noun. ‘Romeville’ evokes both wandering and permanence: the verbs (Afrikaans, Anglo-Saxon, Yiddish, French, Italian) ‘trekking … trudges, schlepps, trains, drags, trascines …’ call up a whole range of culture and history. In ‘trekking to evening lands’ we can hear the novelist Coetzee and in ‘Tides, myriadislanded, within her’ the poet Douglas Livingstone. In 1929 when Joyce was asked to suggest writers for a new literary magazine awareness he recommended some Australians and Afrikaners.

In 1939, on 4 May, some time after the publication of Finnegans Wake, when Joyce felt that his financial situation would make it necessary for him to teach again, he heard from Beckett that a lectureship in Italian was open at the University of Cape Town. Joyce thought it over for a few days, but he had heard that thunderstorms were frequent there, and gave up the idea. Beckett himself did apply for the post.

Richard Ellmann: James Joyce (Oxford University Press, 1982)

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Tony Voss

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