Joyce. To Dance in the Wake. Tragic Muse and Wild Beauty: The Story
of James Joyce’s Only Daughter
"Carol Loeb Shloss teaches English at Stanford University. She has written extensively on Joyce," the dust-jacket explains. Together with the subtitle of this biography of Lucia Joyce, Tragic Muse and Wild Beauty: The Story of James Joyce's Only Daughter, that suggests that the emphasis is less on ballet or Lucia Joyce than on James Joyce and literature, less on "dance" than on "in the wake." However, Carol Loeb Shloss’s contention that Lucia's passion and gift for self-expression through movement drew her father into "reconsidering the performative nature of language as well as the fictional aspects of everyday life"  and influenced his writing is appealing. Her claim that "the story of [Lucia's] struggles, amid all its bitter contention, is one of the great love stories of the twentieth century"  between father and daughter is far less convincing, for the second part of the book, "The Dance of Death," repeatedly depicts their relationship as highly destructive.
The most exciting part of the book is arguably the introduction, enticingly entitled "What happened to Lucia Joyce?" In a detective-story-like narrative, Carol Loeb Shloss recounts how Lucia Joyce's letters as well as the letters written to her were systematically destroyed or kept away from biographers and academics by the members of the Joyce family, and primarily by Joyce himself, by their friends and her lover Samuel Beckett, who all felt that it was their duty to protect Lucia’s privacy. Perhaps their motive in that process of censorship and destruction was less noble than they claimed, she suggests, and they may very well have been trying to construct a safe myth, the unthreatening cliché of "the mad daughter of a man of genius" , a misconception that she intends to correct in this biography. What if Lucia had been a genius, stifled in the name of her father's comfort and fame, held down to "the margins of someone else's creativity" ?
Despite the scarcity of primary sources available, the book is well-researched, as shown in the substantial notes and bibliography. Such scarcity, however, leads to unwelcome speculation, such as: "In later years, the gift of a book would be the gift of a sentiment, a particular text would be understood as an invitation to consider the world from the vantage point suggested by the author. Though we cannot know that Joyce read this particular book to Lucia, we can notice that Lucia loved to read" . Except for these uncalled for attempts at imagining Lucia's feelings and perception of her parents' professional, private and even sexual lives, the family's troubled yet joyful travels through Europe are vividly depicted and give an interesting insight into the turmoil of artistic creation.
It may be regretted that, just as her predecessors, the biographer falls into the trap of myth-writing that she denounces and gives her own aptly refocused but still idealized version of Lucia’s life. Typically, just by looking at a long-searched for photograph of the dancer (reproduced on the cover of the book) which she unearthed from "one of the folders at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin, Texas" , she is able to sense who Lucia was, in an almost supernatural way:
That is definitely a lot to be seen in a photograph. Carol Loeb Shloss does not shun lyricism, but if her hagiographical style can prove tiresome at times, it still serves the rehabilitation of her biographee.
If Shloss's intention is to save Lucia Joyce from the margin, why not consider the interactions between dance and literature from the dancer's point of view, since, as the reader is informed parenthetically, she wrote poetry—Lucia Joyce also dabbled in book-binding and drawing, taking lessons with Marie Laurencin. Frustratingly, however, such remarks as: "It was this poetry that Dominique Maroger remembered reading in the 1930s, that Carl Gustav Jung read in 1934 and used to judge Lucia's 'language disorder,' and that Joyce defended to Jung as a language experiment of the new generation"  are never followed by any in-depth analysis of the literary interest of her writing, let alone by any example of it! If her poems have all been destroyed, how credible could any judgement on their psychological or linguistic value be? Carol Joyce Loeb fails to make the utmost of her main point: to show that, just as Lucia Joyce and her father did, literature and dance "communicate with a secret, inarticulate voice. The writing of the pen, the writing of the body become a dialogue of artists, performing and counter-performing, the pens, the limbs writing away" . The simile, which in the long run becomes somewhat of a cliché, never leads to genuinely theoretical remarks.
Carol Loeb Shloss is at her most convincing when her half-hearted literary perspective gives way to the depiction of the wider picture of the cultural and psychoanalytical background of Lucia Joyce's life. Her references to Friedrich Nietzsche are particularly enlightening. She recaptures the unrestrained creativity that prevailed among dancers at the beginning of the twentieth century. Lucia Joyce studied and danced in several capitals of Europe with the greatest artists of her time. From Jaque-Dalcroze to Raymond Duncan, from Margaret Morris to Jean Borlin, from the Dadaists to the surrealists, she worked with them all—and that's why the index comes in handy; yet the performances she took part in are only summarily described and very rarely commented on from an aesthetic standpoint. However, the enthusiastic, unpretentious spirit in which dancers came together and experimented with new art forms is strikingly rendered, as is the bohemian way of life of a dancer who befriended penniless artists as well as the Guggenheims. The confused, self-contradictory psychoanalytical theories and therapeutic programs Lucia Joyce was subjected to after 1930, as her parents sent her to noted psychoanalysts they distrusted—Jung included—at a period when, to quote the teacher of most of her doctors, "with many patients, the number of diagnoses made equals the number of institutions they ha[d] been to" , casts Lucia as the victim not just of her parents' prejudices and shortcomings but also of those of her time.
According to Samuel Beckett, Lucia Joyce could not live a life of her own because she was "already part of a better story" , her all but incestuous love for her father. How, then, could the reader expect Carol Loeb Shloss not to portray Lucia Joyce "in the wake" of her father? The dancer is upstaged by the writer to the final sentence: "Love for a child is infinite" . Given her willingness to fill in the gaps of the missing evidence with imagination and poetical licence—she calls her biography a "creative tribute" —despite her careful attention to the documents, one is left wondering what work of fiction she might have produced, had she decided to write in the vein of Colum McCann's fictional biography of Nureyev in Dancer.