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Stuart Gilbert's edition of the Letters of James Joyce was published in 1957; by 1966 a great many new letters had surfaced and were tacked onto Gilbert's collection in two additional volumes edited by Richard Ellmann. Being thus totally out of chronological order, the three volumes cannot be read straight through and it's extremely difficult to locate anything in them. Furthermore their size is unwieldy; and the books are full of trivial business letters which, while they tell another kind of truth about the life of James Joyce, are deadly dull as well as distracting. Richard Ellman's new volume sits nicely in the hand, like a novel, and every page fulfills Ellmann's editorial criterion for inclusion: it is ""interesting."" There are ten new letters and some restorations of passages which have been suppressed because of the delicacy of the Joyce estate and the modesty of Joyce's great and generous benefactor, Harriet Shaw Weaver. When Joyce visited Dublin in 1909, leaving Nora Barnacle and the two children behind in Trieste, they exchanged some highly explicit love letters designed to divert Joyce's hand from the charms of the Dublin whores and place it elsewhere. Joyce's own description of the content: ""some of it is ugly, obscene and bestial, some of it is pure and holy and spiritual."" So much for sensationalism. Four letters to Harriet Shaw Weaver are explanations for parts of Finnegan's Wake which will be of considerable interest to scholars, who need all the keys they can get to the hieratical dreambook. Also: two letters, dated twenty years apart, to Lady Gregory--one sweetly asking for succor, the other vinegary over its absence; a letter to Pound re his first glaucoma attack; and a postcard to Stanislaus revealing an earlier structure for Ulysses. Ellmann, a quintessential scholar, has edited the letters in such a way as to let Joyce speak his own autobiography with a controlled clarity peculiar to the letters. We are again in his debt.

Pub Date: Nov. 21st, 1975
Publisher: Viking