Academic journal article European Joyce Studies

The Happy Ring House

Academic journal article European Joyce Studies

The Happy Ring House

Article excerpt

So far no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value either in a pearl or a diamond.

-Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I1

....A great cluster of jewels to wave under his nose.

-Look, Daddy!

Bought in the Happy Ring House.

-Roddy Doyle, The Woman Who Walked into Doors2

If, following Benjamin, we skirt the imposing historical landmarks and instead rummage, as critical rag-pickers, among the assorted, forgotten bits and pieces of the unconscious of history and evidences of folk memory that he sometimes called tradition, as Joyceans we come sooner or later to Joyce's strange interest in jewels. The prize exhibit here is Giselle Freund's moving photograph of Joyce's hands.3 Any suspicious psychoanalytic readings of this photograph, however-of, perhaps, the significance of this Pan-figure fingering his cane-as-fiute-are diverted by one's surprise at the sight of the writer's bejeweled, be-ringed fingers. Joyce wears two conspicuous rings: the first, a large stone in an elaborate setting of curled silver that suggests art nouveau, the second a gold signet ring engraved with what appears to be a coat of arms.

In Freund's photo-essay Three Days with Joyce4 the author appears to flaunt the rings in many of the photographs. Bi those taken with Paul Leon in Joyce's apartment, where Joyce and his helper self-consciously correct proofs of Finnegans Wake, the glint of the rings matches that of a polished silver box on a side-table; in the more intimate series snapped at the home of Joyce's son Giorgio, the second ring has slipped round the writer's finger so that the signet is half-hidden. Perhaps only Nancy Cunard, sporting rows of primitive bangles, and Edith Sitwell, famous for her bejeweled self-presentation, made jewels such a part of their public writerly personae. One of the great strengths of Brenda Maddox's biography of Nora Barnacle, Nora: The Real Life of M)IIy Bloom is its emphasis on the Joyce's interest in fashionable clothing: one highlight is her brilliant reading of one of the best known photographs of the whole Joyce family, dressed to the nines, taken by Wide World Photos in Paris in 1924. Here, as Maddox points out, Joyce himself "shows his cufflinks and is wearing one of his bow ties."5 What are we to make of all these flashes of dandyism in the middle-aged Joyce?

Joyce in his fiction never follows the example of his Irish literary forbear, Oscar Wilde, who in Chapter Eleven of Dorian Gray presents us with the most outlandish list of jewels in modem English literature (which, incidentally, he is said to have copied from the 'South Kensington Museum Art Catalogue'). Rather, Joyce allows Molly only the memory of a worn Claddagh ring, a present from her one-time boyfriend Mulvey, while in the 'Telemachus' episode of Ulysses, the drawerful of Stephen's dead mother's brooches and pins ("old featherfans,. . . a gaud of amber beads in her locked drawer," (U 1 :256) are pathetic too. There is also a moody passage in "Wandering Rocks," where Stephen peers at dusty jewels in a shop window - "Dull coils of bronze of silver, lozenges of cinnabar, on rubies, leprous and wind-dark stones" (U 10: 803-4) - and conjures up a heavily orientalized brothel scene, mixing swinishness and a cosmic sensuality in a mode worthy of the French Symbolist painter and eccentric Gustave Moreau. All these scenes, in other words, read jewels in a way that Benjamin read the bibelots on sale in the Paris arcades: as now-outmoded, mostly pathetic reminders of illusions entertained in the past. However, if you leaf through the letters, a turn to finery more in keeping with the determined dandyism displayed in the Freund photographs, and to jewelry as the finest example of it, becomes evident. Here the outstanding exhibit is the letter, dated 3 September 1 909, which Joyce wrote from Dublin to Nora, who had stayed behind in Trieste, in which he describes a gift that he will bring her on his return. It is a striking meditation on a piece of jewelry, extraordinary in its attention to detail and its notion that such attention evidences his love:

24 Fontenoy St. …

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