A self-made man

James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses
Oxford Paperbacks

To write memoirs depicting one of the great artists of one's generation is to throw one's own talents into sharp relief. James Boswell has arguably suffered far more than his decent skill would suggest at the hands of critics for writing in the vast, pendulous shadow of Johnson. And to intersperse such recollections with details of your own life is to risk descending to a level of beam-in-your-eye Pooterism that generations to come will mock. So for Frank Budgen---middling painter, civil servant, self-made man---to attempt to describe James Joyce's time in Zürich (even as a first-hand account of the great man's conversations), and then to dot the novel with his own paintings, and to interpret chapters of both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake in painstaking detail, is to invite ridicule from every quarter.

Budgen was clearly emboldened in his task by a cheerful ignorance of the hit-and-miss nature of his own gift for painting. An atmospheric portrait of Joyce on the flyleaf admirably captures the man's wiry, pent-up energy enthusiasm which often escapes later photographs, and his rendering of The Lotus Eaters is gentle and calm, while later plates include tortuously literal transcriptions of the symbology of Proteus and The Oxen of the Sun onto canvas, and what looks like Leopold Bloom wanking on the head of a bat in the vague direction of a distant Folies-Bergère filly. But all this is presented with the rather straightforward confidence that characterizes the rest of the book: Budgen doesn't comment on his own painting, and talks of himself only in the context of being in Joyce's wartime city, and to flesh out the city. In a sense his willing ignorance of himself makes him a factual everyman much like Bloom in fiction, and he becomes an excellent cipher for the tale of Joyce's wrestling with both books.

Indeed, although Budgen does not make it explicit, it seems like Joyce was trying out a number of his literary and artistic theories on him: whereas Joyce admits himself to be no critic---he can't let himself make such objective judgments in his own pursuit of his art qua subject---Budgen freely expresses his own taste, intentions and ideas all mixed together. Joyce and Budgen talk a good deal, none of it reflecting wonderfully on Budgen (and therefore probably true) but all of it enlightening about Joyce's opinions and motivations, both retrospectively behind Ulysses and also behind the ongoing Work in Progress that would become his last, great book.

Every few chapters Budgen unburdens himself of chapters of Joyce as if he has taken a purgative, and the effect is to prevent in turn the flow of the genial narrative that his more literal recollections comprise. No doubt he has a number of important points about the groundbreaking nature of Joyce's work to illuminate, but one does wish he might let the man speak for himself, given he clearly did so on many occasions. Still, he quickly picks up the thread again of his meetings with Joyce, and Zürich is described with understated, unaffected affection. The wartime antics of Budgen and the British in Switzerland are an amusing sideline to what, quietly and unassumingly, begins with an accurate picture of Joyce and eventually becomes a much more revealing, verbal portrait.