In the Absence of Facts

Alex Pheby, Lucia

Galley Beggar, 276pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781910296882

reviewed by Genevieve Sartor

The shadowy figure of Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s supposedly schizophrenic daughter, offers a fascinating and underdeveloped topic ripe for imaginative reconstructions of who she was and what she may have experienced. A number of fictive portrayals of Lucia have been instigated by the only biography written on her, Carol Shloss’s Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake (2003). This text remains a principal reference for those curious about Lucia despite the fact that it has been unfavourably critiqued by Joyce scholars. A noteworthy passage in Shloss’s book describes the time when the Joyces were living in Locarno in 1917. Here she wonders about the possible ‘sexual dynamics between a brother and a sister accustomed to being locked up together’ and invites readers to ‘imagine them enclosed in a private world drawn from the loneliness of their life circumstance.’ In Alex Pheby’s new fictional biography, Lucia, we don’t have to imagine: in a chapter he has dated to coincide with Shloss’s suggestions of possible incest – Locarno, November 1917 – he describes Giorgio, Lucia’s brother, molesting her at night before then going quite a bit further.

In order to prevent Lucia from telling anyone that he is sexually assaulting her, Pheby has Giorgio torture her pet rabbit (vaguely alternated with a chinchilla) to death – demonstrating what will happen to her if she tells – in a particularly disturbing scene. Along with Giorgio, the text also finds both Lucia’s father and her uncle Stanislaus equally guilty of sexually abusing her, and intimates that two abortions (one involving tapeworms, the other a curette) were carried out in order to get rid of the evidence. Violations continue as Lucia is taken to various sanatoriums: she is forced into a tub of 105º F water in order to induce fever; swaddled so as to restrict movement before prolonged submersion in an ice bath; injected with bovine serum derived from a premature cow foetus; and rendered unconscious so that all of her rotting teeth can be removed by a dentist.

Pheby describes scenarios of this register and many more in uniquely visceral, decisively rendered and unforgiving prose. Importantly he refrains from indulging in the popular reading that portrays Lucia as a free-spirited, dancing muse for her father; he instead highlights the disconcerting levels of trauma involved in the not-so-distant history of medical psychiatry that Lucia, along with countless others – particularly women – would have endured. But why has Pheby chosen to depict Lucia as one who lived out her life as a series of bodily violations – from brute incest to forced acts of medically sanctioned violence so gratuitously? A chapter that begins with the question ‘Under what circumstances may James Joyce beat his wife? [...] Under what circumstances may James Joyce beat his daughter?’ implies a self-referentially telling, thinly disguised aim of its own. The thematic quality of Lucia suggests that Pheby seeks to violate forms of censorship or imposed sanctity, however indirectly, by blaspheming the once impenetrable environs of Joycean biography.

Following the rabbit/chinchilla scene, Pheby writes: ‘All things that are possible are, in the absence of facts that have been destroyed that might have proved them incorrect, equally correct.’ This book, resoundingly graphic from beginning to end, launches a veritable Molotov cocktail of prose at the hallowed preoccupations of the Joyce Estate and the censorship concerning Lucia administered by her nephew Stephen Joyce in particular – who infamously burned material concerning her in the late 1980s. Pheby’s novel demonstrates that if access to facts is denied then problematic fictions will take their place. In the number of macabre and nightmarish scenes that make up his book, several of which depict James Joyce with considerable brutality – drunk on sherry, beating his wife and bearing himself down on his daughter – Pheby desecrates the tomb of traditional and more sanitised approaches to Joyce and his life, usurping Stephen Joyce’s stubborn attempts to protect them. In a number of scenes we find Lucia playing with matches, setting things alight. In the doll’s house of the Joycean legacy it seems Pheby has a box of matches of his own. Yet the garish prurience of Lucia recalls the paradox we find in reading Marquis De Sade. The sheer excess of De Sade’s depictions of sexual cruelty had the effect of neutering his prose; his exhaustive depictions of deprivation eventually desensitise the reader.

In fictional biography, especially one as graphically rendered as this, what responsibility is owed to the historical subject that informs the author’s central protagonist? Perhaps the answer is none. As Pheby writes in the acknowledgements section, ‘I have drawn on areas of expertise freely and without consideration for anything other than the artistic requirements of this book.’ (Lucia Joyce is not mentioned by name.) The artistic quality of this novel, with its tactile, penetrative and starkly disturbing scenes accomplishes its task: if its main character were not inspired by Lucia Joyce this novel would still stand as a work of commendable literary merit. But it is derived from her and her experience, and I believe this should have been forthrightly addressed either before or after the text, in order to preserve the dignity of the subject who inspired it.

One of the most formally interesting things about Lucia is that its chapters alternate with brief scenes of the excavation of an Egyptian tomb along with illustrations taken from priest Imhotep’s Book of Coming Forth by Day. Two explorers find a tomb of a mummified woman, though it appears that the sarcophagus has been opened, exposing a swathed face splattered with red paint, which also runs across the breasts and between the thighs of her etched depiction on the lid of the sarcophagi. These passages also progressively describe the process of mummification, including the method by which the corpse’s viscera are removed and placed in Canopic jars: in preserving the body so too is it emptied. While the Egyptologist in Pheby’s text ultimately seeks to venerate the disturbed site, this is done through the author’s own centrifugal method of desecration. Pheby renders his protagonist just like that unidentified mummy – preserved, but hollowed out.