There’s something both lower-case romantic and sweetly anachronistic about a husband-wife literary collaboration. What makes this one, Dotter of her Father’s Eyes, interesting is the odd middle-ground between its creators – Mary M. and Bryan Talbot. Mary is a respected feminist academic, whilst her husband (who she married very young) is a successful artist for comic books, having drawn for Judge Dredd and Batman, as well as many other things I haven’t heard of. Mary also has a connection to the literary world through her father, James S. Atherton, who was an eminent James Joyce scholar in the mid 20th Century and his seminal work, The Books at the Wake, is still in print*. Dotter of her Father’s Eyes is about Mary’s relationship with her distant father, as well as the relationship between Joyce and his daughter, Lucia. Both of these relationships are dangerously coloured by conventionality, but one ends far more tragically than the other. It’s an interesting text, and was notable** for being the first graphic novel to win for a major*** British literary prize (the Costa in 2012).
The graphic style relies heavily on varying colour palettes to show chronological location – the present (which bookends the text) is in a vivid colour, the childhood and youth of Mary Talbot (in Lancashire in the 50s and 60s) is in that weird colour of old films, I’ve forgotten the word, hopefully I’ll remember before I upload this, SEPIA, and the Paris of Lucia Joyce and all of her and her father’s friends is in a rich, heavy, black and white.
The similarities between Mary and Lucia (I’m using first names because there are multiple people involved with the same surname) are made very clear – they both share a father who is sometimes verbally supportive, who is highly praised by people outside the family but lacks any true kind of warmth. It is all about father-daughter relationships, in truth, plus a little bit about Samuel Beckett**** being a shit.
The Joyces moved all over Europe: Lucia was born in Trieste in what was then Italian-speaking Austria and what is now Italian-speaking Italy, moved to Vienna, to Paris, to London, back to Paris – there is a quotation included from one of James’ sneering friends that his daughter “was illiterate in four languages”. Charming. Once they were settled, famously in Paris, Jimmy J met Sylvia Beach (of Shakespeare & Co) who agreed to publish Ulysses.
The life of Lucia then changed, because of her father’s relationship with money. Though highly acclaimed, his books didn’t sell well and were banned in many countries. Due to his perceived artistic importance he managed to get patrons, but every time he was given some cash so he could work on his writing without distraction, he would splash it on a holiday or new clothes for him and his kin, and swiftly have to return to teaching. During this period, Lucia finds her calling, which is dance. She studies under Isadora Duncan, [insert the name of her two other dance tutors, the latter of whom was William Morris’ granddaughter] and gradually builds a reputation for herself. However, her lapsed Catholic mother disapproves of her flaunting her body, and eventually her dreams are crushed, and after a violent argument about her hopes and dreams, in which James refuses to help, Lucia’s brother has her committed. After this has happened once, it recurs, until Lucia ends up permanently institutionalised, narrowly avoiding Nazi euthanasia in occupied France in the war years, but living most of her life inside psychiatric wards.
Meanwhile, in Mary’s story*****, her father emotionally ignores her, tries to persuade her into applying for Cambridge, is saddened when she gets pregnant and married young, disappointed when she starts attending Preston University (which I don’t think exists), but pleased when she becomes a PhD-toting academic in the late 1970s. She wins back some of the affection that Lucia was never able to do: in this rendering of Lucia’s life it is the silence of James that damns his daughter more than the hatred of her mother. Her career is buoyed by his half-hearted encouragement and by the full-throttled praise of young Samuel Beckett (who she had an affair with), and she does well until her parents force her to leave Paris on a multi-month holiday and, when she returns to training, she injures herself due to being less fit than she thought she should be.
Lucia’s tragedy is very dark – though there is a lot of love and affection from her father (something Mary lacked), he is silent when his intervention would have prevented her supposed mental collapse (the treatment of which caused a permanent one). Mary’s father, however, encourages his daughter into academia, has high hopes for her which, eventually, she achieves. There is no perfect father in this text (there is no discussion of Bryan’s relationship with the child the Talbots have at 19), but there are edges of hunger and wish-fulfilment in both. Mary wishes she could’ve had the warmth of James Joyce in her father unbound (he could only be affectionate when quoting his subject), and likewise she wishes Lucia could’ve had the support of her father in her artistic pursuits, as well as the freedom and independence that she had as a woman 40/50 years later.
Then again, Mary married young because she got pregnant, but her partner, Bryan, was supportive and here, another 30/40 years later, collaborated with her on a piece of moving and intellectually stimulating literature, which is surely the dream outcome of any relationship with anyone? Her father got to see her success (but not her first full-book publications), in contrast to James Joyce, who saw his daughter beginning an impressive career but being prevented from enjoying it because of social convention and innate conservatism. James may have been a bastion of modernist literary new-think, but he wasn’t any kind of progressive feminist.
It’s nice to see the flaws of James Joyce as a person (as opposed to his flaws as a writer, which are described ALL OVER this blog), and even nicer to see Samuel Beckett as a teasing manipulator – it makes it easier to dislike writers I know I’m “meant to like” when I’m aware of their personal and personality failings.
Dotter of her Father’s Eyes, however, is a warm, insightful and enjoyable book. I’d recommend it, and I’ll be looking for Mary Talbot’s more recent Suffragette the next time I’m out buying graphic novels…
* If you don’t believe me, check it here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Books-Wake-Allusions-Finnegans/dp/0809329336 (this edition 2009!)
** Autobiographically, it’s notable to me because it was the only book anyone bought me for my birthday. I know it’s self-effacing and a bit lame to keep on harping about this, but the start of Autumn is when I’m used to being enthused by the gift of a good pile of texts I’ve never heard of, assorted recommendations and second-hand recommendations from assorted people in my life. There aren’t many, any more, but at least there is one: my sister. Even though she’s only recreationally read about ten books in her entire life (and seven of them Harry Potters), she remembers that the main source of real joy in my life is literature, remembers that I like life writing, remembers I like graphic novels and remembers I’m interested in Joyce. Still, some people don’t even get a lone family member who cares, so I shouldn’t complain too much. (NB: To clarify what I just said about literature being the main source of joy in my life: there is also schadenfreude. Oh my god there is schadenfreude.)
*** I think this counts as major.
**** Beckett is another of those writers who regularly crops up on this blog, usually in context of extreme disappointment. Waiting for Godot and Happy Days were glorious, essential texts of my youth, Krapp’s Last Tape, too, is golden, but everything else I’ve ever read by the man has been dull, self-indulgent, crap.
***** A portrait of the artist as a young woman, if you will…