James Joyce, With His Eyesight Failing, Draws a Sketch of Leopold Bloom (1926)

James Joyce Leopold Bloom Sketch

Click image to view it in a larg­er for­mat.

James Joyce had a ter­ri­ble time with his eyes. When he was six years old he received his first set of eye­glass­es, and when he was 25 he came down with his first case of iri­tis, a very painful and poten­tial­ly blind­ing inflam­ma­tion of the col­ored part of the eye, the iris. A short time lat­er he named his new­born daugh­ter “Lucia,” after the patron saint of those with eye trou­bles.

For the rest of his life, Joyce had to endure a hor­rif­ic series of oper­a­tions and treat­ments for one or the oth­er of his eyes, includ­ing the removal of parts of the iris, a reshap­ing of the pupil, the appli­ca­tion of leech­es direct­ly on the eye to remove fluid–even the removal of all of Joyce’s teeth, on the the­o­ry that his recur­ring iri­tis was con­nect­ed with the bac­te­r­i­al infec­tion in his teeth, brought on by years of pover­ty and den­tal neglect.

After his sev­enth eye oper­a­tion on Decem­ber 5, 1925, accord­ing to Gor­don Bowk­er in James Joyce: A New Biog­ra­phy, Joyce was “unable to see lights, suf­fer­ing con­tin­u­al pain from the oper­a­tion, weep­ing oceans of tears, high­ly ner­vous, and unable to think straight. He was now depen­dent on kind peo­ple to see him across the road and hail taxis for him. All day, he lay on a couch in a state of com­plete depres­sion, want­i­ng to work but quite unable to do so.”

In ear­ly 1926, Joyce’s sight was improv­ing a lit­tle in one eye. It was about this time (Jan­u­ary 1926, accord­ing to one source) that Joyce paid a vis­it to his friend Myron C. Nut­ting, an Amer­i­can painter who had a stu­dio in the Mont­par­nasse sec­tion of Paris. To demon­strate his improv­ing vision, Joyce picked up a thick black pen­cil and made a few squig­gles on a sheet of paper, along with a car­i­ca­ture of a mis­chie­vous man in a bowler hat and a wide mustache–Leopold Bloom, the pro­tag­o­nist of Ulysses. (Click here to see in larg­er for­mat.) Next to Bloom, Joyce wrote in Greek (“with a minor error in spelling and char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly skewed accents,” accord­ing to R. J. Schork in Greek and Hel­lenic Cul­ture in Joyce) the open­ing pas­sage  of Home­r’s Odyssey: “Tell me, muse, of that man of many turns, who wan­dered far and wide.”

NOTE: Joyce’s draw­ing of Bloom is now in the Charles Deer­ing McCormick Library of Spe­cial Col­lec­tions at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. Nut­ting was a sig­nif­i­cant source for the biog­ra­phy of Joyce that was writ­ten by Richard Ell­mann, a pro­fes­sor at North­west­ern. Accord­ing to Scott Krafft, a cura­tor at the library, Ell­mann bro­kered a deal in 1960 for the library to pur­chase Nut­ting’s oil paint­ings of James and Nora Joyce, his pas­tel draw­ings of the Joyce chil­dren Gior­gio and Lucia, along with Joyce’s sketch of Bloom, for a total of $500. The source for the Jan­u­ary 1926 date of the Bloom sketch is an arti­cle, “James Joyce…a quick sketch” from the July 1976 edi­tion of Foot­notes, pub­lished by the North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty Library Coun­cil. Our thanks to Scott Krafft.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

James Joyce Man­u­scripts Online, Free Cour­tesy of The Nation­al Library of Ire­land

James Joyce’s Ulysses: Down­load the Free Audio Book

James Joyce Reads ‘Anna Livia Plura­belle’ from Finnegans Wake

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