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Dotter of Her Father's Eyes
Dotter of Her Father's Eyes
Mary M. Talbot
Dark Horse Books, 2012
96 pp., 23.93

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Alan Jacobs


Fathers and Daughters

What is a "graphic novel"?

Most of my fellow teachers of literature know that students often think of almost any book-length narrative work as a "novel." A paper might begin, "Augustine writes in his novel The Confessions …" or "Homer's Iliad is a novel that …." This is not a major intellectual failing, of course, but it should remind us of the extent to which the novel has become so dominant a genre that common readers think of it simply as narrative, or lengthy narrative, itself. It should also be a reminder to teachers that time devoted to explaining the history and uses of literary genre is time well spent.

This particular inexactitude happens in non-academic settings too, and indeed a new version of it has recently arisen. Stephen Weiner's Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel refers to Art Spiegelmann's Maus—an account of the author's father's experience in Auschwitz—as a graphic novel. Similarly, we might consider Dotter of Her Father's Eyes, a recent book by Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot. On Amazon.com you may find it in the "Graphic Novel" category; its Wikipedia page, at least as I write, begins "Dotter of Her Father's Eyes is a 2012 graphic novel"—but then goes on to add, in the next sentence, "It is part memoir, and part biography of Lucia Joyce, daughter of modernist writer James Joyce." That the second sentence is not seen to contradict the first one reminds us once more how the word "novel" is commonly used; but it also reveals the limitations of our descriptive and critical vocabulary for this new form. The genres of graphic narrative proliferate beyond our ability to account for them.

Major comic artists like Will Eisner—in his Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative (1985)—and Scott McCloud—in his Understanding Comics (1993) and Making Comics (2006)—have done yeoman work in explaining, for a wide readership but especially for would-be artists, the visual languages of graphic storytelling. Those are superb and, for anyone seriously interested in the subject, indispensable books. There is also a burgeoning academic and critical literature on graphic storytelling, as exemplified in The Comics Studies Reader (2009), edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. But we still struggle, I think, to know how best to write about graphic narrative—especially in that odd genre called the "book review."

A reviewer will want to say something about the shape of the story: its plot and structure, the way it organizes time and event. The adequacy and appropriateness of the language should be considered, as should those of the artwork. By "appropriateness" I mean, to use an old word, decorum, fitness: Do the language and the images fit the shape of the story? If they do not, does that indecorum seem meant? Is the resulting tension productive, or not? And then the reviewer should ask how the language and artwork interact. (These questions will vary in inflection and emphasis depending on whether the narrative is the work of a single artist—as in the case of William Blake's illuminated poems, or the recent work of Alison Bechdel or Chris Ware—or the product of collaboration, as is the norm in the world of "comics" narrowly defined.)

The graphic narrative is, then, a device with many moving parts. Randall Jarrell once defined the novel as "a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it"—not so far from the implicit definition of my students—and a graphic narrative might be even more naturally inclined to error. And everything I have said so far applies to fictional narratives: if the tale graphically told is historical or biographical, as is increasingly common these days, then one must also ask whether it is faithful to what we know, from elsewhere, of the story it tells. Yet another way for a book to have something wrong with it.

All of this throat-clearing brings us back to Dotter of Her Father's Eyes. It is a double story, whose protagonists are Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce, and Mary M. Talbot herself, in her early years as Mary Atherton, daughter of James S. Atherton, whose The Books at the Wake: A Study of Literary Allusions in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1959) was one of the first major studies of that most daunting of masterpieces. (Dotter of Her Father's Eyes takes its title from a phrase in the Wake.)

The first thing that must be said about Dotter is that it's one of the most visually rich and sophisticated graphic narratives I have ever seen. Bryan Talbot renders the scenes from Mary Atherton's childhood in sepia tones, though patches of bright red or green are used occasionally to heighten certain moments; the life of the Joyce family is rendered in muted and mostly dark blues; and Mary's emergence into adulthood from the oppressive authority of her father is signaled by the use of fully-colored panels. Typewriter-style typefaces appear in conjunction with, often in contrast to, the familiar style of comic lettering; and scattered through the book are photographs, chiefly of documents pertaining to James Atherton. A particularly interesting example comes on the last page of the narrative: a weathered card on which is typed the chorus of the old ballad "Finnegan's Wake" lies atop Atherton's University of Liverpool registration form, which in turn covers much of the last page of Finnegans Wake, which begins: "sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father." Layers upon layers, both literally and metaphorically.

The James Atherton presented here was never mad, but he was often angry: he is most present in his outbursts, verbally and sometimes physically violent, and otherwise in the determination with which he cut himself off from his family in order to work without interruption. It is clear that Mary Talbot found her father "feary" indeed, and her difficulties with him, and her pleasure in the rare moments of his kindness, make up her whole account: her mother appears here only as a kind vagueness. In the parallel story, James Joyce is never angry but is often distant: he seems puzzled by his daughter on the rare occasions when he drifts into her life, typically to adjudicate hostilities between Lucia and her mother Nora. Nora is the story's chief villain, constantly mocking and belittling her daughter, while the great writer is comparatively kind and gentle—but utterly unsupportive of Lucia's love for dance: "Lucia, Lucia. Be content. It's enough if a woman can write a letter and carry an umbrella gracefully."

This is a plausible portrait of Joyce, who seems to have married Nora Barnacle at least in part because of her ordinariness, her lack of interest in his own intellectual pursuits, and who was not above making fun, in Ulysses, of Molly Bloom's mental shortcomings. ("She had interrogated constantly at varying intervals as to the correct method of writing the capital initial of the name of a city in Canada, Quebec …. In calculating the addenda of bills she frequently had recourse to digital aid.") What is less plausible is the dominant portrait in Dotter: Lucia Joyce as a seemingly normal and healthy young woman who is legitimately frustrated by one relatively minor issue—romantic rejection by her father's secretary, the young Samuel Beckett—and one major one—her parents' refusal to support her calling to be a dancer. Her family's decision to place her in a mental institution seems, then, not only cruel but utterly inexplicable.

Bryan Talbot draws Lucia—it is hard to overstress the importance of this—so that she never looks like a seriously disturbed person; even her anger seems moderate, until the very end, and any extremity of response is presented as fully understandable in light of her family's treatment of her. The text and the imagery of this book are at one in pressing us to believe that Lucia was simply a gifted young woman whose parents, one in hostility and one in indifference, frustrated her career and then, when that angered her, allowed her brother to toss her into a mental institution, where she remained until her death in 1982. This could be a true story but is on the face of it deeply unlikely, and the book needs to do more to justify its interpretation, since it portrays the whole Joyce family as monstrous.

The historical record that we possess suggests a more complicated and more interesting story. Lucia grew up in chaotic circumstances, with frequent moves to dodge creditors that led the family on a constant odyssey across Europe and through different social, economic, and linguistic environments. Precisely how this affected her, and what vulnerabilities were part of her makeup from birth, we simply don't know, but her behavior seems always to have been odd. As a child she was prone to long periods of staring off into space, and as a young adult was mercurial at best: jumping impulsively from one style of dance to another and from school to school to school, repeatedly snipping the telephone lines when she felt her father was getting too many calls and therefore too much attention, and, finally, throwing a chair at her mother—the event that precipitated her brother Giorgio's decision to institutionalize her.

For all his indifference to Lucia's love of dancing, for which he was surely culpable, Joyce never thought that she was anything other than an extraordinary person: "Whatever spark or gift I possess has been transmitted to Lucia and it has kindled a fire in her brain." He knew that she was troubled, but refused to believe that she was mentally ill—though once, when he heard that she had attended Mass, he exclaimed, "Now I know she is mad." Given his own calling, he was especially sensitive to what he discerned as a peculiar linguistic power in her: "She is a fantastic being, speaking a curious abbreviated language of her own," he wrote to his patron and publisher Harriet Weaver. "I understand it or most of it." To another correspondent he wrote, "Lucia has no trust in anyone except me, and she thinks nobody else understands a word of what she says." And he even trusted her own self-understanding, as he told Weaver: "Maybe I am an idiot but I attach the greatest importance to what Lucia says when she is talking about herself. Her intuitions are amazing."

Carol Loeb Shloss, in her 2003 biography of Lucia, portrays Joyce as effectively a parasite, sucking the linguistic life out of Lucia and claiming it as his own in Finnegans Wake. (Shloss sees even Lucia's dancing—visitors to the Joyce household noted that she would practice in the same room where her father was writing—as providing rhythmical inspiration for his intricate and fanciful book.) This account has been called into serious question and makes Joyce scarcely less monstrous than he would be if he had allowed his daughter to be institutionalized for no reason stronger than a temper tantrum. But as an explanation it draws clearly on what we know, in that it shows a father deeply involved in his daughter's life and acknowledges that Lucia was anything but the cheerfully normal person we see in Dotter of Her Father's Eyes.

It's hard not to feel that the Talbots' portrayal of the Joyce family is shaped to bring it closer to the life of the Atherton family. James Joyce appears here as a distant, bemused half-presence—a little like James Atherton minus the terrible temper—but in real life was immensely and irresistibly charming to family and friends alike, though wildly erratic. One cannot doubt that his work on Finnegans Wake led him to neglect his family, and that Lucia resented this; but when he was present to her, his love and concern were evident, and he tirelessly sought to get her the best possible treatment. One of his friends estimated that in the last few years of Joyce's life three-quarters of his income went to her care, and he wrote detailed accounts of her condition for her therapists and doctors. He seems even to have thought of the Wake as a kind of counterspell to undo Lucia's madness, if madness it was: patting the manuscript of the work in progress, he once said, "Sometimes I tell myself that when I leave this dark night, she too will be cured."

In the end, Dotter of Her Father's Eyes tells with extraordinary visual sophistication a tale that, structurally and verbally, doesn't quite hold together. That Mary Talbot's father was a Joycean; that he was a difficult and even abusive man; that he sometimes used Joycean language when speaking to her (borrowing a phrase from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he called her "baby tuckoo" when she was small); that she too studied dance for a while—these correspondences, while they clearly created in Talbot's mind a strong link with Lucia Joyce, do not seem to me strong enough to make the parallel tales meaningfully parallel. It's a highly promising experiment in the visual presentation of intertwined life stories, and as such may bear rich fruit in the future; but its simplification of the immensely strange and convoluted relationship betwen James Joyce and his gifted but wounded daughter is unfortunate.

In 1936, after Lucia had begun her long circuit of moving from hospital to hospital, James Joyce panicked at the thought of what might happen to his daughter if the coming war were to separate them. He wrote to friends to ask for their help—any kind of help: "If you were where she is and felt as she must, you would perhaps feel some hope if you felt that you were neither abandoned not forgotten." (One word echoes repeatedly through his late letters about Lucia: "abandoned.") On the penultimate page of Finnegans Wake, a few lines before the passage about "my cold mad feary father," there are lines that some have read as words of hope for poor lost Lucia: "How glad you'll be I waked you! How well you'll feel! For ever after." But Lucia herself, in 1941, when she was told that her father had just died, replied, "That imbecile. What is he doing under the earth? When will he decide to leave? He's watching you all the time."

Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. His edition of Auden's For the Time Being is just out from Princeton University Press. He is the author most recently of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford Univ. Press) and a brief sequel to that book, published as a Kindle Single: Reverting to Type: A Reader's Story.

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