James Joyce’s (1882-1941) reputation can be daunting for the first-time reader. The term 'Joycean' is readily adopted to suggest impenetrability, bewildering experimentalism, obscurity and inaccessibility. Although Ulysses (1922) regularly makes it into the top four of '100 Books of the Century' polls, it is famously a book more talked about than read. Its predecessor, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), is often seen to offer a route into Ulysses's formal experimentations. But Finnegans Wake (1939), with its lack of a discernible plot and its invented language saturated with multilingual puns, far exceeds Ulysses’s resistance to navigation. Any baffled reader who turns to literary criticism for help might well be further disconcerted. Joyce once boasted, 'I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.' His prophecy has come true in the ever increasing critical studies of Joyce which crowd library shelves, offering fresh perspectives on a writer discussed almost as frequently as Shakespeare. Yet Joyce’s perceived difficulty, and the range of analyses responding to that difficulty, need not be so daunting. For 'difficulty' is a product of the richness of his fictions, a richness of form, of content, of wit and of pleasure which makes Joyce and the 'Joycean' command such influence over both his contemporaries and the many writers in his wake.
Joyce is commonly perceived to stand at the centre of his aesthetic moment, the 'father of high modernism', the protégé, friend and inspirer of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and other modernists, whose long shadow hangs over later writers. However, Joyce’s centrality should not distract us from the many ways in which he spoke from the periphery of the literary culture he would come to dominate. Born in Dublin in 1882, the eldest child in a rapidly increasing and increasingly impoverished Catholic family, the young Joyce self-consciously wrestled with questions of poverty, class, faith and nation.