Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Importance of Being Joyce

 by Musetta Joyce   © 2012

I was living for nearly a decade in Sicily when I decided to try and get a job teaching at Messina University. Back then I had no idea of the extent of corruption in the institution. That knowledge was to come gradually, and the reason I did manage to get a job at all might never have happened if my mother had married somebody else.
    It was with the innocence of ignorance that I approached with awe the impressively ancient arched entrance of the university quad and asked a security officer where I could find the English Language department. He told me that a professor of English was just passing by.
I stepped in front of the tall thin man and introduced myself. (Married women don't change their original surnames in Italy.) If I had suddenly acquired a halo he could hardly have been more impressed.
'Your name is – Joyce? Are you by any chance a relation of the great writer?'
I noticed now that his clothes were strangely old-fashioned. He had a small moustache and carried a cane. 'I'm not sure. It's not impossible as James' father came from Cork and was a rate collector just like my grandfather. Most Joyces live in the west of Ireland, you see.  It's even called the Joyce Country.'
'Really? How interesting! I have translated parts of Ulysses into Italian and some of Dubliners too. Would you care to see my work?'
'Yes of course. That would be fascinating. Translating Ulysses must have been daunting! Most Irish people have difficulty in reading it.'
'I like challenges, Miss Joyce. Just a moment while I collect my mail. My home is not far, and my wife will make us tea. You drink tea I suppose? I will show you also my translations of Shakespeare's sonnets. You like Shakespeare?'
'Oh yes, I love Shakespeare. I've acted in many of his plays.'
'How very interesting. Now, you are seeking a teaching position at the university I expect. Do you have a university degree? Have you ever taught English?'
'Oh yes. I have an extra-mural degree from London University. And I used to teach at the Berlitz Schools both here and in London. Actually, the textbook we used there would have been identical to the one used by James Joyce when he taught at the Berlitz inTrieste.'
'Incredible! I must have you as my assistant. Soon there will be a position available and I will let you know when to apply. Now, please come with me, Miss Joyce.'
His home was the antithesis of the usual Sicilian home, always scrupulously tidy and book free. His study had books everywhere. Every flat surface held bundles of books, shelves had long ago overflowed onto the floor and piles of dusty volumes toppled onto one another on his desk.  
'My wife is not allowed to tidy or dust in here, please sit down.' He rescued a pile of books off a chair and emitted a piercing whistle. 'Rosa! Tea please! Milk or lemon, Miss Joyce?'
'Lemon please.' Tea in Sicily is always served too weak to add milk. Sicilians rarely drink tea unless they're sick, so the professor was an exception. I glanced around at the strange objects hanging on the walls.
'Japanese swords,' the professor explained. 'Another hobby of mine, and I am teaching myself Japanese at the moment.'
His wife brought the tea served in delicate china cups. I read scenes from Ulysses and he read his Italian version as we sipped tea until I had to leave in order to catch the train home.
'Give me your address so I can advise you when there is a position available. I am very happy to have made your acquaintance, Miss Joyce. I look forward to seeing you again soon.'
But it was to be well over a year before I heard from him. By then we had moved house so his letter informing me about a position as his assistant was delayed in reaching me. In fact it came just in time. On the very last day I sent off my application by registered post. And then I waited, and waited. After a month had passed I got called to a neighbours phone to be informed that I had been given the job. It had been a close shave, for the position had been lined up for the daughter-in-law of an important academic and only because my Joyce lover had thrown a tantrum and insisted on having me was the decision taken to employ two lecturers. Over fifty per cent of the teaching staff in the university were related, higher than the average of nepotism in most Italian universities. Which should not be surprising considering that the Family is sacred in Sicily. Anyway, I got my first salary just in time for Christmas, so I could splash out on a huge television for my own special family.
(An extract from a work in progress on life in Sicily.) 

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