Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Guinness, James Joyce, Murder and Suicide

Yes, there is a connection between the items listed in the title to this post. Of course, being a member of a Finnegans Wake reading group, I can assure you that when dealing with James Joyce, everything is always connected with everything else, on levels within levels within levels.

While visiting my folks in Santa Monica a few weeks back, my mom gave me a few of her mystery novels. Among them was The James Joyce Murder, by Amanda Cross. I’d read Cross’ Death in a Tenured Position years ago, but had forgotten than she’d penned a book about Joyce. How fun! Eagerly, I started the novel that first night of my visit.

a photo of my copy of the book

Half way through, I was wondering where the heck the murder was. These days—or so we aspiring mystery writers are told in no uncertain terms by those who deem themselves qualified to give advice to aspiring mystery writers—the murder must occur within the first chapter. And within the first few pages is even better.

So, what? Are readers more impatient now than they were in the 1960s, when Cross’ book was penned? Or is it that the cozy genre has just gotten more strict as to its parameters? Whatever the reason for the change in the style’s requirements, I guess I’m in the impatient camp, as I did find myself wanting the murderer to hurry up and get on with it!

In the end, I found the book a bit of a disappointment. Not because it’s so dated. After all, things from the ’60s so often are. Just think of the TV shows Laugh-In and I Dream of Jeannie (RIP Larry Hagman!), for example. Rather, I was disappointed because the James Joyce connection to the murder—a connection which is promised by the book’s title—ends up feeling like it’s just been tacked on, as a sort of an afterthought. Oh, right—it’s supposed to be a James Joyce murder. Better add some explanation to make it so. But it was fun getting all the references to Ulysses and to Dubliners (whose story titles are used as the mystery’s chapter headings).

 statue of Joyce, with the
Spire of Dublin in the background

After I read the book I decided to look the author up on line. I was aware that Amanda Cross was a pseudonym and that she had been a Columbia University English professor, but that was all I knew. I discovered several interesting facts about Carolyn Heilbrun—her real name—from her 2003 New York Times obituary. First, in addition to writing mystery novels, she was the author of nine scholarly books, including Toward a Recognition of Androgyny and Reinventing Womanhood, and also wrote scores of articles interpreting women’s literature from a feminist perspective. In other words, her sleuth Kate Fansler was a thinly-disguised version of herself.

Second, the reason Heilbrun wrote her mysteries under a pen name was the fear that she would not be taken seriously as a professor by her colleagues at Columbia and be denied tenure. Sounds like the plot of one of her mysteries.

Lastly, like Maude in the movie Harold and Maude, Heilbrun famously declared that she would end her life on her seventieth birthday (though with Maude, it was her eightieth). But unlike Maude, on that fateful day she did not kill herself, instead deciding “to choose each day for now, to live.”

And to write a new book about it. As explained in its Amazon description, Heilbrun’s The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty contains
reflections on her new house and her sturdy, comfortable marriage; sweet solitude and the pleasures of sex at an advanced age; the fascination with e-mail and the joy of discovering unexpected friends. Even the encroachments of loss, pain, and sadness that come with age cannot spoil Heilbrun’s moveable feast. They are merely the price of bountiful living.
Five years after the book’s publication, however, she decided that the time had come and did indeed commit suicide, at age 77. According to her son, she had not been ill: “She wanted to control her destiny, and felt her life was a journey that had concluded.”

As for the Guinness in this post’s title? Well, Arthur Guinness and Sons features prominently in Joyce’s works, most notably in Finnegans Wake, which includes numerous references—oblique and obvious—to the famed brewery.

 the real thing, in Dublin
make ya thirsty?

So when I saw an article the other day about the brand new “Guinness-flavoured crisps” (potato chips in American parlance), I thought it would go swimmingly with this post. Alas, the reviewer for The Guardian wasn’t too keen on the new crisps:
[T]hese fried spuds taste of roast beef and Bovril, and, at the same time, an almost milk chocolate sweetness. It’s not unpleasant and the crisps do boast a sound crunch...but, for all that tinkering with cocoa, yeast extract and “barley malt extract powder” the end product bears about as much relation to Guinness as wine gums do to chablis.
Nevertheless, I’d still like to try them. Too bad they’re only being marketed to date in British pubs.


  1. Leslie, I've been a big fan of Amanda Cross/Carolyn Heilbrun from way back and though I don't recall the mystery aspect as being particularly fascinating, I always loved the way she wove the literary element or the feminist element or the academic element into her stories and gave me food for thought. Her essays as literary critic were a treasure as well, and just really loved the way she thought about things. Which is why I was particularly sad that she went through with her suicide decision. There is something in that that smacked of being altogether too rational to me. Not that I blame her exactly, but I would have liked to know what she would have said about 77 and beyond.

  2. I agree, Seana, about the loss we all suffered by not having her continue to live and write about "old age." But I wonder about her decision being "rational." If she was in good health and of sound mind and not depressed, one does wonder why she decided to end her life. It's what makes "Harold and Maude" such a great film--by making the viewer ponder this exact same question.

  3. I don't really mean to deny her the choice. She apparently had thought about it for a long time. I do think she could be ultra rational. One of her books talks about why Kate Fansler didn't feel obligated towards her nieces and nephews in the way society dictates. I understood the logic, but I also felt like it denied another order of things, which is that we try to help the next generation whether they like us or understand us or not.

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