Mary Cybulski/Cinemax
Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Interview: The Knick Creators Amiel and Begler

Mary Cybulski/Cinemax
Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Jack Amiel and Michael Begler co-created The Knick, a medical drama starring Clive Owen and directed by Steven Soderbergh. Set in 1900, the show follows life and death in a New York hospital. Oh yeah, and the main character is a surgeon who happens to be addicted to cocaine.

First up, here's a brief preview to give you a taste of what the show is like (note, some surgical gore and mild early-episode spoilers are here):

Where to watch The Knick: Fridays at 10pm on Cinemax. You can catch up on clips on The Knick's website.

If you're into medical history, check out our interview with Dr. Stanley Burns, medical advisor to The Knick.

A Gut Feeling

Chris Higgins: Where did the idea for The Knick come from?

Michael Begler: The idea stems from health issues I was going through at the time. I was having some issues with my gut, and I was going down the roads of traditional medicine and alternative treatments. There were points where I was really amazed at what medical science had figured out, and other points I was really frustrated about what they still didn't know. Jack was privy to all of my health issues, and I wasn't shy—

Jack Amiel: We were like two old Jewish men, "Let me tell you, I tried this, I tried that! You know the doctor said I have to bring a stool sample in?!" Literally we're like two old Jews in Palm Beach.

Jack Amiel (left) and Michael Begler (right) on set. in the operating theater / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Begler: Yeah. But that also got us asking questions like, "Why do you know anything at any given point? What is the trajectory of knowledge in general?" And so purely out of curiosity we went onto eBay, we found a couple of medical textbooks from 1900, because I was also asking the question, "Well, what would I have done a hundred years ago?" What would my options have been? Because everything is at my fingertips now. [...]

So we bought these books and the minute we opened them, it was a treasure chest. It was so endlessly fascinating to us, and we were emailing and texting each other like, "I can't believe this fact I found." And so we knew that there was something special here in an era that hadn't been explored in television.

[... That] was the jumping-off point, and then we [started] to look at, "Well what was the world like in 1900?" And from that we learned so much more, and saw, again, an endless wealth of fascinating stories in a time of enormous change, and not only in medicine but in the country.

Amiel: I think for us the era is also fascinating because you're coming out of the Victorian era, you're coming to modern America. America is emerging as the world power. You know, it is in this era that we first project our military power across the world, we are suddenly at the forefront of invention, whether it's the phonograph, or the wax recorder, perfecting the light bulb, electrifying the telephone, we're working on the automobile.

So it is a time of amazing technological advancements, and you also have a country that is looking towards medicine for the same advancements. Suddenly you have X-rays. Suddenly you have electricity that can be used within medicine. Suddenly you have ether that can safely put someone under, and safely wake them up. You understand germ theory now, so you can at least try to mitigate infections. All of these modern advances were allowing doctors to try new things and experiment—new understanding of drugs, of chemistry, and pharmacology were allowing you to have new treatments as well. So we thought, "Wow, what an amazing confluence of events that were all coming together at this exact time."

On Medical History

Higgins: So I'm wondering how the research process works, and to what extent the Burns Archive fits into that? Do you start with an invention? Do you start with a story? Both?

Amiel: We went through a lot of procedures. You know, there are some wonderful medical archives online that we were able to go through surgical procedures and to go, "Oh, okay. This is kind of interesting." And [...] they give you the history of the patient—the prognosis, the outcome, how they performed it. So that was really helpful for us because we wanted to be truthful about what the procedure was.

We were very careful to make sure that it was within a year of 1900 on either side. So if it was a procedure that was from 1899 or 1901 we could place it 1900, but other than that we really wouldn't mess around with too much, because we wanted to make sure we were truthful to the era.

So in the pilot episode you saw there was a spinal procedure where someone did a spinal block. [Ed. note: this is a spinal injection of cocaine to numb the lower body, first published in 1899.] [...] Michael found that, and he was like, "You're not going to believe what they did!" We loved the confluence of cocaine being used for its intended purpose as a numbing agent as opposed to Thackery's purpose, which is to embolden him and allow him the stamina to continue on in a life like his. [...]

The Burns Archive was helpful to us because there are some things [later in the season] that we saw and that are directly from things that [Dr. Burns] talked about. And what Dr. Burns does sometimes is he'll be telling one story and then he'll throw out a piece of information that's tangential to that first story, and you'll go, "No, no, no, go back to the tangent! Go back to the tangent. Wait a second. What?" And then you go, "Okay. We need that. We're going to use that. I don't know where, I don't know when, but we're going to use that." And then you say, "Oh, do you have a picture of this?" And he goes, "Do I have a picture of it?" He'll go to a file and there will be 150 different pictures of that particular malady, or problem, or surgery.

Viewing a stereoscopic photograph / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

He also showed us these—you'll see them in the later episodes—the doctors used stereoscopic cameras, and they basically used them in conjunction with a surgery-by-numbers triptych kind of notebook. We use that as well, and Dr. Burns has an amazing collection that a surgeon made who wanted to chronicle every one of his surgeries, or at least every type of procedure. [...]

Begler: [...] We loved the idea of marrying what was going on technologically with the procedure. So for example, at the end of the pilot they get electricity in the hospital, and we said, "It would be great to use this new technology in a surgical procedure." So we would then research and try and find, well, how did [doctors] use electricity? And that's how we came across the aortic aneurysm using the galvanic procedure, and you know sometimes it works really well, as you see in the episode, and sometimes it doesn't work at all and it's quite tragic, as you also see.

The first time we went to see Dr. Burns...his brownstone is covered from the basement to the roof with photographs. He has something like a million photographs from this era. I mean, he's the world's most specific hoarder. He showed us a photograph from the turn of the century of a black surgeon in Paris, who was the lead surgeon in a surgical theater, and he's surrounded by an entire white staff of doctors and nurses. This is basically the only photograph in existence of this, but it affirmed what we had created. Now granted, Jack and I had done our research, and we knew that African Americans would go over to Europe, and they could study, and they could work alongside these [white] doctors, but here was the proof, and so that really felt like we were on to something.


Higgins: I'm wondering what it's like to run a show with a single director for the whole season, and I gather that you have a second season coming. But I'm wondering, when you start shooting, how many scripts are complete? And what's it like having a single director, a single shooter, a single editor, and that person being Steven Soderbergh?

Amiel: Let me try to answer those in pieces. [...] The easy answer is, we had all ten [scripts] done early. We basically got the green light in mid-June [2013] that we were going to do this, and Steven said, "Okay, We're shooting in late August, early September." [...] At that point we only had really one or two scripts, but we knew where we wanted to take it. So we sat down with Steven in New York and we plotted out what we wanted to do in terms of the ten episodes, in a very sketchy way, but we understood what the arc was, and we broke it down in a way that each story flowed like a movie. So everyone gets an arc, everyone gets to start in one place and end in another.

So it really did break out like a ten-hour movie broken into hour-long segments. Then we had to go off and write an outline, as quickly as we could, to get to the network because we wanted their [go-ahead] as quickly as possible. So within four or five days we had about a 65-70 page outline. Every scene, every character, every location all figured out. [We] got that to the network, and then we started writing, and Michael and I blasted through.

Steven Soderbergh on set / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

We have a supervising producer, Steven Katz, who was a friend of Steven Soderbergh and Greg Jacobs, our executive producer, who had a really good knowledge of this era, because we didn't have time to catch anybody up. You know, we didn't have time to take somebody from 2013 and say, "Here. Catch up. Learn everything that we've learned over the last six months, now." We just didn't have time. Luckily Steven Katz knew all of that, really knew a tremendous amount about the era because he had written other things in this era, so we blasted through. We wrote ten episodes and they were written and rewritten. We never had a table read. We had to trust that 20-something years of us doing this, and Steven's ear, and Greg Jacobs's ear, and the actors—[we had to trust] that we were getting it right on the page. [...]

We cross-boarded it, which means instead of shooting episode one, then episode two, then episode three—which isn't terribly efficient—you could shoot scenes from four different episodes in a day if they all happen to be in one location. [It's] much harder on the actors, but it's a very efficient way of shooting, and so that was how we shot.


In terms of having Steven Soderbergh, it's like winning the Powerball ten times. I mean the fact that he would do the pilot would have made us jump for joy. The fact that he did all ten, and that you're getting this extraordinary signature filmmaker's vision was absolutely extraordinary. I don't think we could have been more thrilled in our lives, and to feel that lucky, and to feel like all we had to worry about was the words, and the stories, and the characters, and Steven was going to put his spin on it, his take on it, put his brilliance on it, and elevate it. Everything he does elevates the piece. [...]

Steven's thing is that he trusts everyone to do their job. He does four jobs—at least four jobs—on the set, so if you only have one job, you are trying your level best to make sure you do it really well. So everybody brings their A game. [...] So it frees us up to only worry about the things that we want to focus on: the writing, and the story, and the characters, and the words, and the settings, and everyone else comes in and makes us look really, really good.

A Medical Drama on Cable TV

Higgins: When I think about putting a medical drama on cable TV, that opens some doors. You have the latitude on cable to show gore, but you also have the latitude to show sex, and at least in the seven episodes I've seen there's a lot of gore, in the context of operations, and it seems realistic. There is a little bit of violence, and there's very little sexuality, I mean relative to any typical cable TV drama, and I'm curious if you want to talk a little bit about that choice? Like, was that a hard sale to say, "This is a medical drama where we're going to show the medical stuff, and that's going to be gritty, and no, we're not going to have a lot of sexposition."

Begler: We just wanted to tell the stories that we wanted to tell. [...] Yes, you're given freedom on cable, but we interpreted that freedom for the stories we wanted to tell. We didn't feel like we needed to add anything just because we were allowed to. If the stories involved any sort of sexuality, or sex, then we'll throw it in there. But we felt that this is about a hospital, first and foremost, and this is about medicine, and it's about the progression of medicine, and it's about racism, and it's about sexism, and those social issues were more important to us than just having a bunch of naked bodies. And again if it lends itself to the story, we put it in. But I don't think that we felt like, okay, we need to check this off our list, and make sure in each episode we're showing breasts, or genitalia. You know? Now granted, with the opening shot, two seconds in, here comes a naked woman, but I think that it was just the way we broke out the story. We figured, this stuff is so entirely interesting on its own that we don't need to spice it up.

Clive Owen, in surgery / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Amiel: [...] If you want to separate it out to something like cursing, some characters will curse. The ambulance driver, Cleary, curses every third word. Even our rough-and-tumble nun, when she's alone with Cleary, might curse, but she's not going to curse around children. She's not going to curse in her capacity as a nun. [Dr.] Algernon [Edwards] is not going to curse around white people because he wants to be seen a certain way, and he's not going to act in any way that compromises the idea of his propriety, and his...I suppose elegance would be the word because when I think of Andre [Holland], I think of elegance. And perhaps if that character, Dr. Edwards, was sitting around with black people, when he was comfortable, and he wasn't feeling judged, he might curse.

So you have to decide when and where you're going to use the things you can use, and does it fit the character. Does it fit what's going on? We didn't want to be gratuitous about it because, just because you can do it, sometimes you lose what the scene's is about if there's a boob hanging out there. You know? You do. Now you're just going, "Hey, look. I'm looking at a boob." [...] So for would have been easy just to throw in sex but that's just not the story we wanted to tell.

Andre Holland, reviewing surgery / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

An Era of Power Differences

Higgins: To me, all good period pieces deal with the racial, the sexual, and the economic situation of the leads situated in their time. And that situation is often very grim, right? So in this series you've got leads who are black, you've got various women, you've got people who are in challenging positions. Now knowing that it's set in or around 1900, I don't know a lot of watershed moments that are about to come up that are going to make the lives of these people substantially easier. Is there anything I should be watching for, as we head into a second season, or the last three of this season, to see major moments when any of these issues get a lot better?

Amiel: First of all, this is an era about power differences, and about entitlement, and if these people's lives are difficult—if you're an African American who's done everything you can to educate yourself as a surgeon, and you are mightily deserving of a chance to practice your trade in the highest echelons of society, and you're being denied that chance because of race? Well, that's the truth of this era. We are 47 years from somebody allowing Jackie Robinson to throw a baseball with white people. So the idea of a black man with a scalpel coming towards someone and saying, "I'm going to heal you," we're not going to pretend that that wasn't an extraordinarily new and difficult situation. You have all of these poor immigrants pouring into America. There's a massive gap between rich and poor.

The rich are the old, moneyed, entitled white protestant males, and they're watching their country slip away from them because suddenly you've got Catholics, and Irish Catholics and Italian Catholics, coming into the country and changing the demographics of the nation. You've got Jews coming in, and you've got people from all over the world saying, "Oh there's that beacon on the hill." So into this mix pours all of these people who just want a shot at this American dream that they've heard so much about. You've got blacks coming from the south saying, "We're not going to be treated poorly anymore." The Irish coming from Ireland saying, "We're not going to be treated poorly by the British anymore." You've got Jews saying, "We're not going to be treated poorly in Eastern Europe anymore." You've got rural whites saying, "I want a shot at economic prosperity in the big city."

Cara Seymour (Sister Harriet) and Chris Sullivan (Cleary) / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

So I don't think you should be looking for it to get better. I think you should be looking for how this pot gets stirred. Because you've got these women [...]—we're talking about women who don't have a lot of options. They can work as a seamstress at a sweatshop. They can work as a nurse, if they're lucky, or a nanny, if they're lucky, but for the most part there are very few options available to women, which is why prostitution was a giant business in New York City. It was estimated that there were between 30 and 40 thousand prostitutes in New York. There were brothels all over the Tenderloin and all over the city because that was one of the only ways for women to make a living. So we're not going to solve the ills of society. I think what we're going to do is we're going to see people trying to survive in spite of them and try to get an incremental step forward in their own situation.

[Pauses] That was long, wasn't it?

Clive Owen displays an X-ray / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Higgins: No, it's good. This is a quickie, but my family, for a few generations, is from West Virginia. I notice you have Nurse Elkins who's also from West Virginia. Any chance you're going to explore West Virginia stuff in the future?

Michael Belger: I don't think we're going to go there. I'm sure we will look more into Lucy, Lucy's life, in particular. Well start to learn more about who she is and where she's from, and that's all I can really say about that.

Amiel: And I think she's representative of rural whites coming to the big city for the adventure and the excitement. They may have one idea of what the city is, and they might have one idea of who they are when they get there, but there is such adventure in Manhattan at this point in time. As much as they don't want to admit it, they're there to ride that rollercoaster. Sometimes it's "be careful what you wish for," because the ride gets pretty exciting.

No One Forgot Hammerstein

Higgins: How do you guys decide whose name goes first when you're credited as, you know, Amiel and Begler?

Amiel: It's done by weight. I'm much heavier than Michael.

Amiel: It's just alphabetical.

Begler: It's just alphabetical.

Higgins: Well, yeah, obviously it's alphabetical, but I mean did you have to fight this out amongst you, or you just decided that's how it was going to be?

Begler: No. It's never been an issue. I've never felt like my name has to come before his, never.

Amiel: He should have gone for someone whose last name was Charles, or Dandy, or something. Unfortunately he partnered with someone whose last name just happened to begin with an A. But it's not like anyone forgot Hammerstein because Rodgers came first.

Higgins: Is there anything you can or want to say about the remainder of this season, or the next season?

Amiel: Well, a nuclear bomb hits, and it's really weird because we're about 40 years before they were invented. So that's about it. Did I give away too much?

Begler: I think the ride just continues to get crazier, and you've seen through [episode] seven, I think the speed picks up in eight, nine, and ten. I really like the way it arcs. And then we kind of take off to a whole new place in season two, but we want to keep all of the details to ourselves.

Higgins: All right.

Amiel: I think there has been a lot of focus in the first episode about the gore and I think that going forward there's less gore. I think it's less about the visual craziness in the procedure, there are moments, but—

Begler: I don't know. There's stuff coming up—

Amiel: There is stuff, but I think initially it's shocking, but I think it will normalize for people and that they'll go, "Oh, it's just part of the show." You know? I think people become much more used to the blood and the guts.

Operating equipment / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Higgins: Yeah. It normalized for me, for what it's worth. Initially I thought, "Wow," and then within 45 minutes I thought, "Okay. I get what's going on here." And it really doesn't seem gory or violent, especially in the context of cable television.

Begler: No. Because, again, we don't feel as gratuitous, we just feel it's authentic, and I think maybe that's the difference, you know we're not slashing people open, we're just showing the reality. Sometimes the reality is actually harder to take than somebody taking an axe and chopping somebody in half.

Amiel: Yeah. There's nothing cartoony about our blood or our guts, so perhaps you can watch Freddy Krueger do something and go, "Oh yeah, whatever. That's phony." But ours feels very, very real, and maybe that's why it's so visceral.

Where to watch The Knick: Fridays at 10pm on Cinemax. You can catch up on clips on The Knick's website. If you're into The Knick or medical history, check out our interview with Dr. Stanley Burns, medical advisor to the show.

Michael Bowles, Getty Images for Sotheby's
Marie Antoinette's Jewelry Is Up for Sale
Michael Bowles, Getty Images for Sotheby's
Michael Bowles, Getty Images for Sotheby's

Rare jewelry that once belonged to Marie Antoinette and hasn't been seen in public for 200 years will be heading to the auction block this fall, according to The Adventurine.

A diamond parure (jewelry set), three-strand pearl necklace, and other gems that once adorned the last queen of France will be sold on November 12 in Geneva, Switzerland, as part of Sotheby's "Royal Jewels from the Bourbon-Parma Family" auction. The family in question is related by blood to some of Europe's most important rulers, including former kings of France and Spain and emperors of Austria.

A diamond jewelry set
Courtesy of Sotheby's

Although Marie Antoinette was known for her opulent fashion choices, her jewels have scarcely been seen since the French Revolution, The Adventurine reports. The Smithsonian owns a pair of earrings that are believed to contain diamonds from the queen's collection, and a diamond necklace that appeared at a Christie's auction in 1971 "hasn't been seen since." The jewelry magazine notes that many of Marie Antoinette's jewels were dismantled, but a few—like the ones featured in this latest collection—managed to survive.

A pearl necklace
Courtesy of Sotheby's

According to Sotheby's, Marie Antoinette placed all her jewels in a wooden chest in March 1791 and shipped them off to her nephew, the Austrian Emperor, for safekeeping [PDF]. That following year, the royal family was imprisoned, and in 1793 Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVII were executed by guillotine. Their only surviving child, Marie Thérèse de France, retrieved the jewels and later passed them along to her niece, since she had no children of her own. They ultimately ended up with Robert I, the last ruling Duke of Parma in Italy.

The most valuable piece, a pearl pendant featuring a bow made of diamonds, is expected to fetch between $1 million and $2 million, according to the auction house's estimates. In the late 18th century, pearls were just as coveted as diamonds because of their rarity. Marie Antoinette, of course, wore them often.

A diamond and pearl pendant
Courtesy of Sotheby's

"It is one of the most important royal jewelry collections ever to appear on the market and each and every jewel is absolutely imbued with history," Daniela Mascetti, of Sotheby's European jewelry division, said in a statement.

[h/t The Adventurine]

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
12 Facts About James Joyce
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

June 16, 1904 is the day that James Joyce, the Irish author of Modernist masterpieces like Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and who was described as “a curious mixture of sinister genius and uncertain talent,” set his seminal work, Ulysses. It also thought to be the day that he had his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle.

He was as mythical as the myths he used as the foundations for his own work. So in honor of that June day in 1904—known to fans worldwide as “Bloomsday,” after one of the book’s protagonists, Leopold Bloom—here are 12 facts about James Joyce.


In 1891, shortly after he had to leave Clongowes Wood College when his father lost his job, 9-year-old Joyce wrote a poem called “Et Tu Healy?” It was published by his father John and distributed to friends; the elder Joyce thought so highly of it, he allegedly sent copies to the Pope.

No known complete copies of the poem exist, but the precocious student’s verse allegedly denounced a politician named Tim Healy for abandoning 19th century Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell after a sex scandal. Fragments of the ending of the poem, later remembered by James’s brother Stanislaus, showed Parnell looking down on Irish politicians:

His quaint-perched aerie on the crags of Time
Where the rude din of this century
Can trouble him no more

While the poem was seemingly quaint, young Joyce equating Healy as Brutus and Parnell as Caesar marked the first time he’d use old archetypes in a modern context, much in the same way Ulysses is a unique retelling of The Odyssey.

As an adult, Joyce would publish his first book, a collection of poems called Chamber Music, in 1907. It was followed by Dubliners, a collection of short stories, in 1914, and the semi-autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (in which Clongowes Wood College is prominently featured) in 1916.


While attending University College Dublin, Joyce attempted to publish a negative review—titled “The Day of the Rabblement”—of a new local playhouse called the Irish Literary Theatre in the school’s paper, St. Stephen’s. Joyce’s condemnation of the theater’s “parochialism” was allegedly so scathing that the paper’s editors, after seeking consultation from one of the school’s priests, refused to print it.

Incensed about possible censorship, Joyce appealed to the school’s president, who sided with the editors—which prompted Joyce to put up his own money to publish 85 copies to be distributed across campus.

The pamphlet, published alongside a friend’s essay to beef up the page-count, came with the preface: “These two essays were commissioned by the editor of St. Stephen’s for that paper, but were subsequently refused insertion by the censor.” It wouldn’t be the last time Joyce would fight censorship.


By the time Nora Barnacle and Joyce finally married in 1931, they had lived together for 27 years, traveled the continent and had two children. The couple first met in Dublin in 1904 when Joyce struck up a conversation with her near the hotel where Nora worked as a chambermaid. She initially mistook him for a Swedish sailor because of his blue eyes and the yachting cap he wore that day, and he charmed her so much that they set a date for June 14—but she didn’t show.

He then wrote her a letter, saying, “I looked for a long time at a head of reddish-brown hair and decided it was not yours. I went home quite dejected. I would like to make an appointment but it might not suit you. I hope you will be kind enough to make one with me—if you have not forgotten me!” This led to their first date, which supposedly took place on June 16, 1904.

She would continue to be his muse throughout their life together in both his published work (the character Molly Bloom in Ulysses is based on her) and their fruitful personal correspondence. Their notably dirty love letters to each other—featuring him saying their love-making reminded him of “a hog riding a sow” and signing off one by saying “Goodnight, my little farting Nora, my dirty littlef**kbird!"—have highlighted the NSFW nature of their relationship. In fact, one of Joyce’s signed erotic letters to Nora fetched a record £240,800 ($446,422) at a London auction in 2004.


While Joyce’s persistent money problems caused him to lead a life of what could be categorized as creative discomfort, he had to deal with a near lifetime of medical discomfort as well. Joyce suffered from anterior uveitis, which led to a series of around 12 eye surgeries over his lifetime. (Due to the relatively unsophisticated state of ophthalmology at the time, and his decision not to listen to contemporary medical advice, scholars speculate that his iritis, glaucoma, and cataracts could have been caused by sarcoidosis, syphilis, tuberculosis, or any number of congenital problems.) His vision issues caused Joyce to wear an eye patch for years and forced him to do his writing on large white sheets of paper using only red crayon. The persistent eye struggles even inspired him to name his daughter Lucia, after St. Lucia, patron saint of the blind.


In 1904, Joyce—eager to get out of Ireland—responded to an ad for a teaching position in Europe. Evelyn Gilford, a job agent based in the British town of Market Rasen, Lincolnshire, notified Joyce that a job was reserved for him and, for two guineas, he would be told exactly where the position was. Joyce sent the money, and by the end of 1904, he and his future wife, Nora, had left Dublin for the job at a Berlitz language school in Zurich, Switzerland—but when they got there, the pair learned there was no open position. But they did hear a position was open at a Berlitz school in Trieste, Italy. The pair packed up and moved on to Italy only to find out they’d been swindled again.

Joyce eventually found a Berlitz teaching job in Pola in Austria-Hungary (now Pula, Croatia). English was one of 17 languages Joyce could speak; others included Arabic, Sanskrit, Greek, and Italian (which eventually became his preferred language, and one that he exclusively spoke at home with his family). He also loved playwright Henrik Ibsen so much that he learned Norwegian so that he could read Ibsen's works in their original form—and send the writer a fan letter in his native tongue.


There are about 400 movie theaters in Ireland today, but they trace their history back to 1909, when Joyce helped open the Volta Cinematograph, which is considered “the first full-time, continuous, dedicated cinema” in Ireland.

More a money-making scheme than a product of a love of cinema, Joyce first got the idea when he was having trouble getting Dubliners published and noticed the abundance of cinemas while living in Trieste. When his sister, Eva, told him Ireland didn’t have any movie theaters, Joyce joined up with four Italian investors (he’d get 10 percent of the profits) to open up the Volta on Dublin’s Mary Street.

The venture fizzled as quickly as Joyce’s involvement. After not attracting audiences due to mostly showing only Italian and European movies unpopular with everyday Dubliners, Joyce cut his losses and pulled out of the venture after only seven months.

The cinema itself didn’t close until 1919, during the time Joyce was hard at work on Ulysses. (It reopened with a different name in 1921 and didn’t fully close until 1948.)


The publishing history of Ulysses is itself its own odyssey. Joyce began writing the work in 1914, and by 1918 he had begun serializing the novel in the American magazine Little Review with the help of poet Ezra Pound.

But by 1921, Little Review was in financial trouble. The published version of Episode 13 of Ulysses, “Nausicaa,” resulted in a costly obscenity lawsuit against its publishers, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, and the book was banned in the United States. Joyce appealed to different publishers for help—including Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press—but none agreed to take on a project with such legal implications (and in Virginia Woolf’s case, length), no matter how supposedly groundbreaking it was.

Joyce, then based in Paris, made friends with Sylvia Beach, whose bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, was a gathering hub for the post-war expatriate creative community. In her autobiography, Beach wrote:

All hope of publication in the English-speaking countries, at least for a long time to come, was gone. And here in my little bookshop sat James Joyce, sighing deeply.

It occurred to me that something might be done, and I asked : “Would you let Shakespeare and Company have the honour of bringing out your Ulysses?”

He accepted my offer immediately and joyfully. I thought it rash of him to entrust his great Ulysses to such a funny little publisher. But he seemed delighted, and so was I. ... Undeterred by lack of capital, experience, and all the other requisites of a publisher, I went right ahead with Ulysses.

Beach planned a first edition of 1000 copies (with 100 signed by the author), while the book would continue to be banned in a number of countries throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Eventually it was allowed to be published in the United States in 1933 after the case United States v. One Book Called Ulysses deemed the book not obscene and allowed it in the United States.


Ernest Hemingway—who was major champion of Ulysses—met Joyce at Shakespeare and Company, and was later a frequent companion among the bars of Paris with writers like Wyndham Lewis and Valery Larbaud.

Hemingway recalled the Irish writer would start to get into drunken fights and leave Hemingway to deal with the consequences. "Once, in one of those casual conversations you have when you're drinking," Hemingway said, "Joyce said to me he was afraid his writing was too suburban and that maybe he should get around a bit and see the world. He was afraid of some things, lightning and things, but a wonderful man. He was under great discipline—his wife, his work and his bad eyes. His wife was there and she said, yes, his work was too suburban--'Jim could do with a spot of that lion hunting.' We would go out to drink and Joyce would fall into a fight. He couldn't even see the man so he'd say, 'Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!'"


Marcel Proust’s gargantuan, seven-volume masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu, is perhaps the other most important Modernist work of the early 20th century besides Ulysses. In May 1922, the authors met at a party for composer Igor Stravinsky and ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev in Paris. The Dubliners author arrived late, was drunk, and wasn’t wearing formal clothes because he was too poor to afford them. Proust arrived even later than Joyce, and though there are varying accounts of what was actually said between the two, every known version points to a very anticlimactic meeting of the minds.

According to author William Carlos Williams, Joyce said, “I’ve headaches every day. My eyes are terrible,” to which the ailing Proust replied, “My poor stomach. What am I going to do? It’s killing me. In fact, I must leave at once.”

Publisher Margaret Anderson claimed that Proust admitted, “I regret that I don’t know Mr. Joyce’s work,” while Joyce replied, “I have never read Mr. Proust.”

Art reviewer Arthur Power said both writers simply talked about liking truffles. Joyce later told painter Frank Budgen, “Our talk consisted solely of the word ‘No.’”


Joyce had a childhood fear of thunder and lightning, which sprang from his Catholic governess’s pious warnings that such meteorological occurrences were actually God manifesting his anger at him. The fear haunted the writer all his life, though Joyce recognized the beginnings of his phobia. When asked by a friend why he was so afraid of rough weather, Joyce responded, “You were not brought up in Catholic Ireland.”

The fear also manifested itself in Joyce’s writing. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the autobiographical protagonist Stephen Dedalus says he fears “dogs, horses, firearms, the sea, thunderstorms, [and] machinery.”

But the most fascinating manifestation of his astraphobia is in his stream of consciousness swan song, Finnegans Wake, where he created the 100-letter word Bababadalgharaghtaka-mminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk to represent a symbolic biblical thunderclap. The mouthful is actually made up of different words for “thunder” in French (tonnerre), Italian (tuono), Greek (bronte), and Japanese (kaminari).


Fellow Modernist Virginia Woolf didn't much care for Joyce or his work. She compared his writing to "a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples," and said that "one hopes he’ll grow out of it; but as Joyce is 40 this scarcely seems likely."

She wasn't the only one. In a letter, D.H. Lawrence—who wrote such classics as Women in Love and Lady Chatterley’s Loversaid of Joyce: “My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is! Nothing but old fags and cabbage stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest stewed in the juice of deliberate, journalistic dirty-mindedness.”

“Do I get much pleasure from this work? No," author H.G. Wells wrote in his review of Finnegans Wake. “ ... Who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousand I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?”

Even his partner Nora had a difficult time with his work, saying after the publication of Ulysses, “Why don’t you write sensible books that people can understand?”


Joyce was admitted to a Zurich hospital in January 1941 for a perforated duodenal ulcer, but slipped into a coma after surgery and died on January 13. His last words were befitting his notoriously difficult works—they're said to have been, "Does nobody understand?"

Additional Source: James Joyce


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