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Monday, November 9, 2009

James JoyceWhile GUD was busy with #gudhalloween, another important event was taking place--Great Irish Book Week. So we've invited Paul Bryant to write a few words about possibly the greatest Irish writer of them all--James Joyce. Born in Dublin in 1882, Joyce grew up in an improvident Catholic family; as an adult, he supported himself first by teaching and then through patronage, the time-honoured way of being creative without starving in the process.

James Joyce, by Paul Bryant

James Joyce was the poster boy for the avant-garde no-compromise artist who never had a day job and lived his whole life on handouts from his brother and a few rich people. At the same time, he lived a life of utter bourgeois conformity--no drugs, no affairs, no bizarre sex life. Oh, well, okay, he did have a very scatological, voyeuristic, underwear-fetishistic, masochistic fantasy life--good thing the internet wasn’t around in 1904, or he’d never have got anything done at all. Because of the permanent lack of ready cash he dragged his family from one cheap flat to another and from one European town to the next, all the while completely confident he was one of the great geniuses of literature, which he was. No one ever doubted it.

I’m not so much a Joyce fan as a Ulysses fan. Dubliners is okay but painful and imbued with a sense that you’re meant to assume or know more than what’s on the page. John Gross precisely describes its language as mimicking "the moral conditions which it describes by means of strategically-placed cliches, shabby-genteel euphemisms, jog-trot repetitions". Not hard to believe then that the stories are as jolly as the onset of toothache. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is also painful but the language is intense, as is the boring hero Stephen Dedalus. It’s an autobiographical novel all about religious oppression and artistic hubris and it’s been a while since those particular themes made my heart sing. But Ulysses is the most outrageous, most beautiful, and funniest novel ever, so Joyce is forgiven for his portrait of himself as a young arse.

Joyce took his own sweet time producing his works and apart from a few poems and a play, there are only four: Dubliners, Portrait, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. He had a slash and burn attitude to literature--after Dubliners, no more short stories; after Portrait, no more conventional narrative; after Ulysses, no more English language. He ended up too radical even for the serious people from whose hands he fed. After the first couple of parts of FW were issued in pamphlets, they were walking around in a daze; they were on their knees--no more of this please Mr Joyce!

Note: Here’s a painless way to get a flavour of FW--Joyce himself reading a section:

His brother wrote:

"I don’t know whether the drivelling written with the deliberate intention of pulling the reader’s leg or not...Or perhaps--a sadder supposition--it is the beginning of softening of the brain."

but Joyce took no notice and carried on his by now completely incomprehensible way for another sixteen years and though nobody understood a word of what he was writing they continued to pay him; that’s how much they knew he was a genius.

You can’t read Ulysses without some kind of guide. Joyce bragged that his book would keep the professors busy for a hundred years and he wasn’t wrong. He stuffed it full of everything and recast the everything into such sentences as:

Moving through the air high spars of a threemaster, her sails brailed up on the cross-trees, homing, upstream, silently moving, a silent ship.


Books you were going to write with letters for titles. Have you read his F? O yes, but I prefer Q. Yes, but W is wonderful. O yes, W.


In Rodot's Yvonne and Madeleine newmake their tumbled beauties, shattering with gold teeth chaussons of pastry, their mouths yellowed with the pus of flan breton.


Time they were stopping up in the City Arms Pisser Burke told me there was an old one there with a cracked loodheramaun of a nephew and Bloom trying to get the soft side of her doing the mollycoddle playing bézique to come in for a bit of the wampum in her will and not eating meat of a Friday because the old one was always thumping her craw and taking the lout out for a walk.

How radical is Ulysses? Very. Usually, brilliant innovators get their ideas stolen and watered down and recycled, like Impressionist paintings appearing on chocolate boxes, but eighty years have not diminished the strangeness and monumental technical daring of Ulysses. It changes style usually every chapter but sometimes twenty times within a single chapter. It has pages of stream of consciousness. It tries to be honest about the way people actually think and what they do--Bloom has a shit & later fondles himself as he has a bath & later still fondles himself again as he contemplates a teenage girl, but Joyce is presenting him as just an ordinary guy doing ordinary things. And this offended many people and got Ulysses banned for years. Joyce said, "If Ulysses isn’t fit to read, life isn’t fit to live".

Also, I should point out, it has no story (for all its seven-hundred-and-fifty pages). Well, the story is Bloom and Stephen have slightly trying days and meet by chance in a pub late at night and Bloom, seeing the young man is somewhat drunk, offers to put him up for the night. End. Nobody gets married, nobody dies, nothing to see here, go on home. The whole seven-hundred-and-fifty pages take place over about eighteen hours and within that short span it tries to cram everything in. It is written with the most extraordinary language about the most ordinary things. It has the nerve to celebrate the mundane. It’s a paradox--the most artificial book but practically everything in it is real. The characters were based on Joyce’s acquaintance, all the events happened, the dialogue is as Joyce remembered it. And yet the book has many secret patterns and schemes hidden inside it, invisible to the naked eye, counterpointing the diurnal and the eternal, pedestrians and gods. It’s an encyclopedia of the ways language can be used, it’s exhausting and thrilling and if I were an author I’d never ever go anywhere near it--it would depress me too much.

A final word about Finnegans wake, the one nobody reads:

There are three great books on literary obsession I’ve come across--Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dwyer, about D H Lawrence, U and I by Nicholson Baker, about John Updike, and the third is The Finnegans Wake Experience by Roland McHugh, in which McHugh details his lunatic quest to read FW "properly". This begins with him devoting "almost three years" to reading Finnegans Wake and nothing but Finnegans Wake. "Having initially read through any chapter I would spend a week or two repeating the process and then make a frontal assault with dictionaries...I began to annotate my copy of Finnegans Wake. I transferred information to it in very small writing, using a mapping pen. I could actually get two lines of writing between every two Finnegans Wake lines and I used twelve colours of ink to specify different languages." The message is clear--if you meet a Joyce fan even remotely like Roland, back slowly away.

Paul Bryant--lives in Nottingham, England, a leafy paradise
--has one thirteen-year-old daughter who is a Beatles fan due to extensive brainwashing
--is currently employed in a large office with only one window which has sturdy bars on it

- reddit, digg, facebook, stumbleupon, etc... please! ;)
posted by Debbie

3 comments; 4 subscribers

Tuesday, November 10, 2009 / 08:57:11
I've never read any Joyce, but I wanted to mention that I thought this essay was excellent, and that it makes me WANT to read Joyce. Or Ulysses, anyway. :)
Wednesday, November 11, 2009 / 05:24:18
Friday, November 13, 2009 / 19:18:18
"The Dead" is, perhaps, my favorite story. At least it is today.

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