Monday, March 18, 2013

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Yes, it’s the week of St Patrick’s Day, so I’m writing about the man who is still Ireland’s most contentious writer, the best part of a century after he produced those of his works that are still read. And all I can think about are the various times in my life when this long-dead scribbler has touched me. I give you twelve anecdotes, for twelve is a numinous number and this would have pleased Joyce. They go thus:

First anecdote.

I am thirteen or thereabouts. I have vague feelings about becoming an artist one day. In this spirit, I go to the local library and see a book I have never heard of by a writer I have never heard of. It is James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I think might be relevant to my vague ambitions. But when I get home, my mother seems a little agitated at the sight of the book, and has a hasty conference with my father about it. I can only half hear this. But from his tone, I infer that his attitude is I can read whatever I like, so the matter goes no further. Poor Mum. She might have thought the book would corrupt me. What she didn’t realize was that at the age of thirteen, I had the habit of borrowing grown-up books from the library, but giving up on them after ten or twenty pages. Which I did with this one.

Second anecdote.

Three years later, when I was sixteen and more capable of reading it, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was a set text at Sacred Heart College, the Catholic school I attended in Auckland. Our English teacher was an urbane Marist brother (more urbane than most of his confreres), who was clearly amused that anyone thought this novel a danger to The Faith. As I remember it, the class locked eagerly onto its combination of art, sexual longing and schoolboy lore. And its Catholic milieu. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it thus at the time, but the novel has that spirit of bursting adolescent potentiality – even if of a rather specky intellectual sort – though I’m not sure Joyce ever did “forge on the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race”. He forged European Modernism more like. Years afterwards, upon later readings of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I find myself agreeing with Marshall McLuhan that the hellfire sermon is a damned good sermon.

Third anecdote.

The inevitable experience of seeing Joyce put through the academic wringer, when I did an honours course in English at the University of Auckland. This was my first encounter with Ulysses. I was obsessed with Joseph Conrad at the time and Joyce wasn’t my thing; but reading Dubliners and Ulysses for the first time reinforced my impression that whole swathes of Joyce would never be understood by the non-Catholic. And a man who blasphemed this profoundly (like Baudelaire; like Luis Bunuel) could only be somebody who was still half in love with the church. After all, who but a believer can be bothered to blaspheme?

Fourth anecdote.

And another thing. Marrying into a family of Irish descent put me closer to that combination of piety and unbuttoned lustiness, which is part of the Irish-Catholic patrimony (and matrimony). Molly Bloom is Nora Barnacle is a woman who is just waiting for her grumpy, art-obsessed husband to shuffle off this mortal coil so that she can go back to receiving the sacraments. Much of Brenda Maddox’s book Nora, a biography of Joyce’s wife, is stereotypical feminist whining; but I loved the story of Nora threatening to get the children baptised whenever she wanted to rile poor Jimmy Joyce. And once Jimmy was dead she struck up a friendship with a priest in Zurich, started going to mass again and was buried by the church. Poor Jimmy. His revolt into personalised aesthetic absolutes just led back to Thomas Aquinas.

Fifth anecdote.

Teaching Dubliners to a class of adolescents about twenty-five years ago. Thinking Joyce (like Kafka) was better on the smaller scale than on the larger scale. The short stories were brilliant. Maybe The Dead is his masterpiece. Yes, epiphanies, and not padded out with tediously overlong jokes the way Ulysses is. Kafka, however, knew his limitations. He chose to have published only his best work, the short Metamorphosis, in his lifetime, while his fruitful but raggedy and rambling and unfinished novels (The Trial, The Castle, Amerika) remained unpublished. Joyce, however, had his rambling stuff published. Oh dear. Am I beginning to sound like Joyce’s reproving brother Stanislaus, who thought Joyce’s later writing was a waste? Oh dear!

Sixth anecdote.

I call upon my background as a film reviewer. I saw Strick’s 1960s film of Ulysses. I saw Strick’s 1977 film of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The latter was better than the (godawful) former, but neither adaptation really comes close to what Joyce was on about. Joyce without language (rather than visual images) being given primacy is not Joyce. John Huston’s The Dead was closest to being a valid film of Joyce’s work, but even that made the story a period piece. Give visual images their head and you get the surface and miss the inwardness. The agenbite of inwit. So if you want Joyce, read Joyce. Readjoyce, readjoyce for evermore.

Seventh anecdote.

My wife and I and our youngest son were on a visit to Ireland in 2000. We saw the Dublin street statue of Joyce with his cane (“the prick with the stick” say crude Dubliners). I suggested we take the train to Sandymount and visit the Martello tower. This we did. It was the off-season, so we basically had it to ourselves for a couple of hours. I acted out the wild pistol shooting that drove young Joyce from his bed; and pointed out some other stuff that he later mythologised in the opening of Ulysses. Meanwhile downstairs a specky Irish university student sat at the desk, looking like a young James Joyce. He was acting as curator on what was clearly his holiday job. I doubt if he had been chosen for his looks, but it struck me as a coincidence. If I were Joyce, I would at this point start talking about Vico and the cycles of history.

Eighth anecdote.

Three years later, in 2003, I was back in Dublin on my own, this time because I was researching a biography of Bishop James Michael Liston and had to visit the archives of the Dublin seminary where he studied. Purely by chance, and not because I had planned it, I happened to be there on Bloomsday (or the 99th anniversary thereof – had I been there in 2004 I would have celebrated the centenary). Hastening to an Irish tourist office, I said I was a New Zealander who was planning to write a travel article on Bloomsday – and without further ado or any inquisition, the nice young lady behind the desk said “Press free!” and gave me free tickets to anything I wanted to attend. So, in company with American and European tourists and one vocal Israeli gentleman who fancied himself as Leopold Bloom, I did the guided tour of Glasnevin cemetery, and attended a grumpy lecture by an academic complaining about the copyright hold Joyce’s grandson still had over Joyce’s unpublished papers and went to an outdoors breakfast where we were entertained by people in period costumes and ate a breakfast made of the things Bloom would have eaten. Of course my superior sense rebels. I am aware that literature-based “festivals” like this are places where people who haven’t actually cracked open the books being celebrated use the festival as a substitute for such reading. Do the Bloomsday tour and you don’t actually have to read Ulysses! I know that the first celebration of Bloomsday (a term Joyce didn’t coin, incidentally) was in 1954 and was a simple chummy pub-crawl by such luminaries as Brian O’Nolan (“Flann O’Brien”) and Patrick Kavanagh. Some of these people were appalled by the later commercialisation and touristification of the day, and I’m inclined to agree with them. But before you think I’m a total hypocritical swine, let me point out that upon return to NZ, I did actually make a travel story out of the event, which ran in the old Dominion-Post. So I hadn’t deceived the nice Irish tourist board lady.

Ninth anecdote.

Did you know that James Joyce had a little sister who was a nun in a Mercy Sisters convent in Greymouth? Apparently James Joyce was very fond of this little sister and wrote to her frequently. But when she died, the mother superior had all her letters from him burnt. Before you jump up and down and see this as cultural barbarism (like the 19th century Richard Burton’s widow burning all his exotica and erotica), let me point out that there was nothing vindictive in this action. It was standard operational procedure in a convent. A nun was supposed to be “dead” to the world and all her earthly attachments died with her. The letters of all the nuns were burnt when they died. The calculating part of me remembers how I once tried (unsuccessfully) to barter my knowledge of the nun and the convent into another free ticket to Dublin and its festival. The ironical part heaves a sigh of relief that, with the disappearance of the letters, the world has been spared another PhD thesis on Joyce.

Tenth anecdote.

Is this my ultimate put-down story of Joyce – the story I pull out when I want to say something negative about him? On my shelves, I have a copy of Finnegans Wake. It is an ex-library copy, which I acquired when the Auckland Public Library threw it out. It was printed in 1939, publisher Faber and Faber, so I think it’s a first edition. It is battered. The spine is broken. Clearly, over the years, hundreds of people have checked it out and returned it. The first twenty or so pages of text are falling apart. So many sweaty or soiled fingers have turned them in order to read them over the years. The next fifty of so pages look as if at least some people have used them. And beyond that in this 628-page volume?  The pages are as white and unsullied as they were on the day the book was printed. The inference is fairly obvious. Most people who have tried to read Finnegans Wake have not got beyond the first twenty or so pages, and have then given up. This was my own story when I attempted to read it. Please do not lecture me on the poly-lingual puns, the mass of literary and classical allusions, the wordplay and the scholarship of it. I know. I know. But none of this makes it readable. It is a happy hunting ground for scholars who want to untangle it. But it is still unreadable. And I’m not sure I see the point in a book designed not to be read.

Eleventh anecdote.

And yet, and yet. When I was in Dublin in 2003, there was another event I went to with my freebie tickets. It was a dramatized reading, by two women, of one of the “Anna Livia Plurabella” sections of Finnegans Wake – the part with all those puns on the names of rivers. And it was fun and it was engaging and it actually made some sort of point about universality and the general seen in the particular. A frustrating beggar, Joyce. He could actually do the literary sublime. Perhaps I should next time try Anthony Burgess’s Shorter Finnegans Wake.

Twelfth and final anecdote

In the year 2000, various busybodies and list-makers were compiling lists of “The Best Of…” the 20th century or of the last millennium. My son tells me that Oxbridge students got word that opinion polls suggested tabloid-readers were in danger of voting poor silly Princess Diana as one of the Ten Greatest Britons of All Time. So the students arranged a block vote to head off this inanity, and that is how the 19th century engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel ended up on the final list, and not Princess Diana. In the same fashion, advance word said that J.R.R.Tolkien’s overgrown kiddie fantasy The Lord of the Rings was in danger of being voted top on a list of Ten Greatest English-language Novels of the 20th Century. Another Oxbridge students’ block vote was hastily arranged, and that is how James Joyce’s Ulysses took the top spot. I don’t know why I tell you this, but I thought you’d like to know.


  1. Yet many academics would agree with you now. Valentine Cummingham who has written an excellent study of British Writers of the Thirties does admire "Ulysses" but of "Finnegans Wake" says its multi-lingual puns make it merely a " compendium of clues for compilers of crosswords". And let's face it Anthony Burgess is a coarser version of James Joyce.

  2. Blast! The eagle-eyes Hibernophile Dean Parker has pointed out a factual error in the Ninth Anecdote about James Joyce. He did NOT have a sister who was a Dominican nun in Dunedin - I got my religious orders mixed up. James Joyce's nun-sister was a Sister of Mercy who taught school in Greymouth. Apologies fotr my sloppy research.

  3. I can say with confidence that I read ALL of ‘Finnegans Wake’ in 1966, when I was a very ardent Joyce fan.
    I had borrowed a copy from a book collector and took the good part of a year to plough through it bit by bit. Beforehand I had read several book-length studies and analyses and knew a little of what to expect. I am not sure that, without the scholarly, background knowledge, research, analyses and keys, I would have really picked up that The Wake is really the dream of a publican sleeping upstairs above his bar and mixes images of his wife and children with mythic and historic figures. “Ulysses” was at least anchored in a recognisable Dublin at a specific time. But a formless dream with only itself to refer to …?
    The studies did help me to recognise all the Shaun and Shem and HCE appearances if I was too obtuse to pick them up on my own. Some familiarity with Catholicism enables one to recognise Catholic references and liturgical puns and echoes. I cannot say I feel necessarily the richer or elevated for all that.
    Of course I did not get all the bilingual and multi-layer puns or references by myself –most certainly I missed most. Incidentally “Finnegan’s Wake” does contain many then popular song and musical hall allusions that as time goes by fewer and fewer of the fewer and fewer general readers would get. Heaven forbid if there are any more glosses and footnotes to appear in the future, the way they do with recent Penguin editions of 19th century novels.
    I must say Joyce does create very clever puns and I still enjoy a few in isolation. Alluding to the old WWI popular song “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys are Marching” he turns into “Vamp, Vamp, Vamp, the Girls are Mating”. Very evocative is his reference to “alfresco lawn tennis son” because one pictures a daguerreotype of Victorians clutching tennis rackets with one gentleman reclining on his elbow at their feet. There is a nice jig rhythm in “The ring words in the rite shop and the rong words in the rote order”
    That is the most infuriating thing about Joyce. He could write very well indeed. I consider that the final paragraph of “The Dead” in “Dubliners’ is one of the most beautiful and poetical and a story conclusion for anyone to be proud of.
    So one cannot reject James Joyce totally out of hand. Now generally I would not dismiss a novel or poem just because it is not instantly intelligible. I am sure that we have read many works that have been superficially opaque but with a bit of thought, or prior knowledge or through previous reading and persistence or through re-reading we have found the re-reading rewarding and worth the effort. Obviously there can be some of that with a re-reading of ‘Ulysses.’
    I respect the skill of any writer who does not under-estimate or patronise the reader’s intelligence. On the other hand with “Finnegans Wake”, Joyce has created the effect of wilfully making the work too inaccessible and by piling on his own erudition withholds so much. He was quoted once as declaring that “Finnegan’s Wake” was meant to be read as a life-long study.. So does that mean “Finnegan’s Wake” is condemned to be read only by diminishing number of Joyce specialists?
    My theory is that Joyce spent far too long writing the thing, and was surrounded by, or chose to be surrounded by, people who expected him to have been the genius working on his master work. A ruthless but firm editor at an earlier stage might have served him better, but then Joyce was very stubborn and would have taken ill anyone telling him what to do.

  4. Thanks for your detailed comment, Anonymous, with most of which I happily agree. It is the WILFUL nature of the obscurity that irks me - I am no advocate of rushed, superficial reading that does not take a owrk's subtleties into account. I further regret that Joyce really wrote little-or-nothing (apart from "Exiles") about his life after Ireland - or about the Ireland that had already developed after he left it.