We are all supposed to love the gods of literature, but James Joyce can be hard to take.
The Dubliners is an early work of genius. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a poignant coming-of-age novel with extraordinary language. I will probably never get around to Finnegans Wake.
My problem is with Ulysses. I admit I started reading it backwards, plowing initially through a French translation (Folio, 2013), done by a committee of eleven different people, which just goes to show how complex a work it is.
But turning to Ulysses in English, at a first level I am dazzled by the disruptive wordplay, the stream not to mention flood of consciousness (not actually Joyce’s invention but a technique he masters), the random associations and irony, and above all the invention of a new idiom. And I just love his wit: “Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.”
At a second level, Ulysses sometimes influenced me when writing my own début novel, Mind the Gap. I am intrigued by Joyce’s mix of advertising, newspaper articles, puns, riddles and references to The Odyssey, the inner monologues leaping from the 1st to the 2nd to the 3rd person like a Cubist portrait showing a person both as he sees himself and as he is seen by many others, the endless Rabelaisian lists in the mock epic style, the music hall performances, and of course the quotations from foreign languages.
But at a deeper level, I have a hard time identifying with Joyce’s either/or vision of life, swinging back and forth like a pendulum in perpetual motion. Ulysses is a saga of thwarted sexual drives and debauchery, against a background of all-embracing, all-smothering religion. Joyce is so hungry for recognition as an artist that he fills Ulysses with thousands of cryptic hints pointing to his own brilliance – a secret code that has taken a few generations of scholars to decipher. The story sways this way, then that – between the margins and the centre … self-neglect and self-absorption … whoring and holiness.
Having said that, I am fascinated by the music of language in Ulysses – a music rooted in the English language as it’s spoken in Ireland, and in Joyce’s own passion for singing.