Still Rejoyceing After All These Years

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Sylvia Beach with James Joyce, at Shakespeare & Co, Paris 1922
Sylvia Beach with James Joyce, at Shakespeare & Co, Paris, 1922.

Has it been a hundred years? It seems longer! In Ireland, more Joycemania is upon them. On February 02, 1922, the Paris bookshop Shakespeare & Company published Ulysses by James Joyce, a novel that potential publishers had already rejected with vague mutterings about bargepoles and other icons of untouchability. It was not a bookshop business that accepted the risk, but its young owner Sylvia Beach, a literary mother-hen clucking with affection around many impoverished and not yet famous expatriate writers. A hundred years on, Ulysses still sits on many bookshelves alongside 1984, A Brief History of Time, and In Search of Lost Time, in that category of books that everyone claims to have read but usually hasn’t. (That doesn’t include Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which nobody in their right mind admits to having read). But in truth, I have read Ulysses four times and have given a few public talks on the novel and the 1967 Joseph Strick film that attempted the impossible by bringing it to a broader – or slightly less narrow – audience. My first reading was a classically 1960s cliché; not so much reading as dipping in and out of, along with two student friends.

We would sit on the floor of a one-room flat by the canal at Mount Street Bridge in Dublin, fuelled by flagons of cider that cost half an Irish pound. As only students can achieve, we managed to be both uncomprehending and pretentious. But since there was no one else around, we were just semi-literary trees falling unheard in the urban forest. Ulysses does that to young minds – or at least it did in those ancient times. The detractors of Ulysses were many. It was banned; it mocked the Church; it had raw sex, scatology and foul language. Of course, it was a work of literary genius, we all agreed, though we would have been hard-pressed to define what that was.

We had the advantage of living by a canal in the heart of the same “dear old dirty Dublin” that had enthralled the author and remained his exile’s obsession in faraway Trieste (wherever that was). As the years passed, it remained hard to pin down the greatness of Ulysses, though its proximity to the themes of Homer’s Odyssey and its place in the great Irish literary revival after independence in 1922 did help to construct a framework.

Retelling the wanderings of a Greek hero across the beautiful if treacherous shores of the Mediterranean as the ramblings of a lower-class Jew in the snarky streets and grimy establishments of Edwardian Dublin may seem an unremarkable literary conceit. But it was a stroke of genius, and the complexity of the interwoven narratives and subtle Homeric nods are something that delights a literary-minded reader every time they return to it. Layer upon layer of allusion, passages of stunning writing in every possible style, humour and ribaldry, and yes, the boredom of dreariness – all are there to savour. The magnificent conclusion of the book with Molly Bloom’s heart-aching monologue of female passion, longing, and disillusion more than qualified it for the Nobel Prize Joyce shamefully never won. Does anyone read Ulysses for pleasure today? Anecdotal evidence is easier to come by than statistical, but in my travels, I concluded that, yes, many people do. Sales figures are hard to collate but run to tens of thousands of copies a year for the many editions and languages in print. Not that sales mean much; most people’s shelves groan with books bought and not (yet) read.

Despite its reputation for being “difficult”, Ulysses is a very democratic book, taking in all classes and stripes of Irish culture. One of the multitudes of ironies connected to the novel is that it brilliantly portrays the inner lives of those ordinary folks in Dublin who would never read it. It captures one day, 16 June 1904, in the life of a newspaper ad man, Leopold Bloom, as he wanders around his city doing quotidian trivia. He cooks breakfast, visits a library, a pub, his newspaper office, and a maternity hospital. He experiences antisemitism, sexual arousal, trips to the lavatory and idle conversations in a book deemed too dirty to be printed in America, Britain and Ireland until the 1930s and beyond.

Like many books unfairly labelled difficult, Ulysses benefits from being tackled in small pieces. It’s worth noting that it has just 18 chapters, which immediately reduces it to a manageable size; even a chapter a day does not sound too daunting. I first read it properly at the rate of a chapter a week, which was comfortable and interesting since I combined this with background reading on the novel written by Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellman. Joyce once remarked slyly that Finnegans Wake would keep PhD students busy for centuries. Ulysses has been no laggard in attracting academic beavers to gnaw at its trunk and construct their dams of erudition and interpretation. Innumerable “Companion to Ulysses” guides spew out facts, allusions, backgrounds and analyses that outstrip the work itself by millions of words. Browsing through the plethora of events in Ireland, in Paris at Shakespeare & Company, and around the world, to mark the 100th year since Ulysses was published on Joyce’s 40th birthday, makes one wonder again if the number of people who read “about” Ulysses vastly outnumbers those who read the book itself. To be Irish today and say one has never read it is not done in polite society — but before the 1980s, few would have admitted to reading “that colossal muck-heap called Ulysses,” as an Irish Catholic magazine once called it.

The Irish national broadcaster RTE has been promoting many radio and TV broadcasts prepared to mark Ulysses 100 this month. It pointedly mentioned every morning in the weeks preceding February 2 that “for those who have not yet read Ulysses,” an audio reading of the full novel would be running during the month. It was a subtle nudge by guilt, a lit-shaming of ignoramuses, to emphasise that the former gloomy and dirty-minded Jimmy Jice (rhymes with vice) now wears the patriotic green flag of a national cultural treasure. He is a full member of festive events filled with “craic”, that relentless Irish habit of making everything fun and having a great time. It’s one of the rare cultures where even death could generate “good craic” at a lively wake to celebrate the departed’s life.

Yes, it can get a bit much! Joyce and his works have moved from being ostracised to completely commercialised in a hundred years. Every June 16 — Bloomsday — Joyce fans and fanatics gather at the Martello tower in Sandycove to read from the Joycean bible. They chant the opening passages of Ulysses set in the tower where the author lived for a short time as a young man and which is now a Joyce museum. Then there are the tours of the streets mentioned in the novel, the buildings or their renovated or mutilated descendants, where Bloom rambled and dawdled. When once asked in Trieste if he would ever go back to Dublin, Joyce replied, “Have I ever left it?” It’s the city’s turn to be asked why it’s so intensely remembering the prodigal son who never did return. The city may reply, “Didn’t I try hard enough to forget him?”

Indeed it did. A repressive and malignant Catholic clergy, led by Dublin’s authoritarian Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, did disown and revile Jimmy Jice for many years. He wasn’t alone in feeling the wrath of the Church and the censor — playwright Sean O’Casey (also living in exile) once called the country “the old sow that eats her young” — but Joyce got the worst of it. In Ulysses, Joyce, among a myriad of other themes, described in detail the erotic fantasies of Leopold Bloom and those of his unfaithful wife, Molly. It was not a glowing holy vision of Irish nationhood and married life that the puritanical Catholic clergy and the nationalistic leaders of the new state were going to tolerate. Neither did the Irish people do themselves any credit for failing to speak up for their writers and artists. Novelist Flann O’Brien said there was no need to censor Ulysses: “Any person asking for it in a bookshop would probably be lynched,” he wrote in disgust.

This Irish vindictiveness extended beyond the grave. The nation of Eamonn De Valera refused to send a representative to Joyce’s funeral in Zurich in 1941. Instead, a British minister delivered a eulogy for the Irishman already revered in literary Europe. (De Valera did not hesitate to visit the German embassy in Dublin in 1945 to offer his condolences on the unfortunate death of their beloved fuhrer). Neither of Joyce’s Catholic schools mentioned his death in their records. Once, on a visit by my secondary school class to Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare, I tentatively asked the Jesuit headmaster why the name of James Joyce wasn’t on a list of prominent alumni on a board in their reception centre. Clongowes featured prominently in the autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The priest’s eyes narrowed to a slit, and he said, “There’s those who bring more shame to their school and country than pride.” I think he wished he could give me the same paddling for my impertinence as Joyce recounted in Portrait.

Since the hypocritical moral house of cards of the McQuaid church was buried under an avalanche of child abuse and Dickensian “mother and baby homes” scandals, little is ever heard now of the sins of Joyce, O’Casey and others against holy mother autocracy. The pendulum has swung well in the other direction. The men and women who were once “a disgrace to the country” are now national treasures to be lauded and cosseted in cotton wool cloaks of cultural protection. Bridges, streets and monuments are named in their honour; they are marketed as tourist attractions as energetically and distastefully as the Lakes of Killarney. But look at wealthy modern Ireland today in the celebrations for the publication of Ulysses. Joyce has come marching home again, and by all that’s holy, Jimmy, we hardly knew you.

The man and the book are ubiquitous; there are snatches of them everywhere, the newspapers and airwaves are full of them. The government has spent something like 12 million euros to buy and repatriate rare manuscript copies of chapters from Ulysses and other Joyce papers in recent years. In his splendidly readable and entertaining book, Consuming Joyce: 100 Years of Ulysses in Ireland, author John McCourt traces the incredible recasting of Joyce from reviled and shameful outcast to Irish literary superhero. Ulysses is now to Ireland what Don Quixote is to Spain, King Lear is to England, and Divina Commedia is to Italy. “Joyce’s magnum opus has been (in the words of Finnegans Wake) ‘receptionated’ in his native land, in a long and tortuous journey from oddity to commodity”,  McCourt writes. There is an ever-greater use of Joyce as a cultural magnet to draw tourists to the capital. It was particularly and weirdly obvious for the Bloomsday centenary, Rejoyce Dublin 2004. McCourt writes:

One of its centrepieces was a Bloomsday ‘breakfast’ for several thousand people on O’Connell Street. (Inspired by Bloom witnessing the “next door girl” purchase “a pound and a half of Denny’s sausages”). For the Rejoyce and the sausage-eating extravaganza, the Irish government contributed close to €2 million.

Even more jaw-dropping in 2004 was a special Joyce issue of the Jesuit periodical Studies, no less. What, more insults from the Church? Not quite. Studies editor, Fergus O’Donoghue SJ, paid homage to Joyce as — wait for it — the most famous product of Irish Jesuit education. Hark! Do I hear the ancient timbers of Clongowes Wood creaking in agony? One can almost see McCourt’s smirk as he writes: “With a heavy dose of revisionism, Studies averred that it was ‘natural for a Jesuit journal to join the centenary celebrations of Bloomsday'”. Yet McCourt seems to imply that Joyce might appreciate the tacky commercialisation of his literary heritage:

Joyce, like Bloom, was fascinated by advertising, sales and consumption and how they won and held consumers’ attention. This was particularly true when it came to Ulysses. He was fully engaged in the complex process of its material production and promotion. He wanted to ensure that it was bought, consumed, and ‘receptionated’ by the largest body of readers possible for artistic and commercial reasons. His two principal earlier publications, Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, had enjoyed little commercial success and brought little or no financial reward.

Sylvia Beach, October 1962. Photo: RTE Ireland
Sylvia Beach, October 1962. Photo: RTE Ireland

In October 1962, RTE television interviewed the woman who gave Ulysses to the world, just three days before her death. It is one of those rare and satisfying miracles of broadcast history. Sylvia Beach described her first meeting with James Joyce at a small literary party in Paris. She was with some French writers and a small group of American expatriates complaining about prohibition and censorship and other ills of America. They complained that they couldn’t get their hands on a copy of the literary sensation Ulysses because it was suppressed everywhere and could not be printed. Beach recalled:

“It was being serialised in a magazine called the Little Review. American women were trying to publish this, and finally, their review was suppressed. A French friend of mine had found Joyce and his family in Paris and invited him to this party. I was really uninvited, and when I got there, the host whispered, ‘the Irish writer James Joyce is here’. And I was so frightened, so scared, and I imagined Joyce up in the cloud somewhere with the gods you see, and never thought I could meet him in the flesh, and it seemed terribly frightening. And I thought at first I would run home, but I didn’t. I stayed, and I met Nora Joyce and liked her very much. And Joyce was sitting at a table, and Ezra Pound was teasing him with putting all the wine bottles in front of him because he had vowed not to drink until nighttime. I went up to him and spoke to him, and we had a conversation. He said, ‘What do you do?’ And I said, ‘I have a bookshop, it’s called Shakespeare and Company.’ And he had me give him the address …

I was very much impressed with Joyce. I thought I had never seen anyone so interesting and so fine. He seemed very sensitive, terribly. People ask me if I was disappointed when I met James Joyce. He was anything but disappointing. And he came to the bookshop to show me this Little Review, and he said, ‘You see this is now being completely suppressed. And my book, it will never come out.’ So he sat there with his head in his hands. And I said to him, ‘Would you like me to publish Ulysses?’ and he said, ‘I would.’ He sounded very much relieved, in fact. Well, I don’t know, because it wouldn’t inspire confidence in anyone who had such a book that he has taken seven years to write, to give it into the hands of someone so inexperienced and young, and to a kind of a little bookshop, not a publishing house at all.”

Not at all, at all. And so, shy young Sylvia and her “not a publishing house” gave the world the greatest Irish novel of the century. And Shakespeare & Company is still a glorious little bookshop, but it’s the pride of Paris and Dublin and has an eternal place in world literary history.