James Joyce (1882-1941)

Of novelists who were prominent between the wars, only a couple seemed by the sixties to have been really influential. One was D H Lawrence, about whom F R Leavis made extravagant claims that continued to be taken very seriously in Sri Lanka for many years. The other was James Joyce, whom Leavis considered comparatively trivial.

His major works were not therefore considered essential reading in Sri Lankan universities, so I was surprised to find how important he was thought to be elsewhere, and indeed also by Leavis, who delivered regular sideswipes at Joyce’s fiction in his writings. However Sri Lankan authorities did regularly prescribe a couple of Joyce’s short stories for study at Advanced Level and thereafter, so most students, and teachers too of language as well as literature, are familiar with ‘Eveline’, and to a lesser extent ‘Araby’.

These are taken from the collection called ‘Dubliners’, which seems to me in fact to be the most interesting of all Joyce’s work. By now I believe that all except the most devoted disciples find ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, Joyce’s last experimental novel, unreadable. That was my impression when I tried it and, unlike with Henry James’ ‘The Golden Bowl’, I felt no desire to get back to it.

Ulysses’, Joyce’s most famous work, I did manage to finish, though I think on balance it is also largely unreadable. The book was emphatically experimental, post-modern or post-post-modern as the jargon has it, being a modern version of Homer’s ‘Odysseus’ divided into 24 section as that was. The Greek classic described the return from the Trojan War of the Greek hero Odysseus, or Ulysses as he was called by the Romans. Joyce deals with 24 hours in the life of Leopold Bloom, an ordinary Irishman, using different techniques in each section, some of them reminiscent of the work of renowned authors.

Joyce’s book was in great vogue in the sixties because of a film that emphasized its salacious elements, notably the final monologue of Bloom’s wife Molly, who is nothing like Ulysses’ faithful wife Penelope. Personally, reading the book in my teens, I found a parody of the ‘Odyssey’ published by the Olympia Press that specialized in high quality pornography much more fun. I was also irritated because, while Molly’s monologue won much praise because it was written without any punctuation, over 44 closely printed pages of about 500 words each, an essay I wrote in school in one sentence over just a couple of pages brought the wrath of the teacher on my head.

What Leavis suggested was nit-picking, or navel-gazing, is exemplified by what Joyce did with the Homeric technique of asking a rhetorical question and then responding to describe the actions of his hero. I suppose students brought up to read Greek mindlessly found the following passage funny, but it seemed to me neither clever nor interesting –

For what personal purpose could Bloom have applied the water so boiled?

To shave himself.

What advantages attended shaving by night?

A softer beard: a softer brush if intentionally allowed toremain from shave to shave in its agglutinated lather: a softer skin if unexpectedly encountering female acquaintances in remote places at incustomary hours…

And so on for three times as long for that particular question, the whole chapter going on for 72 pages, interspersed with some tedious sexual references that may have been exciting in the twenties (‘He kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump’).

But having ploughed through all this, it was an unexpected pleasure to read ‘Dubliners’, a collection of fifteen stories that covered many facets of that city and its people. They are all of them seen, it must be said, through a pall of gloom, but the range is remarkable, from the spinster sadly celebrating her birthday to the young man trapped into marriage to his landlady’s daughter by an overwhelming landlady, from the young boy in ‘Araby’ feeling the first pangs of not just unrequited but unnoticed love to the lawyer’s clerk who has to copy out interminable deeds.

Amongst these stories ‘Eveline’ I think stands out, for it expresses clearly what Joyce was trying to illustrate throughout the book, the manner in which people imprison themselves through convention and fear of the unknown and the unusual. The restrictions are in part due to the Church, which he presents as a depressingly brooding influence, but families and friends that are insensitive to individuality also play their part.

So ‘Eveline’ gives up the chance of happiness with a happy go lucky sailor through sentimental commitment to a father who ill-treats her. Sadly many students are taught to declare that she makes the right choice, of duty over pleasure. Such a choice may be understandable, but to claim that Joyce validates it is to miss the symbolism that presents Eveline as shutting herself off from life, and the language that celebrates the romance she abandons.

But the most impressive story I think is the last one, which is much longer than the rest, almost a novella, on the lines of the form that Henry James and D H Lawrence used extensively. ‘The Dead’ is an account of a Christmas party given by two elderly ladies, as experienced by their nephew. The party is an annual event, and Joyce depicts quite movingly the essential dullness of the occasion for the nephew, but also the joy it gives the old ladies and his indulgence of them.

But the story takes a strange turn, when his wife grows tearful after hearing a song, and he learns for the first time in his life that long ago a boy had been in love with her, and had sung that song, and had died because he was sickly but had stayed out all night to be near her – not with her, for this was the Ireland of proper behaviour, but outside in the cold. Gabriel reflects then, as his wife falls asleep, on how little we know each other, however close we think we are. And he thinks too of the legions of the dead who lie forgotten, as his aunts will be soon enough, except for the occasional memories they evoke, which give just a glimpse of the passions they have felt.

The story was made into a film about a decade ago, by John Huston, with a sterling performance by his daughter Angelica. It was one of those vivid period pieces that cinema specialized in during those years, of James and Forster for instance. I thought, watching it, of the very different spectacle that brought Joyce to life in my childhood, Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness that ends with what was claimed to be a life-affirming ‘Yes’. ‘The Dead’ seemed to me to be much more illuminating about life.