Sunday 18 March 2018

James Joyce: Literary genius or in need of a good editor?

As Joyceans celebrate Bloomsday, our reporter asked some well-known Irish writers, musicians and broadcasters if he's still worth reading

James Joyce
James Joyce
Irish author Belinda McKeon.
Liam O Maonlaí
Sheila O'Flanagan.
Elaine Crowley
Joseph O'Connor
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

Visitors to the capital may have done a double take this morning when they were accosted by the sight of men in straw hats and striped jackets and women dressed in Edwardian garb. Yes, the annual Bloomsday celebrations are in full swing today, and it's a commemoration and celebration of the life of Irish writer James Joyce. His most famous novel, 'Ulysses', which is both praised and criticised in equal measure, was set on that date in 1904.

Is Joyce still relevant though? We asked some well-known Irish people if he's influenced them, and crucially, whether they've managed to finish the infamous novel:


Author and Frank McCourt Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at UL

Joseph O'Connor

"For his ambition, skill, energy and creative inventiveness, and for the sheer, jaw-dropping beauty of many of his sentences, James Joyce is the greatest Irish writer of all time.

He totally reinvented the form of the novel and broke every single rule, but wrote a novel that is so touching, gentle and affirmative of life.

"I respect, revere and love his achievement in Ulysses. Every time I approach it again, I see the most extraordinary beauty and truth. Yes, he's pretentious. Yes, it's sometimes too experimental. It's too long, and those parts are boring and some of them don't make sense.

"But if you're looking for a novel that shatters every rule but still manages to say so many beautiful and meaningful things about everyday life, there is nothing better than Ulysses, and there never, ever will be. Joyce is to literature what Bob Dylan and the Sex Pistols were to music: the be all and end all."



Liam O Maonlaí

"James Joyce represents the modern and the ancient. He was a European who had a keen sense of the majesty of the ordinary man. 'Ulysses' magnifies the wandering of a Dublin man into an epic journey, making gods and sirens out of the people of Dublin and creating epiphanies of infinity out of single moments. He acknowledges the miraculous in life.

"I will not claim to have read 'Ulysses', but Joyce's presence reaches out beyond the pages of his book. The existence of Bloomsday is an amazing thing. A free festival, a pilgrimage where the participant can lay claim to his and her part in the living culture of a place and a state of mind. It puts a dent into accepted reality and teases out the possibilities ever present in the moment. Joyce came to visit my grandparents' house in Galway and played the piano I now own. He was a singer of note."


Presenter, Midday TV3

Elaine Crowley

"I tried to listen to an audio book of 'Ulysses', because Senator David Norris told me it was too difficult to read, and he was right. It's extremely sexual in parts, and although I've tried about five times, I still haven't gotten through it.

"I actually think Oscar Wilde would be of more relevance now, but with every great literary figure there are peaks and troughs. We have such a fantastic crop of writers now that we don't have to look to the past to appreciate our literary culture."


Author, The Missing Wife

Sheila O'Flanagan.

"I tried to read 'Ulysses' three times - at school, in my twenties and when I started writing myself and could never get through it. I tried to tell myself that it was an important work and I had to read it, but each time, I just got frustrated with it. I much preferred 'Strumpet City', and think that James Plunkett is more deserving of all the accolades, and I would go for Edna O'Brien and Mary Lavin a lot quicker than Joyce.

"'Ulysses' is not my sort of book, as I'm not really good on the whole stream of consciousness thing, and I feel that this book, in particular, could just do with being edited.

"Bloomsday isn't my cup of tea either, as I'm not the sort of person who wants to dress up as a literary character, but it's probably fun for the people who get involved with it. The main thing is that it's good for tourism, and I'm big on anything that helps that."


Presenter, Today FM

"I think the Bloomsday thing is great. If people want to dress up in straw bowlers and drink Pimms and Guinness and eat kidneys, then fair dues to them, more power to them and I hope they have a great time. But when it comes to the books themselves, with the exception of 'Dubliners', which I quite liked, I think James Joyce is the literary equivalent of 'The Emperor's New Clothes'.

"It's ingrained in the national psyche that he is so important that statues have been made of him, but that means that you are not allowed to actually point out the obvious, which is that he wasn't any good.

"People say, 'You just don't get him, you don't get the metaphors, the inbuilt Latin references, the similes, the stream of consciousness, the onomatopoeia, and you don't get how revolutionary he was in the development of the modern novel.' I do though - I just also get that it's crap. What really gets me about Joyce is that we have so many people who should be in his position, like O'Casey, Friel and Wilde. If people said we are going to do a national celebration of the works of Sean O'Casey, I'd say, 'Oh brilliant, roll in the Yanks," but Joyce?"


Presenter and journalist, RTÉ

"I have read bits and pieces of 'Ulysses', but have never quite got to the end. I always think it is easier to read it in passages, as you can enjoy the language, such as the line, "The sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea." As a body of work, it's tough going, unlike 'Dubliners', which you can actually read. Let's not mention 'Finnegans Wake'. I'm going to be MCing a Bloomsday event in Meeting House Square today from 3-6pm, and there's a brilliant list of speakers like David Norris, Domini Kemp, Lynn Ruane, Colm O'Gorman, Rick O'Shea and Róisín Ingle.

"It's a great day for Dublin, and whether you've read the book or not or you dress up or don't, I think we're all very proud of Ulysses and are delighted that it's our city it's set in."


Author, Solace and Tender

Irish author Belinda McKeon.

"Joyce is not so much the DNA of Irish writers as a hereditary genetic condition that Irish writers can't get rid of, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

"I think there's barely a sentence you can pull out of a contemporary Irish novel without seeing his influence, whether it's found its way in there earnestly, automatically or in unwitting parody; the sore bluntness of our sentences, how they get to the quick of things like the town gossip, and yet how, in the next breath, they'll pile on and pile on in a fit of unabashed lyricism, things you'd be mortified to say out loud.

"I first read Ulysses in the summer of 1998, when I had come home to Longford for a couple of weeks before college began again. When I went back to Dublin, I looked at it differently, and since then, even living away, even just in my mind, I've never stopped walking its streets - not just the central streets, but the places where people live, the hidden and layered places where lives happen.

"I do it whenever I get home, and I do it, sometimes, before I go to sleep. I look at the map sometimes, and I trace the feel of it. That's down to that summer of 'Ulysses', I think."

Irish Independent

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