Sunday 25 February 2018

How I learnt to say 'Yes' to Joyce

It's Bloomsday again, the time when the traditional Joycean garb of bicycles and boaters make the streets of Dublin a more colourful place.

It's not all about straw hats and petticoats, though. This week, Dublin has been jam-packed with the biggest and best Joycean scholars in the world, all in town for the 23rd International James Joyce Symposium.

It's not likely these rock stars of Joycean studies go in for the gaudy delights of Bloomsday tours but it's always a good occasion to appraise one of the great literary geniuses and possibly Ireland's most influential writer.

Joyce's work is known as the classic 'difficult pleasure', although it wasn't always so for me. Like many people, my first introduction to Joyce was through his bildungsroman, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

I loved it. I identified with the young Stephen completely (I was educated by nuns) and loved hearing the intimate inner voice of the young man. It was funny as hell too, which was unexpected.

I had no in-depth knowledge of Joyce or his reputation, apart from the fact that he was a great Irish writer. I didn't know he was difficult. I didn't know every sentence had three or four other hidden meanings. I didn't have any preconceptions.

I think that might be the secret to enjoying Joyce. The minute I discovered he was considered a difficult genius, I started to approach his books like some sort of literary wrangler, warily edging my way around his works, opening the covers to try and get a hold on a chapter or two before the elusive bugger slipped out of my grasp.

By the time I got to my Leaving Cert, I had come across too many references to Joyce's Ulysses to ignore that novel any longer, and so, I picked up a copy and gave it a go. Eighty pages in, I put it back down again.

The next time I attempted to read Ulysses, I was in my first year in college, where discussions of Joyce's works were essential student-conversation fodder. A precocious classmate, who had read all of Joyce, kindly explained the unpunctuated title of Finnegans Wake to me and gave me (another) copy of Ulysses.

This time, I really tried to plough through that book. I failed again, this time stalling around the 100-page mark. Eventually, I read the thing out of shame at having not read it.

You can't talk about Joyce without mentioning Dubliners, his collection of short stories on the city's people and their inventive language. In these deceptively simple stories, you can already see the beginnings of the man who went on to write Ulysses.

The stories are a kind of historical record of the people and the city at that time, although Ulysses provides the better map. Joyce famously said if Dublin was obliterated, you could rebuild it from scratch using Ulysses as the plans.

I have yet to read Finnegans Wake; you could say I'm saving this one up for a special occasion, but if I'm honest, I am simply still too cowed to approach this, his most impenetrable novel.

If it took me three runs to get through Ulysses, how many attempts might it take to get through Finnegans Wake? Joyce is daunting but so is everything worth reading, and if you think about why he is daunting -- his intellect, his experimentation with language, his inventiveness and unconventionality -- it's not necessarily a bad thing.

I'm a stickler for doing things the right way, for starting on page one and finishing on the last page, but even Joyce didn't believe in that kind of linear formality, evident in the fact that Finnegans Wake is a circular story, whose last line bleeds into its opening line.

I was surprised to hear some academics at the Joyce Symposium admit they had first found their way into Joyce's works by starting in the middle. Perhaps that is the best way to enjoy Joyce: just dive right in.

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