Monday 2 February 2009

I suppose we can't allow James Joyce's birthday to pass unmarked - 127 today.
'The demand I make of my reader,' he remarked modestly, 'is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.' I fear most of us have let him down badly there, though for myself I've given him quite a lot of time, having read the Portrait several times, Ulysses twice (parts of it more - what stamina I once had!) and Dubliners several times - and have even managed bits of Finnegans Wake, but feel no urge to repeat the experience. The Wake seems a sad dead end, a hermetic experiment, closing in on itself where Ulysses reaches out to embrace a whole world - its sheer exuberance is astounding (and perhaps exhausted Joyce, leaving him nowhere to go). I'd say the best quick reminder of what a great writer Joyce could be is that wonderful, sad, perfect short story, The Dead. For that alone - even if he'd done nothing else - he'd deserve to be remembered.


  1. Certainly The Dead has the best closing lines of any short story you care to name.

    It's a myth that Ulysses is a difficult book, apart from Oxen of the Sun and a few other bits obviously, but the Wake is another matter. Given up trying to read it numerous times but I have listened to a Naxos audiobook - tolerable in short bursts, like listening to the babble of the dinner hall in a lunatic asylum.

  2. It turned into an enjoyable movie, saw it when it first came out in 1967, Barbara Jeffords Molly bloom a joy to watch & hear, read the book after the movie, allways a mistake.

  3. Yeah, the ending of "The Dead", hard not to be bowled over. But then again, would that be so without the somewhat discontinual first 12,000 words. Have you seen Pigone's rewrite ---

    She felt no jealousy now, only indignation, and anger. Her eyes moved to the chair over which she had thrown her clothes. The strings of her slip dangled to the floor. His shoe lay on its side beneath it. She picked it up, balancing it in her hand lightly before smashing into his unprotected crotch. He awoke with a scream, pulling his limbs together in fetal contraction, cupping his numb-dumb member, his face contorted in pain.

    —Gabby! What in the hell!

    —Shush my darling, she said with her finger to her lips – you'll wake up the entire hotel.


    —Sorry baby, gut reaction. But now you know how it feels.

    —How what feels? his voice still trembling from the pain.

    —Well for starters: Here we are, you and I, alone together in a relatively nice hotel room, if one can ignore the botanical wallpaper, without the kids, just the two of us, finally free from all that shit out there. And tonight at the reception when they played A Thousand Miles Away and we danced with each other and I thought to hell with all these people because it's after all just the two of us ... and 20 minutes ago I was feeling pretty horny – I can hardly move my eyelids, but I was keeping them wide for you, baby – I was feeling horny for you, and that was the only thing keeping me awake and you – it turns out, are a thousand miles away, or ten thousand, thinking about some girl you couldn't get it up for 20 years ago. You get it now?

    —But it has nothing to do with us.

    —Oh really? Nothing to do with us? Wasn't it we who are shallow, cowardly, circumstantial? Phonies, fakes, hypocrites? Wasn't it we you meant?

    —No, not you Gabby.

    —What are we, Garett? We are what we see and smell and touch: that's our world. And beauty – it's our judge and our judgment. And it also happens to be how I make my living – our living I might add. I work on that shallow, superficial, skin-deep surface you are slamming. Appearances, packaging, that's my trade – and guess what: it's for real. Reality is on that surface. And all that da da da fire sermon shit is a bunch of pretentious hot-air crap; an abyss – a void. You can't go there and you can't live there. We ain't Buddhas, baby – we're consumers. We consume and then we die. In the profound words of the waitress: Enjoy! And for god sakes, stop moping about it.

    She sat on the bed, plucking at a lone strand of hair on her thigh Рan escapee from her last wax job. Garett stared at the ceiling. Tears now rounded his cheeks falling to his pillow. My poor darling, we are all circumstance Рby birth, by fate. Of course it's not fair. Power's not fair. Wealth is not fair. Beauty? No way Jos̩. Only death is fair. Death trumps all and beauty, yes. But whats' the big deal, Garett? We're only snowflakes, butterflies with our little ephemeral moments of glory Рour circumstantial, ephemeral moments. And then ...

    She laid herself flat-out on the bed so close to her husband that she could feel his warmth but not touching, and closed her eyes. Slumberous flakes of snow, silver and dark, fell over her body, Garett's body, and all the sleeping and sleepless bodies of the Hotel Boulderado. It truly was snowing everywhere. Snowflakes from stars and moons everywhere falling like comets or dust or nothing. Falling on us all. Falling upon the beautiful and the ugly, the real and the counterfeit, the living and the dead."


  4. I have only *really* read "Dubliners" and "Portrait of an Artist," but those I loved. The other books had too many insider refs and so I couldn't get into them. Someday, maybe, I'll try again. But probably not. Too many other works I REALLY want to read!

  5. Finnegans Wake can become curiously addictive, but not I think in a good way. I must have read it three or four times right through in my twenties, feeling sure that I'd get to the bottom of it one day, if I just put in the work. Looking back, it's very hard to see this as time well spent. (Odd how tolerant of 'difficult' literature we are when young --- and how intolerant when older.)

    Of course, It's possible to get a good deal out of FW simply because over 20 plus years Joyce put a good deal in. It's probably best read aloud and without pausing too much to worry about the meaning (try it when slightly drunk). Bits of it are very funny just as gibberish, in the same way and on much the same level as Stanley Unwin or some of Ronnie Barker's stuff. Also the last dozen pages --- the River Liffey's farewell as she flows into the sea --- are piercingly beautiful and sad and quite possibly the best thing Joyce ever wrote.

    I read a few pages to my 5-year-old once, in a desperate attempt to provide a moment's distraction. She now nags me to read her 'the funny book' on a regular basis ...

  6. i only know one person who's read FW - a borderline schizophrenic who read it 3 times in a row, making notes in the margin. He loved it.

  7. 'The heaventree of stars hung with humid night-blue fruit...and I thought: I really must repair the roof on this toilet'

  8. 'The heaventree of stars hung with humid night-blue fruit...and I thought: I really must repair the roof on this toilet'

  9. i am adapting FW into a TV series and hopefully to bring out a new easier version of FW in 2011 when the copyright runs out

    but i'm not a blogger so screwed up the url

  10. This will not work as a matter of fact, that is what I believe.