His Ulysses baffled readers and challenged
By Paul Gray
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James Joyce once told a friend, "One of the things I could never get accustomed to in my youth was the difference I found between life and literature." All serious young readers notice this difference. Joyce dedicated his career to erasing it and in the process revolutionized 20th century fiction.
The life he would put into his literature was chiefly his own. Born near Dublin in 1882, James Augustine Aloysius was the eldest of the 10 surviving children of John and Mary Jane Joyce. His father was irascible, witty, hard drinking and ruinously improvident; his mother, a devout Roman Catholic, helplessly watched her husband and family slide into near poverty and hoped for a happier life in the hereafter. James' entire education came at the hands of the Jesuits, who did a better job with him than they may have intended. By the time the young Joyce graduated from University College, Dublin, in 1902, he decided he had learned enough to reject his religion and all his obligations to family, homeland and the British who ruled there. Literature would be his vocation and his bid for immortality.
He fled Ireland into self-imposed exile late in 1904, taking with him Nora Barnacle, a young woman from Galway who was working as a hotel chambermaid in Dublin when Joyce met her earlier that year. (On hearing that his son had run off with a girl named Barnacle, John Joyce remarked, playing on her last name, "She'll never leave him." And, proving puns can be prophetic, she never did.)
Joyce departed Dublin with nearly all the narratives he would ever write already stored in his memory. What remained for him to do was transform this cache into an art that could measure up to his own expectations.
As he and Nora and then their two children moved among and around European cities — Pola, Trieste, Zurich, Rome, Paris — Joyce found clerical and teaching jobs that provided subsistence to his family and his writing. His first published book of fiction, Dubliners (1914), contained 15 stories short on conventional plots but long on evocative atmosphere and language. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) provided a remarkably objective and linguistically complex account of Stephen Dedalus, i.e. James Joyce, from his birth to his decision to leave Dublin in pursuit of his art.
Portrait did not sell well enough to relieve Joyce's chronic financial worries, but his work by then had attracted the attention of a number of influential avant-gardists, most notably the expatriate American poet Ezra Pound, who believed a new century demanded new art, poetry, fiction, music — everything. Such supporters rallied to promote Joyce and his experimental writings, and he did not disappoint them.
He began Ulysses in 1914; portions of it in progress appeared in the Egoist in England and the Little Review in the U.S., until the Post Office, on grounds of alleged obscenity, confiscated three issues containing Joyce's excerpts and fined the editors $100. The censorship flap only heightened curiosity about Joyce's forthcoming book. Even before Ulysses was published, critics were comparing Joyce's breakthroughs to those of Einstein and Freud.
With so many traditional methods of narrative abandoned, what was left? Perhaps the clearest and most concise description of Joyce's technique came from the critic Edmund Wilson: "Joyce has attempted in Ulysses to render as exhaustively, as precisely and as directly as it is possible in words to do, what our participation in life is like — or rather, what it seems to us like as from moment to moment we live."
A first reading of Ulysses can thus be a baffling experience, although no book more generously rewards patience and fortitude. Stephen Dedalus reappears, still stuck in Dublin, dreaming of escape. Then we meet Leopold Bloom, or rather we meet his thoughts as he prepares breakfast for his wife Molly. (We experience her thoughts as she drifts off to sleep at the end of the book.)
Ulysses is the account of one day in Dublin — June 16, 1904, Joyce's private tribute to Nora, since that was the date on which they first went out together. The book follows the movements of not only Stephen and Bloom but also hundreds of other Dubliners as they walk the streets, meet and talk, then talk some more in restaurants and pubs. All this activity seems random, a record of urban happenstance.
But nothing in Ulysses is truly random. Beneath the surface realism of the novel, its apparently artless transcription of life's flow, lurks a complicated plan. Friends who were in on the secret of Ulysses urged Joyce to share it, to make things easier for his readers. He resisted at first: "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of ensuring one's immortality."
Joyce later relented, and so the world learned that Ulysses was, among many other things, a modern retelling of Homer's Odyssey, with Bloom as the wandering hero, Stephen as Telemachus and Molly as a Penelope decidedly less faithful than the original. T.S. Eliot, who recognized the novel's underpinnings, wrote that Joyce's use of classical myth as a method of ordering modern experience had "the importance of a scientific discovery."
Ulysses made Joyce famous, although not always in a manner to his liking. When a fan approached him and asked, "May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses?" Joyce said, "No, it did lots of other things too." But more important, Ulysses became a source book for 20th century literature. It expanded the domain of permissible subjects in fiction, following Bloom not only into his secret erotic fantasies but his outdoor privy as well.
Its multiple narrative voices and extravagant wordplay made Ulysses a virtual thesaurus of styles for writers wrestling with the problem of rendering contemporary life. Aspects of Joyce's accomplishment in Ulysses can be seen in the works of William Faulkner, Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, Saul Bellow, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison, all of whom, unlike Joyce, won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
But the only author who tried to surpass the encyclopedic scope of Ulysses was Joyce himself. He spent 17 years working on Finnegans Wake, a book intended to portray Dublin's sleeping life as thoroughly as Ulysses had explored the wide-awake city. This task, Joyce decided, required the invention of a new language that would mime the experience of dreaming. As excerpts from the new work, crammed with multilingual puns and Jabberwocky-like sentences, began appearing in print, even Joyce's champions expressed doubts. To Pound's complaint about obscurity, Joyce replied, "The action of my new work takes place at night. It's natural things should not be so clear at night, isn't it now?" Today, only dedicated Joyceans regularly attend the Wake. A century from now, his readers may catch up with him.
TIME senior writer Paul Gray wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on James Joyce's short fiction
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