(Published just after Bloomsday, in the Business Standard)
The official menu for Bloomsday is not kind to vegetarians. To celebrate James Joyce’s Ulysses in the manner of Leopold Bloom, start with thick giblet soup and nutty gizzards, move on to “a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes”.
The grilled mutton kidneys (which gave Bloom’s palate, memorably, a “fine tang of faintly scented urine) are optional for the squeamish, but then the squeamish are rarely among Joyce’s fans. This Sunday, when Bloomsday was celebrated in Ireland and elsewhere, the diehard Joycean had an excellent excuse to stuff himself—this is the year when Ulysses, and all of Joyce’s works, become public property.
Never was there a more jealous guardian of a literary work than Stephen Joyce. He was not so much heir to Joyce’s work as the dragon at the gates. He refused permission for scholars, biographers and dramatists to quote any more than the parsimonious allowance of words set down by the Copyright Act. He refused permission for James Joyce’s papers to be read or scrutinized, and he waged long and acrimonious battles against those who went ahead and wrote about Joyce, or Dubliners, or Molly Bloom, or Finnegan’s Wake anyway.
Under Stephen Joyce’s reign, few writers—even a newspaper columnist—would have felt free enough to quote passages from the works long enough to incur Stephen Joyce’s bitter wrath.
The end result, though Joyce’s books remained easily accessible, was to chop up his work into memorable phrases: “They are coming, waves. The whitemaned seahorses, champing, brightwindbridled, the steeds of Mananaan.” “The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea.” “Hoopsa boyaboy hoopsa! Hoopsa boyaboy hoopsa! Hoopsa boyaboy hoopsa!”
In much of the public imagination, this is what remained of Ulysses, these slivers of Joyce—the gimmicks, but not the heart and the swift juxtapositions that made him such a great, sensitive writer. Here is Stephen Dedalus, thinking of his mother, now dead, no more than “an odour of rosewood and ashes”. In his mind, he continues: “A poor soul gone to heaven: and on a heath beneath winking stars a fox, red reek of rapine in his fur, with merciless bright eyes scraped in the earth, listened, scraped up the earth, listened, scraped and scraped.”
So many years after it was first published (and reviled, and then reclaimed), Ulysses remains surprisingly fresh, untarnished by time. The writers Joyce spawned did less well; Joyce, who was begat by Tristram Shandy, begat far too many bad imitators, who rise up in experimental flares every decade and are rapidly forgotten. Some, like GV Desani, whose Hatterr received permission for his linguistic exuberance from Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, have survived and are still admired. But All About H Hatterr, for all of its wonders, has dated and acquired a creaky patina that Ulysses never did. Molly Bloom stirs in bed, Leopold Bloom buys a cake of soap that smells of sweet lemony wax and eats the liver and kidneys, stately, plump Buck Mulligan bears his bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed; and the story Joyce tells, against the background of the ancient story of Odysseus, Greece dissolving into Ireland’s streets, remains sharp and clear.
The ones who did well among Joyce’s literary descendants weren’t those who tried to imitate his style, but those who understood why he had moved from the straightforward, hungrily observed stories of the Dubliners to the structural heights and freedom of Ulysses, until he finally demolished language itself in Finnegan’s Wake. The first school spawned a rash of writers who turned out passages of the “Thrash, kick, bite. Thrash, kick, slap” sort under the impression that they were being Joycean. Which is a little dangerous, like assuming you bought madeleines at the bakery and can now write like Proust.
The second school includes an enormous range of writers, from Arun Kolatkar to David Mitchell and Haruki Murakami, who sensibly cultivated their own particular, indelible styles, but understood what Joyce was trying to do in Ulysses—to capture all of life, instead of interpreting it. He crafts Ulysses with such skill that it seems to present life as it happens, in all of its inescapable, tangled, human messiness.
There are two ways to look at your existence, said Joyce in Ulysses. One is to see it as a short, nasty business: “Bridebed, childbed, bed of death, ghostcandled.” The other was to celebrate the “warm beds: the warm fullblooded life”. He gave both of them to his readers, in dense paragraphs that ran on for two pages or fragmented sentences, and let them choose.
And on this Bloomsday, this year, with an end to Stephen Joyce’s petty tyrannies, the choice was easy. “Heavenly weather really. If life was always like that. Cricket weather. Sit around under sunshades. Over after over. Out.”