Who ever decided that James Joyce was ‘fun’?
Difficulty in literature has its own joys and pleasures
John Ryan, Anthony Cronin, Brian O’Nolan, Patrick Kavanagh and Tom Joyce on Sandymount Strand on Bloomsday 1954.
If you wait around long enough almost anybody, however controversial, will end up immortalised on a tea-towel. Romanian gift-shops almost certainly now invite us to dry our saucers with an absorbent icon of Vlad the Impaler.
We don’t wish to labour comparisons between James Joyce and the figure who inspired Count Dracula. There was, however, a time when the distinguished novelist was far from respectable. As any passing Joyce boffin will clarify, Ulysses was never exactly banned in Ireland, but, until as late as the 1970s, polite society was no more at home to the book than it was to the public impaling of Ottoman warriors. Ulysses was rude, long, rude, difficult and rude.
At some point in the succeeding three decades, Joyce became to Dublin as Goofy is to Walt Disney World. There are statues of him here. Plaques appear on walls over there. Insecure quotes turn up on ceremonial coins.
This weekend, as Bloomsday arrives with a merry clang, too many men will be donning boaters and shouting aggressively in public places about offal. Something worse than obscurity and opprobrium has befallen Joyce. It has been decided that he is fun for all the family. You know what we mean by “fun”. That word covers people who dress up as Charlie Chaplin to run mini-marathons. People who start congas at office parties meet the criteria. Not so long ago, we immersed ourselves in modernist literature as a way of escaping “fun” and all its grinning acolytes.
Democracy and inclusivity are, in theory, wonderful concepts. Spread them around too liberally, however, and you risk encouraging the riff-raff to get above themselves. There are people who, upon seeing a gathering of glossy revellers at a Bloomsday event – models, politicians, game-show hosts – smile at the uninhibited joy of it all and allow a spring to energise their step. Others feel tempted to approach Mandy Starlight or Seamus Backhander with a splayed copy of Ulysses and demand that they answer a few rudimentary questions on the text.
The problem with inclusivity is that it rather inhibits the joys of exclusivity. A small part of the pleasure felt when reaching the last page of Ulysses, Moby Dick, Tristram Shandy or The Man Without Qualities stems from the awareness that one is now part of a relatively small club. Just look at that famous photograph taken on the 50th anniversary of the original Bloomsday. Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien comprised two-fifths of a thirsty party that, after setting out to follow Leopold Bloom’s odyssey, found themselves stranded drunkenly in the Bailey public house. Bacon manufacturers were not invited to sponsor any early morning festivities. Nobody tried to reach out to the “wider community”. A tight huddle of intellectuals was enjoying its own intimacy with a text that still seemed faintly dangerous. They look as if they were enjoying themselves, but they don’t look as if they were having “fun”.
The sad fact is that the public acceptance of Joyce – and the Bloomsday furore in particular – has stripped the author of some once-treasured mystique. To lug around that classic Penguin edition of Ulysses – the one with grey lettering on a black background – was to make some sort of statement about your intellectual ambition. Ulysses now seems almost mainstream. After all, aren’t we constantly being told that the book is “more accessible” than the casual reader might fear? I don’t want my high art to be accessible. We’ve got filthy Dan Brown for that.
Some years ago, my companion and I attended a small event convened in New York for Thomas Pynchon’s 71st birthday party. In the back yard of a bookshop in Brooklyn (where else?) we drank beer, ate Clark bars – readers of Pynchon’s delightfully inaccessible Gravity’s Rainbow will get the reference – before gathering around the fax machine to send the great man various obscure messages.
No doubt any stray punter peering over the fence while making his way towards Red Hook would have thought us pathetic, pretentious and unbearably pompous. Suits us, fine. You can stick your inclusivity.
Mind you, it was quite good “fun”.