Word for Word: Time to experiment with Joyce

Given its importance in 20th-century fiction, why has ‘Ulysses’ not influenced more Irish writers?

Flann O’Brien: taking up the pickaxe

Flann O’Brien: taking up the pickaxe

 

A number of experimental writers and editors were gathered together by the poet and creative-writing teacher Dave Lordan at the Irish Writers’ Centre on Bloomsday for an event titled The Big Ol’ Yap.

They were there to discuss experimental fiction – Is it relevant? Does it belong in the mainstream? How has it evolved? Is it weird for weird’s sake? – and to ask possibly the most interesting question asked anywhere over Bloomsday weekend: why, given that Ulysses, Joyce’s experimental masterpiece, is widely considered the most important novel of the 20th century, did it not give rise to a tradition of experimental fiction in Ireland?

Why, until recently, did Joyce’s literary descendents tend to look instead to what Lordan dubbed the “melancholy naturalism” of Dubliners for inspiration? While other European countries rapidly developed robust literary avant-gardes, for the most part we stuck to the spuds’n’sunsets strand of literary fiction.

Rob Doyle, whose debut novel, Here Are the Young Men, has been getting a lot of praise, pointed out that although Ulysses, a book that launched a million tea towels, is revered from a cultural-tourism point of view, it is still a gold mine of literary inspiration waiting for writers willing to explore. “It’s such a great, gleeful experiment,” he said. “He has such fun, and it’s so daring. It’s like he offered us all these possibilities that we haven’t explored.” Not that there weren’t attempts – by Flann O’Brien, among others – to take up the pickaxe.

There was, of course, the stifling effect of the Catholic Church, which discouraged any kind of questioning of the status quo, through most of the 20th century in Ireland, and almost anything avant garde was dismissed, derided or banned.

Happily, as Lordan pointed out, any new medium creates a new form, and the freeing effect of digital technology is, belatedly, helping us to take inspiration from Joyce’s great adventure in words. There’s also an app, chronotext.org, that allows you to manipulate the text of Ulysses onscreen, which the man himself might have enjoyed.

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