Eimear McBride: Joyce, joy and enjoying Ulysses still

Joyce’s range and imagination are less grandiose and simpler philosophically

So, The World of James Joyce is the best jigsaw I’ve done in an age, and in the pandemic I did them by the acre, so I know whereof I speak. It features a variety of men, both in and out of bowler hats, loping around Dublin, getting up to stuff. Also, women hanging out of windows, or sprawling in bed, or putting up with all manner of male attention. Even better, it’s based on Ulysses, rather than the rest, accompanied by a few interlopers from beyond the page: Flann O’Brien and Paddy Kavanagh on the first Bloomsday, pissed, Beckett staring gloomily into the middle-distance. I like Bloom, with Bella Cohen, getting his just deserts. The fiddliness of the “heaventree of stars” though, somewhat less. But between Tatters, Glasnevin cemetery, the Citizen, and the spud it was, by and large, an enlivening memory jog.

I did it in the spring and for months it stayed where it lay, getting dined off and homework done on, on my rickety table. I even invested in placemats so it wouldn’t get wrecked, and frequently monstered my daughter about undoing the edges, while my husband’s laptop got invited to catch itself on whenever it found itself there after work. A bit overboard, maybe, but it took a whole weekend to make and provided classy, literary deflection from the state of the rest of the room.

I should probably now segue into how completing it reminds one of reading Ulysses: the piecing together, the building up, the great revelation of all its interlocked parts. Except it’s obviously not and the point is more about enjoying silly, tangential, and small, things Joyce — and these all the more enjoyable because of extracting such frivolities from so weighty an intellectual root. Which is a pity, it must be said, for Ulysses and us as well.

Some of the blame lies with Joyce for sure, especially with all his “enigmas and puzzles” swagger. But I bet now he’d wish he hadn’t shoehorned Ulysses into an ivory tower — I mean, who can recall Mrs Yelverton Barry’s “peerless globes” without a smirk, and that’s only one of a thousand tasteless jokes. Although its “unreadablity” now comes as its pre-packaged lore, I remain convinced this is nothing a smouldering TV adaptation couldn’t cure so let’s get the intimacy coaches on the phone! Unfortunately, that’s about the level you can expect from me. I am the laziest Joyce fan, with the lowest brow, and content to admit I enjoyed the novel so did the jigsaw of it too. I just really enjoyed reading it and then found myself unexpectedly changed by that read.


Of course, in the years since my first go, my respect has increased. I’ve grown more conscious of its innovations and learned to rattle my jewellery in celebration of its literary big bang. But underneath I’m still only a fan and if there were keyrings inscribed with “U.P. Up” to be had, I’d probably have one of those too.

Whether 25 was late to it, or early, I don’t know but Ulysses was my first Joyce encounter. Not Dubliners before. Not even a Pome. He was never touched on at school. Never mentioned at home, although a photocopied sketch of him hung on our landing, along with Beckett and the rest of the calendar gang. Also, writers way back then seemed to choke on his name, so Ulysses rarely featured in arts show conversations. Furthermore, growing up in the west, no one had time for dirty-minded Dubliners when we had actual Nobel winners hailing from just down the road. So that was the early ‘90s. Modernism was dead. Joyce belonged to tourists and academics and that was about it.

Fool that I was, I didn’t suspect on that morning I first opened it and learned snotgreen was the new colour for Irish poets, what else was about to occur

So, despite buying my copy in Westport at 18, I never settled in. Instead, it got relegated to the boxes of books which perambulated with me through the London bedsits of my youth, and I didn’t think about it again. Once I was more settled though, and the Billy bookcases had gone up, it began to reassert itself. Even become a sore point because visitors would invariably ask, “Have you actually read it?” and smile with satisfaction when I had to admit I had not. So, what started pushing me back to it was the desire to smugly say “Yes” along with curiosity about its very particular reputation; sneered at and revered in pretty equal measure which, I now think, is the literary equivalent of bagging the backseat of the bus.

Fool that I was, I didn’t suspect on that morning I first opened it and learned snotgreen was the new colour for Irish poets, what else was about to occur. Namely that everything was going to be all at once, and irreversibly, changed — writing, reading, the rest of my life and the wild fluctuations within it of failure, ignominy, and success. Also how, ever since, I’ve been condemned to fulfil that quote from Camus: “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”

I’m not saying Ulysses is a simple image, definitely not, but it did open me up and right from the off. I could call it my heart but it was a cultural padlock which trapped the unformed writer inside into unquestioning subservience to grammar and syntax. This, in turn, established a decorum around my choice of subject and hobbled me those, still popular, assumptions about how civilised — and civilising — novel reading, and writing, should strive to be. I’d read a lot by then but before Ulysses I hadn’t a hope of rising above all that. Even now I’m embarrassed at having been so at the mercy of triteness.

But then, the writing of Ulysses probably sprang from that same impulse for Joyce himself. The difference is, his rediscovery of those images led to a rethreading of time, then stitching into literature his version of Dublin before its old ways of being lived-in were gone. He rescued its inhabitants from oblivion by taxidermising each, and everyone, into the eternal realm of art. Button eyes preserved forever, just as he wished, staring from where he posed them into what he needed to be seen. His way of establishing, in this one instance at least, that the hand that wields the ink pen rules the world … or sometimes anyway … if only in a little universe … and one entirely of the writers’ own.

How personal that impulse was, Joyce alone would know. Such a universe, however, could surely only grow from an irresistible compulsion to search out, then relocate, those sources which impelled him to reach beyond himself for the page, then on out beyond the boundaries of that. All writers are reaching beyond themselves, of course, that’s the nature of the beast. But not so many extend the frontiers of literature while they’re at it. What luck for us then, he would not tolerate the waste of those images in whose presence his heart first unfurled.

Even today, through the impenetrable mists of pre-internet times, it’s impossible to miss how Ulysses heaves with the joy he took at pricking out those thousands of banalities and embroidering them in, delivering them from their banality into the canon, where they’ll probably always stay — a place their originals surely never expected to be, Oliver St John Gogarty excepted, perhaps. The result of it though, a century in, is that Ulysses still stretches out across literary fiction like a vicious auld tom. Claws more than still able for all the squeakers scurrying beneath and providing respite for the rest of us from the usual barrage of fictional mouse shit we have to endure everywhere else.

Not a bad trail for the literary world to have blazed for it, one would think. Obviously, however, that’s not quite how it went. Then, as now, much of publishing’s preference was for something altogether more neutered. Nowadays he’d be left in no doubt that a man spending a day traipsing the streets of Dublin has no value unless he is re-educating himself and providing a platform from which others can launch their views. I mean Molly does get one, so there’s that. Poor Gertie even but I’m not sure that what either woman’s at really fits the bill.

Hey Bloom! No likes for you! What a smaller world we’d live in then. What a smaller world we live in anyway

Whichever way, I’m fairly certain all the bursting of language and remaking of shape, all the fun of fooling with what the mind expects would be called out for myriad unsuitablenesses, as well being insufficiently informative about Dublin’s artisanal eateries. Hey Bloom! No likes for you! What a smaller world we’d live in then. What a smaller world we live in anyway with so much readily available information seemingly uncoupled from any increased obligation to properly, even privately, think. Not that it matters to Joyce. He got where he was going, despite middlebrow culture, with his brains, bones, balls, and gorgonzola sandwiches intact.

I’ve told the story of reading Ulysses a thousand times but I still remember now how it felt exactly like it’d picked me up, chucked me over a wall and shouted after that every single sentence I’d written before had become worthless, instantly. Had instantly become the past. It waited only a moment for me to accept that, then took me far away from the writer I’d imagined, and hoped, I’d be. So far, I doubt I could find back to the availability of social realism — even socialist realism, perhaps? — if I fancied a sally at it now. And how easily I could have missed it, I sometimes think. What if I’d decided to listen to music instead? Or taken something else off the shelf? I highly doubt The Naked and the Dead would’ve had the same effect and I do remember thinking about Norman Mailer back then — how embarrassing it was I hadn’t gotten round to him yet. That said, 20 years later, I still haven’t, and I never think about him anymore. Which, to digress, is something else I blame squarely on Ulysses: an inability to get on with writing that reads like it’s been made of wood. Sturdy. Chiselled. Chopped. Built specifically for history by writers for whom it’s anathema to accept how inconclusiveness, unease, and ambiguity form the very heart of what we make. For me such writing makes language mute because words formulated in bravado are unable to carry a tune. Or perhaps I should say unable to make music that doesn’t smell of the pulpit and preach.

To be fair, although the light of literary machismo may now have mercifully dimmed, its replacement — adults cocooning themselves in adolescence — almost makes me miss the swinging dicks of yore. At least for them fiction’s job wasn’t confined to convincing the rest of their gang that they were a good, opting-in, person, believing moral outrage the only answer to divergence of opinion and ever ready to publicly condemn fold-strayers to Coventry. That’s not the stump speech I’m about to make but, once upon a previous decade, art was expected to have greater scope than simply making itself the amenable mouthpiece of whichever consensus was shouting loudest that day.

Joyce’s range, and imagination, extended so much further again. Less grandiose and simpler philosophically, maybe, in its old-fashioned belief that the quality of a work relies upon it serving itself and pursuing only what it needs to get made.

Furthermore, that writers should transgress the sacred cows of their surrounding society, culture and industry, and blankly refuse to become the tool of this little piggy or that. It takes special levels of creative monomania to shut out all that racket, but Ulysses suggests Joyce’s pig-headedness was sound. For those of us, writing in these increasingly prescriptive days, he’s a wholesome reminder of the essential selfishness good writing requires and that the current insistence on writers themselves having dwelt, without deviation, in lives without blemish displays nothing so much as wilful ignorance of the wells from which creative impulse springs.

Generationally speaking, this reveals me to be rather long in the tooth, but Ulysses never pleased any committees of the just, so what do I care? Rather it exists on its own, by itself, and leaves us un-nursed in our experience of it. Indeed, I find such pleasure in its refusal to answer the questions those wooden-headed Little Misters and Misses love to ask — and seem to believe is incumbent upon every novel to answer — namely: “but what’s at stake?” And its twin sister in creative writing speak arse-ache, “who’s it for?” Laughable, and yet how depressingly ubiquitous these banal “gotcha’s” have become. If I were Joyce, I might venture to say, “oh ye of so literal imagination, what’s at stake is nothing less than the struggle of being alive and what’s it for? Well … it’s for you.”

Soon enough after it though, there Joyce sits with his big, flapping book and his open mitt, unapologetically presenting while simultaneously requesting commitment

But even this is only part of the point. What I was most unprepared for, on my maiden Ulyssean voyage, was the joy of it. Though, to be frank, the journey to that joy is no picnic and no amount of “apparently it’s very difficult” prepares the unwary for that. Also, the opening Telemachus section isn’t even that bad. Especially if you’re an Irish Catholic, who’s read a bit in Stanislavski, so can spot both the liturgy and a “character thought” from half a mile off. Soon enough after it though, there Joyce sits with his big, flapping book and his open mitt, unapologetically presenting while simultaneously requesting commitment. Not just to the usual concentration and attention either. It’s for quite a lot more.

In his inimitably infuriating way, Joyce insists the reader bring their entire life’s experience along for the ride. Anything that can help. Anything just to keep pace or navigate his rapid, and relentlessly unexplained, conglomerates of the oblique. This also precedes any mention of the literary, historical, and cultural pointers which can direct you as often to his inner world as the original time and place. It’s a quantity, and quality, of information which non-academic readers, like myself, may not have had time or, indeed, much previous cause to acquire.

So, Ulysses can come as an assault, even as an affront. No wonder those expecting a 700-page handhold, in return for their €10, so often take fright. But it’s impossible to deny how refreshing it is, in this world of apologise and explain, Joyce refuses to cajole or beg. He’d rather Ulysses was flung out a window than deign to plead its cause before readers too indolent to shift for themselves. In the current climate that’s enough to get you Amazon 1-starred to death — protected by its classic status, as it is, there is one on there with the particularly Joycean complaint “… damaged during transpirt”. Happily, he never had to contend with those who think books should only tell them about themselves. And God spare us all from the flat-footed readability brigade. Or, as James Kelman says: “Fucking idiot with yer readability. Fuck you!” Rather, Joyce has high expectations of us and it’s our job not to disappoint him.

Every nuance matters, sight, sound and scent and each pall of doom comes ready counterweighted with the possibility of transcendence

That said, it must be accepted Joyce is inclined to make holes where the realism stall is set out to connect. Dot to dot. Sentence to sentence. Action to feeling. Behaviour to consequence. The sins of history to the woes of the present. Indomitable youth to the living embodiment of disappointment. How independently verifiable facts are actually only social constructs thanks to the claims of post-modernists which are always, and inarguably, true. Tsk! Of course, Joyce also does all that — apart from the last because, for him, the physical experience of life contains more human truth than a thousand works of philosophy. Every nuance matters, sight, sound and scent and each pall of doom comes ready counterweighted with the possibility of transcendence. The whole book’s alive with hope, in its widest, most existential sense. Just not in the manner most books train us to expect or understand the average reader is well able to take pleasure in.

Ulysses encourages the reader to bring along their very best. It assumes them capable of operating beyond personal preference and prejudice. To be willing to dive into this great untethered, unfettering, experience the like of which they’ll hardly have known before and will likely not know again. Riotous and undisciplined as it may seem. Impenetrable, and cocky, as its pose may be. Bring yourself to it, I realised that first day, and it will teach you how to read. So I did, and, in turn, it rewired me. Changed how I thought. Retrained my expectation of what I, at my own small desk, should be aiming to achieve. Not to think like Joyce or take his subjects on. Not to attempt any — pointless — competition or even adopt his linguistic preoccupations. It was both more private and far greater than that. Like evangelicals baptised into Christ, it was allowing Joyce’s insistence on freedom into the very centre of my life. It was recognising, and accepting, that freedom as literature’s one inarguable ask and then running with it, wherever it might lead.

When I first read Ulysses 20 years ago, I thought literature’s right to explore humanity, thought and history, in all their venality and glory, was too evident to need being said. But between the nauseating attack on Salman Rushdie this summer, and the censorious puritanism now infecting every aspect of our culture, writers are too often left weighing the risks of still publicly being their questioning selves. So, as well as simply enjoying Ulysses, it’s time to side with its wider implications. To reassert the non-negotiability of writing in a state of unrepentant independence, in search of those great truths to which fiction allows only the dauntless mind access. Therefore, to the transgression of Joyce and his Ulysses, I say: “yes I will, yes”.

  • Eimear McBride has won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Lesser Bohemians and the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Desmond Elliott Prize, Irish Fiction Award, Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and Goldsmiths Prize for A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing