When I first encountered James Joyce it was when I watched a dreadful adaptation of ‘The Dead’ in The Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Ten years later and I am still very certain that it was the longest evening, of my life. My family were all born in, or still live in, Dublin- so some of them are pretty big fans of him. Although at thirteen I was certainly not interested; it all went way over my head, and in all honesty I couldn’t understand the need to tell a story about a dinner party.
Several years later I started reading T.S. Eliot, and as a result started to read up on what would become (and remain) my favourite literary movement- Modernism. Of course, James Joyce is entirely interwoven with Modernism, so I decided I was going to conquer ‘Ulysses’, before I started uni. It started off well, the high point for me was spotting a Dorian Gray reference a few pages in. Sadly, after feeling like Northrop Frye, things took a quick downturn. Much like watching a play about a dinner party, I really did not get the significance or the point of any of it. I am one of those irritating literature lovers who have to get a work of art; I like to feel as though I have seen a potential meaning, or significance, I’ve never been good at reading for the sake of the words on the page. I didn’t even manage the first chapter, so the hefty novel was condemned to the bottom of the bookshelf.
‘Ulysses’ reared its ugly head once again at university; I read the sparknotes and just about managed to get through the seminars. Luckily it was my second year and writing on Joyce was an option and not compulsory;I licked my intellectual wounds and vowed (much like Elizabeth Bennett, promising never to dance with Mr Darcy) that Joyce and I had parted ways for good. Uni had other ideas, and I was once again reunited with him in an elective module in my final year. I saw his name on the reading list and wondered, just how badly I needed that degree after all, but I’d gotten this far. I picked up ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, in the same way a sane individual would handle a dead animal which had found its way to their doorstep, and began reading it.
I ended up absolutely loving it. I even liked the book far too much to be concerned with how much I was having to eat my own words. Perhaps it was the gradual phasing in of Joyce’s hard to digest style- the novel begins from the perspective of a child which makes things much simpler. It is also proof to me that Joyce is a genius. His usage of free indirect discourse means that the reader can fully engage with and follow the intellectual progression of Stephen Dedalus. It’s hard to comprehend the artistic scope of a novel which opens with ‘Once upon a time’ and a moocow, but by the closing chapter the same novel is engaged in a lengthy discussion on aestheticism.
There’s only five chapters in the novel, so it’s quite a quick jump in time, but somehow Joyce makes it all appear seamless. I also realised that there is nothing quite like Joyce’s depiction of Hell to put the fear of God into you, and I’ve read Dante. It is easily the most vivid and horrifying section of any book I have ever read;
“Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jellylike mass of liquid corruption. Imagine such a corpse a prey to flames, devoured by the fire of burning brimstone and giving off dense choking fumes if nauseous loathsome decomposition. And then imagine this sickening stench, multiplied a millionfold and a millionfold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in reeking darkness, a huge rotting human fungus. Imagine all this and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of hell”.
Reading the sections on Hell made me really understand the phrase ‘it made my skin crawl’.
For anyone who might be reading ‘Portrait’ for the first time, I can’t recommend the Oxford World Classics edition enough. It has a brief but useful introduction, and plenty of really interesting further reading suggestions. There is also a godsend of a section which provides notes to some of the more confusing passages and provides context for some of the colloquialisms and contemporary allusions (so useful when dealing with Joyce).
In light of my appreciation for Joyce I have started reading ‘Ulysses’ again (fingers crossed), now that I’ve graduated and can read for fun when I’m not working. I even found time to visit the James Joyce centre when I was last in Dublin. It’s cheap to get in, but there’s nothing particularly noteworthy which will keep you there for longer than 20 minutes. I am told that the James Joyce tower and museum is much better. I also took a detour past Belvedere College, where Joyce studied. The older parts of it are lovely, but (as is often the case with older academic institutions) they appear to have drafted in a vindictive architect, and have erected a monstrous orangey brown building which certainly has a negative impact on an otherwise lovely site. Below is the only sort of okay photo I managed to get from the James Joyce centre, and it isn’t actually an original so this really added to the underwhelming experience.