James Joyce: You can't ignore the bastard

The great Irish writer still casts a shadow
May 21, 2014

"Too difficult, too scandalous for school, you read Joyce the way you listened to late punk, or early rap."

I grew up, the son of an Irish fireman and nurse, in a house with few books. We had a nursing manual, packed with astonishing photographs of extreme, untreated diseases; a Collier’s Encyclopedia, bought from a door-to-door salesman (to educate, by osmosis, me and my brother); and a lot of paperback Dick Francis racing thrillers. But, right beside the encyclopedia (where the Bible would have been, a generation earlier), there was one anomalous, thick, squat, hardback novel.

I grew obsessed with this 1967 Bodley Head edition of Ulysses. And not just because my father had thoughtfully marked “the dirty bits” in the margins in blue biro, so you wouldn’t have to reread the whole book to find them. My father’s considered opinion of James Joyce was, “That man is obsessed with shite.” I disagreed; Joyce simply gave everything equal weight and attention, including what had previously been taboo. He didn’t look away as Bloom entered the backyard jakes, or fade to black as the lads entered the brothel. Shocking. But exciting. Liberating.

I skipped the bits I found boring (I was young; there were many). But Leopold Bloom’s pub conversation with the Citizen, and Molly Bloom’s internal conversation with herself, blew my teenage mind. The sex, sensuality, swearing; the language, its energy, its invention; but, above all, the electric honesty.

Joyce’s first work of fiction, Dubliners, was published 100 years ago this month: there are now statues of Joyce in Dublin, and his face stares down at you from the walls of half the city’s pubs, hanging where the picture of the Pope used to be. His words once floated in smoke above Dublin, from the heaped burning pages of scandalous Dubliners. Now, they are cast in bronze and set into modern cement pavements. You tread on his words at pedestrian crossings. He footnotes the city.

But Joyce entered your life very differently in rural Ireland in the early 1980s. Back then, he still existed outside the official system. Too difficult, too scandalous for school. It was still possible for teenagers to read Joyce as an act of rebellion against teachers, government, church. You read Joyce the way you listened to late punk, or early rap. His leading public champion in the Irish media was Senator David Norris (elected by the liberal and mischievous Trinity College Dublin), the only openly gay man in official Irish public life. And, as far as I could tell, the only man in Ireland, apart from my dad, who had read Ulysses.

One lunchtime at school, my best friend Kevin, aged 15, showed a few of us a story he’d written; the others mocked it, and him. But I liked it and didn’t know why. It was stupid, but deliberately stupid. It was musical, it had a rhythm. I stood up for it, cautiously. Then Kevin told us he’d copied out the opening pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…” He mocked the mockers, with glee.

I read A Portrait of the Artist, lurching between incandescent excitement and agonised boredom. The lines: “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” OK, those were mighty lines. My soul stirred in response. But his religious and spiritual agonies didn’t resonate. Joyce was the kind of teenager who studied Norwegian in order to read Ibsen, and had epiphanies walking on the beach; I was the kind of teenager who studied physics in order to read American hard science fiction, and had epiphanies listening to David Bowie on Top of the Pops.

Our worlds were too far apart. Joyce was educated by the Jesuits, in the most expensive fee-paying school in Ireland; I was failing to be educated, at a state school, by the working-class Christian Brothers, in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary. When, in Portrait, Stephen Dedalus’s dad vows to send him to the Jesuits, saying “Christian Brothers be damned! Is it with Paddy Stink and Mickey Mud?” I paused. Sure, the line was spoken by a fictional character, based on Joyce’s own father; but the more I read by, and about, Joyce, the more I came to believe that Joyce himself felt a nervous contempt for my people, my world.

My social world; and my geographical world. Joyce feared the Ireland outside Dublin. Characters in Joyce speak of the interior of Ireland the way characters in Conrad speak of the interior of Africa—once you cross “the dark mutinous Shannon waves,” you’re practically in the Congo. I came to think that, as with Conrad, they reflected the unexamined prejudices of their author. His empathy fails at the edge of the Pale.

Most of his biographers agree that, as his father drank the family down the social scale, Joyce spent several months as a pupil of the Christian Brothers, before the Jesuits rescued him (and educated him for free, as a charity case, in Ireland’s odd imitation of an English public school, Clongowes Wood College). But, in what Robert Cremins recently described as a “class-conscious erasure,” Joyce later denied he’d ever been to the Christian Brothers.

Wow, I thought. He was ashamed of my life. He wouldn’t admit to having shared it. As a reader, I withdrew my consent. Our relationship became complicated. Now, 30 years later, I can understand the shock of the Christian Brothers to the fastidious, precocious Joyce; the terror of that descent; yes, it was the kind of trauma you might need to repress firmly.

And, looking back, I can see that Joyce might have thought it a politically wise move to claim to be purely a product of Clongowes, when, to get his early work to an audience, it had to pass through the class filters of early 20th-century English publishing. Not that his improved CV ultimately provided much protection. Virginia Woolf, 200 pages into Ulysses in August 1922, wrote in her diary, “An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self-taught working man, & we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating.”

Like Dickens in the blacking factory, Joyce had almost disappeared into the underworld. Yet his denial offended me, because I did disappear into that underworld, the extraordinarily violent and anti-intellectual world of an Irish Christian Brothers school in the last years of corporal punishment.

I had, till I was seven, gone to a liberal Catholic school in London. Kindly young nuns, with a sense of humour, in mini-dresses. School was a joy. Back in Ireland, I found myself in schools which had what could only be called pro-bullying policies. The teachers would hit you in class until they got tired, and then let you all outside, to hit each other.

The playgrounds were scenes of Hobbesian savagery; and as the only boy in the school with an English accent, I was granted special category status, and beaten up every day; it became boring, routine, as unremarkable as breakfast. Not even particularly bad beatings after a while, more of a weary ritual. A few incidents stood out. I remember being stabbed and left on the ground with a gleaming steel compass sticking up from my buttock. No teacher even noticed; or if they did, they did nothing. I removed it myself, wiped off the blood, and kept it. At least I’d got a new compass.

And at least I had books. Perhaps the most important thing my teenage self got from Joyce was this message: you can read and write your way out of this ignorant shithole of a country. I read everything in the children’s library, twice, and then, underage, systematically harvested the adult library on my parents’ tickets.

Books were sometimes more than a metaphorical refuge. One day, I refused to go, as a supporter, to an inter-school hurling match. A teacher hit me with a hurley until I got on the bus. When we arrived at the game, I stepped off the bus, climbed the imposing, open, iron gates of the ground, got up onto the flat top of the concrete gatepost, some 15 feet in the air, turned my back on the pitch, and read my book. My own classmates threw stones at me, until the puzzled teachers from the other school stepped in. Embarrassed, my teachers finally got my classmates to stop.

If you want Joycean epiphanies, this was one. As the stones bounced off the back of my head, and off the book which was protecting my face and glasses, I felt an exquisite joy. After the stones ceased, my teachers called on me to come down. I ignored them, and stayed up there in the sunshine, my back to the pitch, until the end of the match, reading my book. I may never have been happier.

It would suit this essay better if I had been reading Joyce on the pillar that day, but I wasn’t. I can’t recall the title, but it was science fiction. I needed to escape to somewhere further away than Dublin. And I didn’t trust Joyce any more. He had denied me thrice.

Looking back, I have tremendous sympathy for those angry, unloved, savage boys. Many had alcoholic parents, and came to school in the same clothes every day, faces tan and shiny with unwashed dirt. Paddy Stink. Mickey Mud… And it could have been much worse. My primary school headmaster was jailed last year for sexually abusing a nine-year-old boy. The vice principal had already been imprisoned for similar offences. Some of my schoolmates have since committed suicide.

University in Galway, studying English and philosophy, was quite an improvement. And I finally got round to reading Dubliners. I went to see The Smiths, in Leisureland in Galway, age 18, with a copy sticking out of my back pocket. “Oh man,” said their sweet-natured guitarist, Johnny Marr, after the gig, “Morrissey practically has that book tattooed all over himself.” He introduced me to Morrissey. We talked about James Joyce; Morrissey told me Dubliners was his favourite book.

That made a lot of sense. Our generation formed bands, wrote songs and albums, not stories and novels. The Irish heirs to the verbal exuberance of James Joyce are, by and large, not the writers of literary fiction. They are the great, exiled Irish lyricists; Morrissey; early, good Elvis Costello; Johnny Rotten (John Lydon) of the Sex Pistols and PiL; Shane MacGowan of the Pogues (who spent his pre-London childhood on a farm outside Puckane, only a few miles from our house). MacGowan’s “The Old Main Drag” and “Fairytale of New York” are postmodern pop-stories worthy of Joyce; brutal, clear-eyed portraits of hemales and shemales, destroying themselves with drink in London and New York. “How Soon Is Now” and “This Charming Man” by The Smiths ache with youth’s agonies as exquisitely as Joyce’s story “Araby.” I’d say Joyce, as a man who wanted to be a professional tenor himself, would be happy enough with that legacy.

History has done little damage to Ulysses, and no damage at all to Finnegans Wake (which seems to exist outside of time entirely), but it has slapped Dubliners around a bit. These stories, so shockingly, refreshingly new at the time (Chekhovian, but grittier), felt old to me when I encountered them at university. They had been ripped off too often. Localised versions had been mass-produced in writing workshops, worldwide, for decades. (The New Yorker still regularly runs the template Joycean short story, set somewhere exotic, like Haiti, or Kansas, or Queens: Grim bit. Dull bit. Depressing bit. Epiphany!) They were good, but not that good. I felt strangely relieved. He was mortal.

After university I sang for a few years in a band. Writing lyrics. Tuning up. But I gloomily knew that, when I began to write novels, I would have to engage with Joyce. You couldn’t ignore the bastard, he was too good. I dodged him with my debut, a very private book. I only really went for it, and engaged with his legacy, in my dementedly ambitious second novel, which I later broke into three parts. Part one (Jude in Ireland) was meant to recapitulate the early history of the novel. Part two was meant to engage with modernism, and with Irishness, and Englishness. And the anxiety of influence; Joyce haunts many of its longer passages. Beckett and Flann O’Brien also turn up and do a pirouette, as do many other loves; JG Ballard, John Sladek, Morrissey, Marvel Comics, PG Wodehouse, Borges. And language was the hero. That, I got from Joyce.

At the heart of the book, a character from Tipperary spends 24 hours wandering London, much of it through a vast pub of excessive Irishness; a tragicomic, postmodern meditation on modernism, on exile, on my relationship with London, the city where I was born; and on Ulysses. The surface shimmers with reflections on Joyce. In the depths, I buried villanelles and song lyrics, language games and computer games, in layer after layer. Gold bricks and plastic toys. Treasure and trash.

Years vanished. I went broke, again, writing it. Went a smidgen nuts. When it was done, the head buyer for Waterstones said “I could sell a lot of copies of this, if it wins the Booker.” And my publisher and I really did think, for a couple of mad months, that it had a good chance of making the Booker longlist, and a reasonable chance of making the shortlist (and no chance at all of winning). But a chance of finding an audience. Of keeping me alive.

Jude in London came out the year the Booker judges wanted thrillers, and easy reads. It received polite, slightly bemused reviews, mostly just summarising the plot. Nobody dug up the treasure I’d so carefully buried. Waterstones ordered three copies of the mass market paperback. Not three copies per shop; three copies for the entire chain.

By then, I was living in Berlin, having emigrated, on Ryanair, for a euro (plus applicable airport taxes). I was broke, in exile, and writing novels that nobody understood or liked. And I realised Joyce, too, had become a net, which I had spent the last decade caught in. The cultural moment for layered, difficult, referential, complicated, egotistic, insistent Irish novels had passed. Literary modernism is 100 years old. Let it go, let it go.

I plugged myself back into the 21st century. I got over Joyce. Over the anxiety of influence. I got over the dream of the Great Novel Containing Everything. I got over myself.

The next thing I wrote was the narrative at the end of the computer game Minecraft. With no ego in the aftermath of Jude in London, I wrote, in a pure, dreamy flow, all the things I wished I’d known as a teenager. Those 1,500 words cleared all the debts I had accumulated writing my obscure novels. The game sold 20m copies, and hoovered up every award in the world. Of course, Minecraft’s success was entirely due to the game itself, and to Markus Persson, its developer; but that modest finale, to my surprise, triggered electronic epiphanies on every continent. I still get fanmail, passionate fanmail, on Twitter, through my website, about those few hundred words. “You changed the way I see life.” “Thank you thank you thank you.” They’d found their treasure in my trash.

It’ll do.