“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…