What I Learned from James Joyce
Today is birthday no. 141 for JAAJ! I gratefully reflect on his influence.
While 2022 marked the centennial of Ulysses (and the expected conferences and publications), I was drawn to write about one of my favorite writers, James Augustine Aloysius Joyce, on an off-year, a doubly-palindromic one, the 141st anniversary of Joyce’s birth- and the 101st since JAAJ released his great novel on 2 February 1922 (birthday no. 40).
In my 40-odd years of writing, the long and subtle influence of Joyce has by now been so deeply submerged that it is perhaps allmost undetectable in my style. Indeed, it has been a long time since that high-school English teacher would laugh at me for thinking I was allowed the write dialogue with dashes instead of quotation marks; some innovations were reserved for JAAJ. It would end up a painful case for most others trying to pull this off.
I must preface this by noting that when I became old enough to read Joyce, and possibly even understood (something of) what he was trying to say, it happened to be the time when coffee-shops were making their first appearance in small-town America, influenced by the rise of Starbuck’s and changing tastes. In plainer words, it was the very early 1990s. And I was one of the plain people who approached the opening of such places as almost a miraculous- as proof that civilization must not be as far away as it felt.
Nevertheless, anachronistic as I have always been, the feeling of enjoying a book written in the 1920’s while drinking a cafe mocha on a lovely cold February morning, when that was still something new and unexpected, made it almost feel like I, too, was somehow transported back to the 1920’s and the author’s old-world environs.
There are so many things I learned from James Joyce that it would be impossible to even begin to explain. You would doubtless lose interest soon. I will say that, along with Kerouac, Joyce was the author who I studied most intently from the aspect of pure language; tonality, pacing, syllabic counts and the contravention of rules of all forms. With Joyce, there was a terrifying realization that here was a fellow who could write anything; he was more of a magician in that way.
Still, his magic was a comletely controlled one. If the reader at times was lost, JAAJ never was. I very much admired his absolute confidence because, even if I manifestly could not do the same things he could, I felt the same confidence in myself, for no scientifically-reproducible reason, and that would never change. Absent any future intention on his part, Joyce reinforced a ludicrously enthusiastic excess of self-belief in my own writing ability. I do not know if there is a definition for that sort of pathology, but I trust your man meant no harm.
I started reading in the order of writing, that is, first with Dubliners. And I studied those stories in great detail; they became the definition of what a ‘proper’ short story should be. The author’s great gift of maintaining objective distance and clarity were on full display, and the fact that he had written them at such a young age astonished me, and still does.
I continued with A Portrait of the Artist, which as everyone knows is a bridge-book between the JAAJ of short stories and of experimental novels, and greatly enjoyed it, before going on to Ulysses, which I cherished as a close friend. I have read on the internet (in more recent years, obviously) that sufficient numbers of people give up on this work out of desperation or boredom. I don’t know how anyone could. While certainly many of the allusions and authorial intentions will be lost on increasingly less-educated and temporally-distant audiences, you can read Ulysses simply for the musicality of its language. Too many people (in my credulous opinion) still believe it is necessary to understand everything that they read. In most cases, comprehension of even the simplest thing so eludes us us that it is no shame at all to be overwhelmed by the difficult things in literature.
In this sense, JAAJ represents (and will always represent) one of the ‘difficult things’ in anyone’s literary life. And that is not even to start on about Finnegan’s Wake.
Yet perhaps that is precisely the reason why James Joyce should be read, on his birthday or on any day, wherever you may happen to be. If you happen to be in Dublin, among the many literary sites in the author’s hnor, do call in at Davy Byrne’s Pub, which is immortalized in Ulysses, and where new ownership now displays a special first edition of the novel for those who follow the wanderings of Leopold Bloom for his Gorgonzola sandwich and glass of burgundy.
Happy travels, and happy reading, on this Thursday #JAAJ141 2