Growing Up Joycean (1) – How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love Ulysses
“There was no hope for him this time . . .”
— James Joyce, Dubliners (“The Sisters”)
We are all raised in the wake of someone else’s obsession. Religion and politics are the most common examples but it can be anything: a parent who loves old cars or spends every spare moment in their garden, an older sibling who collects stamps, a grandparent who is devoted to a hapless baseball team, a relative who loves Jazz or crossword puzzles . . . The same people who are there when we speak our first words or take our first steps, who teach us to tell time and tie our shoes, also initiate us into the parallel universe of their peculiar fascinations.
For me it was James Joyce. Before I could write, before I could read, my father was already sharing his love of Joyce with me in ways I am still discovering. My father’s opinions and observations about Joyce are buried throughout my mind like land mines. If I come across the word “very” in a book or article I immediately recall my father’s assertion (taken from Joyce) that it is a useless word. Sometimes, while watching or listening to a science program, someone will mention quarks and, like a reflex, my mind supplies “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” (the term quark, my father loved to point out, was taken from Finnegans Wake). It is nearly impossible for me to think of Joyce without thinking of my father or, for that matter, to think of my father without thinking of Joyce.
Was my father a professor of Irish literature? A Joyce scholar? A writer or critic? He was none of these. In fact, he was a self-described hippie who dropped out of high school. He took many college classes but he never completed his degree. Not that this description does him justice. He was intensely curious, had a phenomenal memory, and a deep passion for reading. The superficiality of formal, institutionalized education frustrated him. The glib notion of studying a subject simply to pass a test or fulfill a prerequisite was anathema to him. He wanted to learn.
Which made him an ideal match for Joyce, a writer who requires (even presumes) active, engaged, and curious readers.
My father told me the story of how he discovered Joyce many times. In the late 1950s he was sent to a prestigious Catholic boarding school in New England. At some point the school authorities circulated a list of books that were forbidden. Already a rebellious student, he turned that list into a syllabus and vowed to read as many of the books as he could. One of those books was Ulysses. My father did not understand much of what he read but he was convinced it was a work of genius. Rather than dismiss Ulysses, he accepted its challenges and rewards with real excitement.
I never discovered Joyce. Joyce was always simply there. As far back as I can remember my father was telling me about Joyce and I took what he said as gospel. I was a particularly obedient child and my father was strident in his opinions. As a young man, though, I struggled with the reality of reading Joyce for myself. Where my father was fueled by the pleasures of rebellion, I had an eagerly approving authority figure looking over my shoulder—sometimes literally. It was an impossible situation. I loved reading and wanted to enjoy the writer my father revered above all others but the difficulty of the books themselves and the pressure of my father’s expectant enthusiasm made for a grueling experience. Joyce became a chore.
As I went on with my education, reading and loving other writers, my father was supportive and enthusiastic. At times, though, I could see he was losing patience. Yes, Melville and Dostoevsky and Chekhov and Austen were all wonderful but what about Joyce? When I started reading Proust he became peevish. He would pick up whichever volume of In Search of Lost Time I was reading, open it to the first page, and feign interest. Then, after a few seconds, his chin would drop to his chest as he pretended to fall asleep. I always chuckled gamely but part of my amusement came from the notion that someone who revered the last chapter of Ulysses (eight sentences that total forty-five pages) could be bored by anything, even Proust.
In her essay “Ulysses Without Tears: Teaching the Young a Difficult Book,” Mary Gordon describes how she introduces Joyce to college students:
“Imagine you had a friend,” I tell them, “who is a bully. An intellectual bully. He really enjoys knowing that he’s read much more than you. He often throws out references that you can’t possibly get . . . Why do you put up with him? Why do you continue to spend time with him? Because he tells great jokes and knows the words to absolutely wonderful songs. And he has a friend whom he travels with who’s a lot nicer than he is.”
That could easily be a description of my father. He could sit with you for hours and eagerly discuss literature, or film, or music. He also enjoyed dropping an allusion and letting it sit there between you, his face simultaneously expectant (did you catch it?) and challenging (I’ll bet you didn’t). When you finally gave in and asked for clarification, he explained himself with the earnest enthusiasm of a runner taking a victory lap. It was annoying and humbling and, more often than not, you didn’t mind because you learned a lot and he was funny as hell.
Eventually, my relationship with my father grew strained. At the time of his death in 2005 my father and I we were not exactly estranged but we had never fully reconciled either. My relationship with Joyce had also settled into a sort of truce: I genuinely loved several of the stories in Dubliners, especially “Araby,” “A Little Cloud,” and “The Dead.” I had tried to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man too soon and for many years my feelings about Joyce’s first novel were mixed. For Ulysses I had a grudging respect that was tinted by nostalgia for my father and the love of literature he had given me. As for Finnegans Wake, a book so filled with puns and allusions that it barely qualifies as English, so opaque that it is considered by many to be the most difficult book ever written . . . until recently I did not even own a copy. Nevertheless, for years I have joked that Finnegans Wake is a book I am condemned to read.
Then, over the last year, something changed. I fell in love with Ulysses. There was no eureka moment, no epiphany. It was as though a tide of appreciation and affection had been quietly rising within me until it simply spilled over and became an excitement my father would have recognized.
That moment of spilling over came courtesy of Irish critic Declan Kiberd’s Ulysses & Us: The Art of Everyday Life in James Joyce’s Masterpiece, released last year. For Kiberd, Ulysses is an example of wisdom literature, a book filled with lessons about how to live in the modern world. My father was uncomfortable with the idea that a work of art could have a message or serve any function outside itself. “If you want a message, go to Western Union,” he liked to say, often attributing the line to Joyce. Still, I think he would have appreciated Kiberd’s view.
I, at any rate, find the idea of Ulysses as wisdom literature liberating. Gone is the art-for-art’s sake compendium of style and technique and in its place is a book of supreme humanity whose challenges and difficulties are means to glimpsing how we could lead happier lives in this chaotic world. Even where Kiberd and my father overlap it was useful to read some of my father’s ideas in someone else’s words. Ulysses & Us helped me appreciate Joyce for myself, in my own way.
Which was what my father wanted all along, of course. It’s a sad truth that his love for Ulysses both prevented and made possible the arrival of my own.
I’m only sorry that my father is no longer here. I’m sure we could have had a good, long discussion about Ulysses. We would have talked long into the night as open books stacked up between us. Then, just as the conversation was winding down, he’d pause significantly. I imagine him stubbing out a cigarette for dramatic effect, then shooting me a cheeky glance over the rims of his glasses and saying, “So, when are you going start Finnegans Wake?”