Monday, February 20, 2006

James Joyce: Writings, Spoken Word & Film

During 2005 I became seriously interested in James Joyce the writer. I did a number of things in trying to appreciate Joyce and emphasize here those that I found most enjoyable. I also cite some of the online resources relating to Joyce I became aware of.

Biography. I read the magnificent Richard Ellman, James Joyce, 2nd edition, Oxford 1982. Described by Joyce fanatic Anthony Burgess as ‘The greatest literary biography of the century’ it lived up to its reputation. Joyce as the scrounging, often ill, great thinker who roamed around Europe with his beloved wife Nora, getting drunk while living in grinding poverty. As Joyce’s writings are so intensely autobiographical it helps to know something of his life, particularly his early life, to understand his writings. Descriptions of his approach to writing are also informatively described by Frank Budgen’s important book, James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses, Oxford 1989 (out-of-print for many years but available online here). Joyce and Budgen are viewed above, presumably getting boozed. Lesser insights are conveyed by his wife’s biography written by Brenda Maddox, Nora, The Real Life of Molly Bloom, First Mariner Books 1988; by the descriptions of his somewhat grumpy (though much abused by James Joyce!), brother Stanislaus Joyce, My Brother’s Keeper: James Joyce’s Early Years, Da Capo Press, 1958 who later became a professor of literature and, finally, by the biography of his schizophrenic daughter Lucia in Carol Shloss’s, Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake, Farras, Straus and Giroux, 2003. Lucia had an unfortunate fling with Joyce's young friend Samuel Beckett (yes, that Samuel Beckett) and this may have helped to throw her over that edge.

A big deal about just one family? Yeah, but what a family and what a literary contribution to the world Joyce made.

Writing. Joyce was a pleasant if not a great poet. His first book of poems, Chamber Music, appeared in 1907. Nor was he a great dramatist. His play Exiles (available online here) was published and performed in 1918 without great success. But his Dubliners (online here), first published in 1912, is one of the greatest collections of short stories ever assembled. They are all good stories but ‘The Dead’ to me was particularly evocative. It is a slow grind into pathos. Then came the minor classic, Stephen Hero , which was not published until 1944 - Joyce, legend has it, threw it into a fire but it was rescued by his sister. Later this was rewritten as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (online here) and first published in 1916. Probably the first sign of real greatness, it is an acerbic picture of the Catholic Ireland of Joyce’s youth. The highlight for me was the graphic picture of Hell’s fires portrayed in Chapter 3. Others with more subtlety would pick other passages but this, to me, was awe-inspiring. Joyce's anti-clerical and anti-Irish attitudes are already becoming strong.

After completing this Joyce did various things - learnt Italian, taught English and suffered enormously with eye-related and other medical problems. He took years and years to publish his great life’s work Ulysses in 1922. There are many online versions - useful for searching such a lengthy work - one is here. Ulysses cannot be summed up on a blog although it could be the subject of a blogsite. It can be enjoyed as a companion, and dipped into. Ulysses describes a single day in the life of Dublin (Bloomsday June 16, 1904). It is widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest novels ever published in English. It is a restless though unerringly precise piece, with changing styles and tempos. Parts of it are boring, other parts intensely poetic and still others hallucinogenic ramblings of masochistic fury. The main characters are the lovable Leopold Bloom and his quasi-faithless wife Molly. And the intellectually uptight, Stephen Dedalus, who nonetheless is kind. The greatest novel I have voyeured through.

This great literature overwhelms Joyce's political and other writings (collected as Occasional, Critical and Political Writing, Oxford 2000) which I found uninteresting. His Collected Letters are released in two volumes of which I have only managed to read the volume edited by Stuart Gilbert. These volumes are curiously out-of-print and surprisingly difficult to find. I missed his letters to Nora which would have interested me – only a few such letters remain - although secrtions are quoted in the Ellman biography. Joyce and Nora had a seriously enthusiastic sex life.

A big gap in my appreciation of Joyce is Finnigans Wake (no apostrophe!) which is available online here in searchable form though I could imagine no-one reading it in this format. I did not come to appreciate more than fragments of this work even when my spindly Penguin edition was replaced by a solid hardcover Faber & Faber edition of 1946 that I was able to secure through an online second-hand dealer for a price something less than the cost of a bottle of Grange. The hard cover and the price didn't help my understanding of this monstrous work. I did persevere. I was so convinced that a key would exist to unlock the treasures of this masterpiece that I purchased the studies by Campbell, Gordon, Tindall, Bishop and finally, and most hopefully, Anthony Burgess’ A Shorter Finnegans Wake (out of print but fairly easy to pick up). None succeeded in helping me and I walked away from what might be a great literary treasure understanding almost nothing of it. This is deliberately complex writing (Joyce reveals this in his conversations with Budgen) that does have a complex and devious plot that is intended to emulate a dark dream state involving incest. It is based in structure on Giambattista Vico's 15th century, New Science . Sorry James but I have a finite life and cannot be bothered spending the time to work it all out. One day maybe.

Spoken Word. Wandering through the University of Melbourne bookshop one day I came across an abridged spoken-word version of Ulysses on 4 CD roms released by Naxos Spoken Word. That evening I listened to it and was overwhelmed at the transparency of Joyce's writings when spoken aloud. For a week or so I listened to little else and found myself diving back into the novel to, take at my own pace, the particular bits I enjoyed most (Stephen walking by the seashore, the brothel scene, Leopold's masturbation at the beach, Molly’s soliloquy). The following week I went out and bought the whole set of 22 CD roms of Ulysses on Naxos and, believe me, ‘bleeding chunks’ do not compete with this. It runs, in total, for 22.5 hours and should provide a lifetime source of pleasure. Jim Norton is the main narrator and Marcella Riordan is Molly Bloom. If you can afford $250 and like James Joyce, do yourself a favor and buy this. The Naxos CDs are widely available in university libraries or can be subscribed to online here.

I then tried Naxos' abridged version of A Portrait of a Young Man and a Caedmon spoken-word version of Dubliners. Both were inspirational to listen to - maybe these writings were meant to be listened to. Suitably encouraged I doubled up by acquiring The James Joyce Collection on Caedmon which featured a number of readers, most notably Cyril Cusack, and a couple of (fairly poorly recorded) excerpts from Ulysses and Finnegans Wake spoken by James Joyce himself.

Again to complete a happy sequence of events with a major flop I purchased the 4 CD set of readings taken from Finnegans Wake by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan again on Naxos. Parts are comic and entertaining but my joy trailed off into incomprehension and boredom fairly soon, just as my attempts to unravel the written version had.

Film. I have written everything in a neat sequence above but, in fact, it all occurred together. To throw some extra ingredients into the temporal pie should mention that I searched for visual performances of Joyce. There are several excellent TV documentaries on Joyce in university libraries but three film treatments of the Joyce novels appealed greatly and, as with the spoken word presentations, drove me back into the Joyce written word.

These are the Joseph Strick directed versions of Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as well as Bloom directed by Sean Walsh. These are necessarily ‘bleeding chunks’ and skip over much (indeed most) but they do provide illuminating interpretations of the writings. I came away from them with an overwhelming affection for Leopold Bloom (the silly ass) and admiration and affection for the somewhat prissy Stephen Dedalus. Molly Bloom? Well, you cannot help but appreciate her feminine honesty. ‘I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.’

Bloomsday celebrations (where, among other things, Joyce’s works are read aloud) are held June 16 each year in Sydney and Melbourne and, of course, around the world. I had to work on this day in 2005 but will try to join in 2006.


Bring Back EP at LP said...

Has anyone ever understood Ulysses abd can anyone ever understand it.

hc said...

Homer, The plot of the story is simple. There are some hallucinogenic scenes with the imagined 'trial' and at the brothel and these are harder. But the main problem in reading are the long intervals where you have to stifle yawns. But it is worth doing so. Get to the point where Bloom leaves Molly to head off to the funeral and you will be engrossed. Try the Naxos recordings and you will see Ulysses is mainly straight narrative.

Finnegans Wake, well I wonder who 'understands' that and even if Joyce sought understanding. A dark dreamworld - strange shapes loom and disappear. But seems like nonsense to me.

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Anonymous said...

I am alarmed that you find Finnigans Wake a bad work. I dont think that James Joyce wanted people to understand it entirely. I have spent some time reading parts of Finnigans Wake and I must say that you should broaden your mind when you read things like that. Personally, I believe that that piece of literature is fasinating

hc said...

I don't think I said I found it a bad work. I find it totally unintelligible. I cannot get anything from it other than short-term curiousity when read.