James Joyce

Consuming Joyce by John McCourt & One Hundred Years of James Joyce’s Ulysses edited by Colm Tóibín

by
August 2022, no. 445

James Joyce’s Ulysses was published 100 years ago by American Sylvia Beach, who ran a Parisian bookstore called Shakespeare and Company. The early history of the work was marked by controversy and censorship. The centenary is being marked by numerous publications in celebration of the work by writers, academic Joyceans, and even the odd Irish ambassador. John McCourt’s Consuming Joyce: 100 years of Ulysses in Ireland traces the reception of Ulysses in Ireland. As much a book about Ireland as it is about Ulysses, it follows the critical, institutional, and popular reception/consumption of the work through the different phases of Irish history.

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Ulysses was the first novel to become a celebrity in the mass media age. Its reputation was ‘enhanced’ by its alleged scurrility, its banning in the Anglophone world in both serial and book form, its having engendered legal proceedings centred on obscenity and copyright, and its notoriety as a wilfully difficult text. James Joyce wrote a novel that aspired to map its author’s home city – he claimed its success would be founded on the ability to reconstruct Dublin brick by brick from the novel, should the city cease to exist – and to ‘keep the professors busy for centuries’ (so far successful, one would have to say). George Bernard Shaw called it ‘a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilization’, while many other writers and critics dissented, claiming Ulysses to be the wonder of the literary world, a work of genius elevated beyond the ephemera of provincial morals and pearl-clutching citizens’ committees. It encompassed a world in its pages, and created it anew. The novel re-imagined modernity, drawing myth and epic and tragedy into its field of vision, and provided readers with the means to see their lives in the same milieu as that of Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, Molly Bloom, Blazes Boylan, and all the rest. It changed everything.

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Literary biography is an often derided genre. Writers, in particular, tend to be suspicious, if not openly hostile, toward what they are apt to regard as a secondary or parasitic form. And there are valid reasons for this wariness. The assumption behind a biography is, reasonably enough, that the writer’s life informs the work, but establishing the precise relevance of the life to the work is a treacherous business. Because it is possible to argue that anything a creative writer experiences is at least potentially significant, there is no obvious line between a legitimate and a trivial, or even a prurient, interest in the details of a writer’s personal life. 

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It’s usually said that Australians are uninterested in the metaphysical. Where in America the lines between the secular and religious are notoriously blurred, not least in their politicians or sporting heroes invoking God on almost every conceivable occasion, Australians by contrast are held to be a godless lot, their mythologies entirely secular in form and meaning. God is rarely publicly invoked, except by ministers of religion whose particular business it is duly to do so.

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If James Joyce had ever visited Australia it is unlikely that he would have come up with anything like D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo. For one thing, as with most Irishmen, his interest in landscape was negligible; for another, his sense of play and his myopia would not have allowed him to romanticise the great Australian bush, much Jess the suburban sprawl. He might have felt somewhat at ease in the ‘Loo or the Rocks area, in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy or Little Dorritt Street in Carlton, or perhaps by the Yarra at Burnley. But why fantasise?

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