Edna O'Brien, ‘James Joyce’s Odyssey: The labors of Ulysses’, in "A Critic at Large", (The New Yorker, 7 June 1999)

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Source: Edna O’Brien, ‘James Joyce’s Odyssey: The labors of Ulysses.’, in “A Critic at Large” [ser,] (New Yorker, 7 June 1999). The writer's by-line is subscribed with the date May 30, 1999. Available online; accessed 29.03.2021.)


At the age of twenty, as the impecunious James Joyce prepared to leave Dublin in order “to forge the conscience of his race,” he wrote blisteringly to Lady Gregory, the doyenne of Irish literary society, “I have found no man yet with a faith like mine.” That faith has since been vindicated, but his insistence that he did not want to be a “literary Jesus Christ” was sorely tried. Joyce’s journey as a writer was one of martyrdom: the odium meted out to each of his works was strenuous, but it was Ulysses that met with the most vituperative attacks. It was seen as technically monstrous, antihumanist, unclean, and excrementous. The doings, the sayings, the veniality, the music, the cadences of his Dubliners are all there, as is the city itself, but his real crime in that strife of tongues was to break the sexual taboos of holy Ireland, Victorian England, and puritanical America.

The Dublin poet Austin Clarke said that Joyce was afflicted “with a particular kind of Irish pornography.” What would Joyce, the prevaricator, make of the revels that are held each year on June 16th, in commemoration of his miscreant hero Leopold Bloom? On Bloomsday in Dublin, men and women in Edwardian dress recite snatches of Ulysses. Bloom’s favorite foods - kidneys and other innards of beasts - are served at several rival breakfasts with, of course, Guinness, the national drink. More than other Irish literary icons, Joyce continues to command such revels because his work - particularly Ulysses - is a minefield of new riches, new explosives, each time we return to it. The Joyce I loved and learned from formerly has metamorphosed into an even more radical, more elusive, more labyrinthine writer than when I first read him or later read Richard Ellmann’s great biography of him. If the seven stages of man, as defined by Shakespeare’s melancholy Jaques, pertain, then Joyce is the author to conduct each one of us through our successive reading lives.

Joyce left Ireland - that “scullery maid of Christendom” - in 1904, to escape its confiningness, and went with his sweetheart, Nora Barnacle, to teach in a Berlitz school on the Adriatic coast, first in Pola, and then in Trieste. Being of a restless disposition, he soon tired of Trieste, with its drab provincials and a bora wind that turned men with ruddy complexions, like his, into butter. Rome, the Eternal City, suited his destiny, and, moreover, his hero Ibsen had wintered there. He found a job in a bank writing letters to foreign customers for nine hours a day.

In truth, anger over his financial straits and frustration at not having his short stories published was hotting up in him as he searched for that “fermented ink” to stir his bile, the way shots of absinthe sizzled his brain. It was in Rome, in 1906, that he first conceived of Ulysses - “that little epic of the Irish and Hebrew races.” From there, he voiced his literary manifesto in a postcard to his brother, Stanislaus. He wrote that if he were to put a bucket down into his own soul’s sexual department he would haul up the muddied waters of Arthur Griffith, the leader of Sinn Fein; Shelley; Ibsen; St. Aloysius; and Renan, the biographer of Christ. In short, cerebral sexuality and bodily fervor were universal: there was no such thing as a pure man or a pure woman. Joyce was about to do through words what Freud, whom he reviled, was attempting to do with highly strung patients in a cultivated but stifling Vienna.

He did not actually start writing Ulysses for eight more years, and by then he was living in Zurich, to which he and Nora had moved to escape the war. True to his talismanic inclinations, he liked to remind himself that, at the age of thirty-six, he was roughly as old as Dante had been when he began his “Divine Comedy,” and the age Shakespeare had been when he was struck by the Dark Lady of the sonnets. But his principal model would be Homer - blind Homer, precursor to blind Joyce, who, after laboring the seven years it took to complete Ulysses, was to suffer from glaucoma, cataracts, and dissolution of the retina. Nothing foreshadowed the transformation that was taking place within him. Dubliners, had had a rending tenderness, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was full of aesthetic self-questioning, but Ulysses would be seismic.

To make the book accurate to Dublin life required help from friends and relatives. It did not occur to Joyce that the pious ones, including members of his family, would recoil from his obscenities or that the literati who had been his drinking friends in his medical-school days would envy him the altitude to which his genius would go. One such friend was Oliver Gogarty, who, in an article published in the Saturday Review of Literature, in 1941, reminisced about Joyce with a sickening sanctimoniousness that did little to conceal his envy, and rued the fact that, in writing Ulysses, Joyce had lost the keys to his inferno. Joyce hadn’t lost anything: he merely wanted to insure that every detail, every feature of the Dublin he had left and would never live in again, was flawlessly and matchlessly rendered.

He would need to know the kind of pianola in Bella Cohen’s brothel, the kind of lamp that Stephen Dedalus would smash with his ashplant when the ghost of his dead mother appeared, and the pretty music-hall airs that might be played. (“My Girl’s a Yorkshire Lass” was what he decided on.) And Homer: he was always returning to Homer. He was intrigued by Hermes’ gift of a moly flower to Ulysses, to protect the traveller from Circe’s wiles. This moly flower - a white flower with a black root which was said to have magic propensities - was “a hard nut to crack,” he wrote to his friend Frank Budgen. It led to a train of questions. Would it be an invisible influence against accident?

If so, what accident might that be? Syphilis, he thought, but then he wondered if the etymology of syphilis was “swine love” or “synphileis” - the conjoining of humans. And could the moly also be absinthe, which made men impotent - the juice of chastity, the blessed potion against contracting syphilis? He corresponded with the Baroness St. Leger, “a siren of the Lago Maggiore,” and she assured him that the moly was the garlic flower. He chose Hermes, the god of signposts, to shepherd Leopold Bloom in his traversal of the city in the course of a single day, before he returned home late at night to his sexually robust wife, Molly. Greece and Dublin, the ancient and the modern, coalesced into one.

Joyce was equipped with rhyming dictionaries, maps, street directories, Gilbert’s “Historic and Municipal Documents of Ireland.” He badgered his friends for precise information on this or that - a list of shops, awnings, the steps leading down to 7 Eccles Street. He asked his faithful Aunt Josephine to get a page of foolscap and scribble down any “Goddamn drivel” that came into her head, and to find out whether, during the winter of 1893, the canals had been frozen hard enough for people to skate on. To Frank Budgen, he wrote, “Approach an ink bottle.” Budgen had been a sailor, and for Joyce, his experiences at sea - sea stories, sea slang, the sexual pangs of the sailors - had to be transferred into the mouths of aroused Dublin wanderers. After each exertion, he would collapse and repair to a bedroom - his eyesight worse than ever, Nora having to nurse him.

But Joyce’s powers of recuperation were great, and soon he would be up again, teaching, writing, visiting the taverns and the brothels - “the most interesting places in any city” - and, on occasion, bamboozling the landlord for a week’s or a month’s extension on the rent by playing a tune on his hire-purchase piano. Zurich was full of stimulation. Greeks, Poles, Germans, conscientious objectors, artists, chancers, and spies had all convened in the same city, and many of them frequented the Pfauen Café, where Joyce himself drank and overheard their crackpot theories of Futurism, Cubism, and Dadaism.

His listeners must have been enthralled by this lank, sandy-haired Irishman, with the near boneless handshake and the supple wit, who questioned each about what he knew best. He copied their slang and their anecdotes onto slips of paper, which he consigned to his pockets. He spoke five languages and had as well a smattering of Greek, though not the classical language. Greeks were good luck, nuns ill luck. He would have to know if the pigeons that flew between Scylla and Charybdis bore a resemblance to the Dublin ones, and he welcomed, even from strangers, anatomical descriptions of the Sirens in their coral caves, poised to ravish the sailors. He carried a pair of miniature drawers that he would put two fingers into and dangle puppet-like on the counter table, to the amusement of the motley clientele. He copied down French songs, and he especially liked the scatological ones.

The Dublin poet Austin Clarke said, years later, that Joyce was afflicted “with a particular kind of Irish pornography,” but that he was also a dreamer. Dreamer and dredger, gerund purveyor and ultimate wordsmith, he would lope his way home from the bar, dancing capriciously in his cups, reciting Verlaine, and yet be ready for the next day’s excruciating work, to embody the jokes, the smut, the ditties, the flotsam and jetsam ofl all that he had heard, so as to make his book more commodious - more nearly universal. For a lesser writer, such dissipations would have been ruinous, but he wanted to experience everything in order to write it. It was not simply that. He would astound his readers. He would bring them to a pitch of consciousness where they had not gone before. Not for him the leisureliness of Marcel Proust, of whose masterpiece he said, “Analytic still life. Reader knows end of sentence before him.”

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