Sunday, June 19, 2011

The guilt of the reluctant Joyce reader

I can't stand James Joyce. I tried, I really did, to read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Perhaps I should have started somewhere else, but I didn't and it took me hours to slog through several pages. Not because the words were hard but because they were so deathly dull and my eyes had to be forced back to the page over and over. Sometimes I look at copies of Ulysses in the library and think about going back, about reading a page before bed every night, or keeping it beside the toilet so I can dip in for a paragraph or two every now and then. But I can't even bring myself to try.

 More than just disappointment that I don't like someone's writing that many seem to have labelled great, this feels like defeat. There are three or four Joyce books on a list of the top 100 reads of the 20th century that I wanted to work my way through. And hating Joyce means I'll probably never finish it.

Peter Craven, strange Australian literary/theatre/cultural critic that he is, made me feel a little better about this today, after reading through his opinion piece on Bloomsday on the ABC's opinion/analysis website The Drum.

"I wonder if we're in danger of forgetting that the difficult pleasures of literature are not unscaleable peaks but exhilarating walks amid the joys of mountain air...
Of course the difficulty of classic works of literature varies a lot. It is a much easier thing to read the whole of Jane Austen from cover to cover - something brave legions of women do every year of their lives - than it is to read late Henry James. It is easier to read (and more particularly to watch or listen to) Shakespeare than it is to read Milton or Ezra Pound's Cantos.
And it's also a lot easier to snuggle down with Steig Larsson or J K Rowling or watch Offspring or Mad Men or Downton Abbey, whatever your poison happens to be. Nor is there anything wrong with any of these things. The pleasure to be got from imaginative representation, from entertainment, is not to be mocked in any form...
Doctor Johnson, that thundering old wiseacre, said that we need to be reminded more than we need to be instructed. One of the good things about Bloomsday - despite every provocation to the kind of blarney Joyce would have deplored - is that it places great writing, literature, fair and square at the centre of the whole shebang.
It reminds us of what we know, that there is a beauty in this thing literature and that, if we have a feeling for language, it is one of our windows to truth.
In the lame penultimate chapter of Ulysses when Bloom and Stephen finally meet and scarcely know what to say to each other we get this vision of the night sky: a heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.
The ballyhoo of Bloomsday is one reminder that we use language that has been shaped by masters. Once in a blue moon, at least, we should revisit them."
I'm just a little inspired to pick up a copy of Ulysses and at the very least keep it in the house, not necessarily to remind me of failure but to wait for that blue moon when I'll want to revel in the language of a master, right before I crawl back into the arms of more engaging books, comfort books, with characters that step off the page, with words that blend into each other and don't require individual enunciation or appreciation.

Photo source: Joyce statue (Zurich)

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