As far as yer man Joyce is concerned, if in no other ways, I am a jammy bastard.
As a sci-fi and Sherlock geek (as described two weeks ago), I stopped doing Eng. Lit. as a subject at the age of 16, having been exposed mainly to Shakey, Shaw and Wordsworth, with mixed results. Novels, I have little recollection of; there was the brief encounter with Austen, which my teenage self threw aside because I didn’t realise she was taking the piss, but who is now a much-loved and hilarious companion. We must have read more prose, but apart from the compulsory Copperfield, Cider with Rosie and Tarka the Bloody Otter, little has stayed with me. I certainly didn’t get to do English for ‘A’ level, so I never came across Mr Joyce, nor the idea that he was in some way ‘difficult’.
If I had a pound for everyone I’ve heard say, “I tried reading Ulysses, but I couldn’t get past the first page,” I’d have £17.37 and be wondering where the 37p came from. Given the (relative) clarity of the first chapter, I somehow doubt if any of them have opened the book at all, but if they did it was no doubt in a state of trepidation, defeated before they began. If you approach something convinced you won’t understand it, even ready to affect an inverted pride that you can’t, you is on a hiding to nothing, sunbeam.
The late Sixties and early 70s were a golden time for folks of my vintage and pseudo-intellectual leanings. Not only was University tuition free, but we got a grant to help us support it by excessive drinking (my kid sister and I say that had I been born five years sooner or she five years later, it’s unlikely either of us working class kids would have gone into higher edderkashun). And not only was Radio 3 still reasonably free from dumbing down, but the new tv channel BBC2 showed Bergperson, Kurosawa, Ray and Marx Siblings films, ‘serious’ music and jazz, and stupendously pretentious late night arts programmes. On these things, the ideal distraction from doing homework assignments (thank heaven for that little white dot that the screen was reduced to some time around midnight; without it, no work would ever have got handed in), mini playlets, deep discussions and avant garde excerpts were presented by men and women in black roll-neck jumpers.
One night a metafictional playlet included a line saying, “that’s what drama is: people meeting and interacting,” which spurred the awkward sod in me to write a play in which none of the three characters ever met, being in an array of boxes, apparently a maze opening onto the stage front. It even got performed by UMIST drama soc and, I was told, taken to Americaland as part of a tour.
But I digress.
I resume: one night a discussion of Irish writing spurred me to ask a housemate, a librarianship strudel from Armagh, who the hell this Joyce chappie might be when he’s at home. An outburst ensued:
“He writes a load of gibberish, totally obscene and blasphemous. His last book even ends in the middle of a focking sentence!”
Well, that meant I had to read the guy. So I started in the middle of that sentence with Finnegans Wake. If you think Ulysses is difficult …
But, I assume, I had the advantage of having no fixed idea of what a book should do or be. To this day story is of little interest, the washing line on which the shirts of ideas, subtext and crap jokes can be hung out. I’d been a fan of Lewis Carroll since childhood, when Alice was the star of one of the two books permanently in the house (the other was my fellow Nottinghamian, Lemuel Gulliver, but the local library kept the volume level topped up). I’d loved the wordplay of Jabberwocky, and later, though never a fan of the Beatles (the imp of the perverse probably prevents me liking the overpopular on principle), I had read Lennon’s sub-Joycean Spaniard in the Works and In His Own Write. and even tried my own teenage hand at wordplayery (yes, among other things; ha ha).
Immediately I loved the music and the humour of the Wake, but was also a wee bit baffled about whether it did ‘mean’ anything. And I realised the fortnight or so I was allowed to keep it from Stretford library was not going to be sufficient to do it justice. To do page one justice, to be fair.
So I went out and bought the Faber hardback (I do prefer my bukks in well-bound hardback form; and William York Tindall’s excellently lucid A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake.
What a way to begin one’s love affair with great literature.
And what a way to break in an overlong blog. With the reassurance of ‘to be continued …’, I shall end this one appropriately in the middle of a focking