Saturday, 17 October 2009

James Joyce

Declan Kiberd's Cheltenham Lecture yesterday represented for me all that's best about our Festival of Literature. Here spoke someone, of whom I'd never heard, on a topic of which I lived in some fear, and by whose language I was transported for the whole hour.

Professor Kiberd, looking a little like an apologetic Groucho Marx, flattered us initially by extolling Cheltenham: "one of the last of the intimate cities." As, he said, was Dublin at the time of Bloomsday, "the dailiest day". People walked. They must circulate in the city streets, like blood in the body, "the weather as uncertain as a baby's bottom" (Simon Dedalus). Bohemia in Dublin was compulsory: in Paris, optional. Joyce was in revolt against a sort of arrogant bohemianism: culture separated from everyday life.

The lecturer, as a writer on Ulysses, described himself as like a soccer correspondent for the book. He quoted the Balinese response to Margaret Mead: "We do everything as well as we can." Joyce would have liked that bit of self-help philosophy: he wants you to become the parent of your own reading. "The ordinary is the proper domain of the artist: the extraordinary can safely be left to journalists."

Kiberd was particularly strong on Joyce's love/hate relationship with Catholicism. Religion has declined into fretful rule-keeping, yet Joyce hung around churches in Holy Week, knew the Latin of the Triduum liturgy by heart, and particularly loved it when they sang Lumen Christi at the Easter Vigil. "Good idea the Latin. Stupifies them first;" but after saying this, Bloom administers his own viaticum, offering bits of white paper to the gulls in the Circe episode: when they aren't fooled, he resorts to Banbury cake. Later again, Bloom gives Stephen the Eucharistic coffee and bun.

The lecturer described Bloom as the womanly man, akin to the central figures in so many Shakespearean tragedies, as contrasted with the comedies' manly women heroines. And Stephen Dedalus took to drink as the shy person's revenge, his way of dealing with the insult of the actual.

I see from my copy of Ulysses that I tackled it 40 years ago: time now to do so again I believe.

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