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Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Ulysses. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PMcD


What a joy Joyce was! I will try to write this piece without any full stops, but I'm absolutely sure that Ingrid will not let that happen (Ingrid is going to put a full stop here. I just know it.). In fact, Ulysses is full of full stops. He has short sentences and shorter sentences and one word sentences, each one of those, in most of the book, is followed by a full stop.

As I've not been able to wander around town after the programme because I am confined to offices and work and answering emails and setting things up, I hope, for the next few months, here are a couple of things.

Firstly, I was astonished to learn that Joyce wrote at least a third of the book (i.e. about 80,000 words) in the last few weeks. You expect a masterpiece to be carefully crafted over the centuries. But no. When he got the proofs he pounded through them and added and added and added. It seems he was not a cutter. He was a piler-on. Maybe that would account for some of the extended passages of interior monologue, which can (sorry) have the effect of leading to a closing of the eyes and a turning off of the tap of attention.

The problem is what is the root of it? If, like the scholars on board this morning, you are deeply aware of the root and if, like the Joyce scholars throughout the world, you are alive inside this book and can recite chunks of it by heart and turn up in Dublin on Bloomsday and resent (I've already had those phone calls and it's only 12.15) any criticism whatsoever of Joyce, then that is practically unsayable. Exile from the literature department of the university will surely follow.

But it seems to me that many massive masterpieces have great stretches of rather boring, often bemusing, sometimes even sterile, territory. Not that I'm accusing Joyce of this. I'm admitting that if I go back again and again and again, then there is much to be dug out. The problem is, for most of us, reading a novel is something we want to do once or at the most twice, but spending a lifetime reading one novel is simply - well, most of us haven't got that sort of lifetime.

I remember reading it when I was - 21? - and being excited by it and tremendously impressed, particularly by the opening plain passages, and then carried through by the rushes of interior monologue and the excitement of so many allusions to classical scholarship. Reading it again this time, I wondered what the significance of those allusions should be? Just flicking in names does...what? Of course I'm not suggesting that Joyce did that, but sometimes it seems perilously like that (I'm getting in deeper here). Yet the fact remains that it is an extraordinarily vivid read, a brainstormer if ever there was one, and I've had much pleasure over the last few days.

Craving Ingrid's indulgence for one more moment - when I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man it was my first introduction to Roman Catholicism. We had a Roman Catholic church in the town and it was very well attended. I had Roman Catholic friends outside the school. But the closeness of the intensity of the Roman Catholic Eucharist to the High Anglican Eucharist struck me - shall we use a pagan term and say like a thunderbolt? I thought that their practices were so different.

Lots more to say, but that's where Joyce leaves you. Except that it is curious that the accurate, even innocent, and unsalacious description of Leopold Bloom in the jakes should arouse such fear and disgust in the mind of the great modernist himself, Ezra Pound.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

PS: After the programme Tom Morris, the producer, told me something that the Irish writer Fintan O'Toole said: "You're allowed to skip. The Joyce police will never know. If it's not working for you, move on. God knows there's plenty more."

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by REEKFEEL

    on 16 Jun 2012 20:37

    i've made Finnegans Wake far more readable yet keeping Joyce's words -
    here for an example -

    I've done the whole book if any publisher is interested

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by John Thompson

    on 15 Jun 2012 15:29

    (continuation:-)They pass,they skirt one another all day,but it is only at night that they meet.Each chapter is written in a different style,the names given to these styles is metaphorical,each metaphor sustained by puns.For Joyce all thought arises from the unconscious and returns to it.We need to read Ulysses by a process of free association.

    The opening chapters of Ulysses are the highest development of Joyce’s peculiar genius, for this lay with the habitual,the normal,the everyday,and his interest and observation were sustained by an elaborate system of analogy.But analogy will not permit of growth and development,these have to be foisted artificially onto the book,and as it approaches a crisis,it becomes bogged in tortuous technical devices,like the chapter of the lying –in hospital where the development of the embryo is illustrated by the development of English prose.The problem is it reduces man to dissociated metaphor.Humanity explodes like an atom bomb.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by John Thompson

    on 15 Jun 2012 14:53

    The basis of Joyce's work is the invigoration of Irish popular speech,the influence of music and song,English not being his native language,explains its unparalled virtuousity,also Joyce's near-blindness,his imagination becomes more auditory than visual as in Homer and Milton.Joyce must be read aloud for full appreciation.His poems are like songs.Also the great use of interior monologue for all 3 main characters.For Joyce the lapsed Catholic,words held magic sway over things: transubtantiaition. Disintegration of experience,integration of form.

    The theme and structure borrowed from Homer's Odyssey are a metaphor for Joyce's dream of Ireland's journey from a 'priest-ridden' backwater to a country taking its rightful place in the European intellectual and philosophical tradition.Joyce is the most cosmopolitan modern writer. Joyce's poetry is minor if charming,his drama doesn't work,his poetry works best in the comic framework of the prose novel.Style ceases to be a relationship between author and reader,instead becoming a relationship of a magical kind between author and object.Experience is replaced by prose.

    Joyce was a Flaubertian realist infected by the bacillus of modernism, following The Dubliners,he wrote Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, calling his hero Stephen Dedalus,connecting the contemporary character with the mythical artificer:there are two movements,one outward from Ireland the other downward into myth.Superficially Stephen is dissociating himself,on a deeper level achieving an association with myth.This led onto the systematization of Ulysses,with the mystification that followed in its wake.Too systematized Joyce asked?

    All Joyce's works have a strong autobiographical element.Ulysses was preceded by the play Exiles.An Irish writer,Richard Rowan believes his wife is playing him false with a former friend/disciple.Rowan finds himself in a tragic position regarding his mother,a pious Catholic.The theme is autobiographical.A onetime friend in 1909 claimed that when Joyce was courting Nora,she had shared her favours with himself.Rowan reveals that he himself longs for his own deception,deliberately making himself a party to it.Rowan identifies with Christ and looks for Judases amongst his friends.Very Joycean.Nora thought he encouraged her to go with other men.

    This play is the real basis for Ulysses,with the part of Richard Rowan divided between Stephen Dedalus,haunted by his dead mother,and Bloom,haunted by the idea of his wife's infidelity.They are the same person and may be regarded as a man young and old or two aspects of the same man.The subject of the book is the attempt to reconcile them.They pass,they skirt on

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