BBC Radio 4

    In Our Time: Ulysses

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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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