The first gift James Joyce gave me arrived about forty years ago when I was ill with some now forgotten ailment and spent my three days of recovery reading Ulysses from cover to cover. The gift was twofold: it made me doubt my intelligence, and made me think English was not my native tongue. The book seemed like an artifact from an alien culture, about which I knew little; and it also seemed the product of another language, as impenetrable as a Sanskrit crossword puzzle. And yet the reading was a thrilling experience.
Of course it was ridiculous to think I had read the book in three days. I had grasped fragments, I had found that I liked Bloom and Molly enormously, thought Stephen a difficult and not- very-likable intellectual. I had ferreted out some of the book’s scandalous passages, including the Nausicaa episode, in which Bloom and the young Gerty McDowell achieve simultaneous orgasms-at-a-distance, a section I thought I understood; but I’d missed totally the mockery of the sentimental cliches of the narrator that so ebulliently define Gerty’s world.
I remember James Agee’s reaction to this sort of confrontation with Joyce. He wrote in one of his letters that he’d been reading A Portrait of the Artist and added it “makes me ashamed ever to have thought I’d read it before, and exceedingly suspicious on the whole question of when or how or how soon to read what: unless there is certain to be re-reading; and suspicious even then; and suspicious for that matter of my illusion that I am reading it now … I am sick in myself and others of the illusion of reading which comes of somewhat intelligently skimming a great work, being somewhat excited by it, and thinking from that that you ‘know’ or ‘understand’ it.”
I never thought I ‘understood’ all of Ulysses and still don’t. But if I was overwhelmed by my early encounter, I was not daunted. I carried it with me whenever I moved anywhere, and I have the same copy still, yellowing and dogeared, the dust jacket gone, the pages marked, the text full of underlines; and while I understand it better now, it remains as strange a creation to me today as it was then. Much of Ulysses was a mystery I felt I would never fully solve, yet I loved its wit and wordplay, and valued it for the improbable ambition it presented to the youth I was. At some point it helped inspire me to begin thinking of an impossible enterprise: the creation of a book that would leap over my own conventional ambitions, a book that would be greater than what I knew I could do.
About twelve years after that first reading of Ulysses, I was on the phone with my father, who was then 77 years old, and he was remembering Van Woert Street, the long Irish block with an old Dutch name where he had been raised; also he was remembering his friends, the O’Connell brothers, a quartet of Irish-Catholic-Democrats who successfully entered Albany politics in 1921, took the city away from the Republican Protestants, and never gave it back; and he was also telling some of his World War One stories that I knew almost by heart. His memories coalesced in me with such significance that I wrote down what I called “Idea for an Albany fantasy,” a page and a half of pencil notes that would reconstitute the city’s past — which is as old as the country itself, in terms of European colonization. The fantasy would begin with such characters as the great Revolutionary War general, Philip Schuyler, the political wizard Aaron Burr; one of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, the British General John Burgoyne, all erstwhile denizens of 18th century Albany; then move along to Herman Melville and Henry James, our 19th century literary giants with an Albany connection, to Martin H. Glynn, a 20th century Irish newspaper editor from Albany who became Governor of New York State and who played a small role in the development of the Irish Free State; also those political O’Connell brothers and a vast crowd of priests, nuns, gamblers, gangsters, mothers, whores, and laboring men, including my father; and central to it all, by way of the pleasure principle, a stunningly beautiful and sensual girl I knew extremely well. All these Albanians would be contemporaries in my novel, all eternally living out their destinies, over and over again, as they discovered one another’s present and past.
I added at the end of the notes: “Commit a decade to the creation of this book.”
Alas, I did not create the monster, for it was beyond my ability not only to execute but even to imagine beyond the broad outline. I wrote instead a novel of average size, then another, and another. But, as it turns out, I have been creating some sort of oversize creature after all: for out of the novels I have written, and others I hope to write, has emerged a schema of interlocking stories that I call “the Albany cycle,” and which seems to be not just a series of books, but an effort to invent and populate an entire world; and the writing of it will probably occupy the rest of my life. I recall the eminent critic Edmund Wilson writing about Ulysses, and the unknown future of its characters. We know Bloom has brought Stephen home after a day’s and night’s wandering, and that the sensual Molly immediately envisions an affair with Stephen, getting Italian lessons from him, giving him singing lessons in exchange; also we see Bloom asserting his absent manhood by demanding breakfast in bed from Molly, and one critic has suggested Bloom may even be ready to accept cuckoldry by Stephen in order to gain a son — letting Stephen father a child with Molly.
Of course we do not know what the Blooms or Stephen did, for Ulysses has no sequel. But so vivid are the people that we are able to imagine them in assorted future roles; and this is how it seems to be with me and my own characters — one novel begetting another, a secondary character demanding his or her own book, a story insisting on being continued. I believe this is partly a product of discovering my own excitement at meeting characters a second, or third time, in the short stories of Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway and J.D. Salinger, of seeing Stephen move from the Portrait to Ulysses, of being mesmerized by the work of William Faulkner, whose 30 interlocking volumes of novels and stories—the Yoknapatawpha saga— stand as perhaps the most ambitious undertaking in 20th century American literature.
Faulkner was a student of Balzac, another maestro of interconnectedness. The American novelist James Gould Cozzens, also a Balzacian, wrote about the phenomenon of related stories in a preface to a volume of 10 novels by Balzac. “The point on which we (Balzacians) agree,” wrote Cozzens, “is that there comes an indefinable pleasure in meeting, in a Balzac novel, a character with whom we have had dealings before; an old acquaintance, who seems sometimes closer to us than a brother.”Faulkner was a student of Joyce as well as Balzac, his most overt homage being visible in two of his greatest novels, The Sound and the Fury and Light in August, in which he uses, to great effectiveness, the stream-of-consciousness technique and, with lesser success, the Joycean portmanteau wordplay. Faulkner’s copy editor on Light in August conscientiously separated the words that Faulkner had willfully run together, and Faulkner restored the fusion and noted in the margin: “OK as set, goddamn it.” And as the editing persisted he fumed anew and further noted: “OK as set, and written. Jesus Christ … (let the book) stand as it is.”
Some critics in their reviews of these Faulkner novels noted the influence of Joyce, but Faulkner’s retort was that he had never read Ulysses, had never even seen a copy until after his two novels were published.
“You know,” he told an interviewer, “sometimes I think there must be a sort of pollen of ideas floating in the air, which fertilizes similar minds, here and there, which have not had direct contact.” He admitted being told about Joyce and conceded he might have been influenced by what he had heard.
Writers frequently deny any influence from the writers who have gone before them, out of fear that their own work will seem derivative. But unless that fear is well grounded, and their work truly owes its existence to grand larceny, such a denial in the name of originality is the silliest sort of posturing. You might call it the immaculate conception theory of literature — the work created whole, its creator undiddled by any literary ancestor. But even Joyce owed, and acknowledged, a debt to Ibsen, Flaubert, Goethe, Dante, Shakespeare, among others, and, not least, Homer, whom he reinvented as himself, a Dubliner.
In his late years someone asked Faulkner what he thought of Joyce and he replied ungrudgingly: “James Joyce was one of the great men of my time. He was electrocuted by the divine fire. He [and] Thomas Mann were the great writers of my time. [Joyce] … might have been the greatest, but he was electrocuted. He had more talent than he could control.”
T.S. Eliot, an admirer and booster of Joyce and Ulysses, wrote about this matter of literary inheritance: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead…”
I freely admit that I took heart and some direction from the ambition of the dead Joyce. I’m indebted also for his gift of courage in the face of the rejection, the opposition, and the censorship he encountered — in Ireland, France, the United States. I have never had to struggle against censorship, at least not yet. Joyce, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer and others cleared the way for all of my generation to say whatever we wanted to say in whatever way we wanted to say it. But I did have a few go-rounds with rejection of my early work, and then, surprising to me, Ironweed, my fourth novel, which I thought was my best book up to that time, had 13 rejections before being published with considerable success in the U.S., and, since then, in many languages around the world.
The arrogance with which Joyce confronted his detractors, censors and obstructors was admirable and inspirational, as was that cunning of which he has Stephen speak at the end of Portrait. But I was never much for cunning myself, never really knew how to get out of my own way, how to be anything less than the vulnerable witness, very like Bailey, the hero of my first novel, The Ink Truck, who when asked why, during a strike, he ran toward the company goons he knew would club him, responded, “That’s all there is … Run to the glory of the club.” Having been instructed by such gauntlet-runners as Joyce, and also Kafka, whose caveat was: “You are the problem, no scholar far and wide,” I found myself clubbed and bloodied, taking the goon squad’s worst, then found myself also getting up, having breakfast, and moving forward, making the goons irrelevant. This isn’t much fun, but it certainly is Joycean.
I was in Dublin, in University College, 20 years ago, chasing after things Joycean, covering for an American magazine the doings of the 176 visiting scholars at the fourth annual James Joyce Symposium. I sat in on discussions of Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, and Joyce in general, and then went into the streets of Dublin tracking the man and his places — pubs and erstwhile homes, including the one in Bray where he set the Christmas dinner scene in Portrait, also The Gresham Hotel, which he used in The Dead, The Martello Tower, which was the opening setting of Ulysses, and Number Seven Eccles Street, the house where the Blooms lived and which I happened upon by happy accident when driving past it. All this attention to the real world had about it the feel of archeology, not literature; and yet there is a fine fascination about tracking the world in which Joyce actually lived, and discovering something palpable of the man who became the writer.
But the chief discovery for me was how the writer had used his world, how, when he left Dublin for exile in Paris and elsewhere, he took Dublin with him, venerating its memory by reconstituting it on the pages of his fiction. One of the Joyce symposiasts spoke of how Joyce “canonized the obsession with being Irish — the whole love of place, of knowing a particular street in Dublin and talking all night about it.”
That is how it has been for me and Albany for many years. When I was in Puerto Rico I started to write stories about the expatriate life I’d chosen for myself. Puerto Rico was an exotic and romantic setting, a Spanish-language community full of hostility and reverence for the United States, with all sorts of volatile politics and left and right-wing beach bums to write about. I loved the place and yet I came to see that I really couldn’t use it as a basis for my fiction because I wasn’t Puerto Rican. I couldn’t identify with, or even begin to read, the Puerto Rican mind, even though I’d married one. I didn’t know the Spanish language as well as I wanted, and so could never possess the literature, or the complex world of Hispanic and Latin scholars and political theorists, who abounded in the Puerto Rican reality.
I had written short stories and had started a novel set in Puerto Rico, but I finally rejected all that and started a novel about Albany. I suddenly found myself ranging through sixty years in the history of an Albany family — the Phelans, whose lives have preoccupied me ever since.
Making that transition from Puerto Rico to Albany had enormous consequences for me. To begin with I liked my own writing better, understood the people better. I found I understood the psychology of almost anybody in Albany —whether it was a baseball player or a politician or an artist or a drunk or a spinster or a clandestinely married woman—far better than I knew anybody in Puerto Rico. I called this novel The Angels and the Sparrows, and although it was never published, it did, in time, turn into the basis for my most recent novel, Very Old Bones. The Bones novel is much more complex than the early book, but the same people are present in both narratives. And so is the place.
The answer to why I liked the Albany novel better than my Puerto Rican stories is that I was doing what Joyce had done without knowing I was doing it: reconstituting a city that was long gone, and surprising myself every day with what was in my unconscious, what suddenly would make the leap into my imagination. I knew Albany far more intimately than I realized; and it would have taken me half a lifetime to know Puerto Rico in an equivalent way.
How can you possibly write about a place if you don’t understand what the street names mean, or why the mayor is the mayor, or what political power means to your father, or how God is manifested in your neighborhood? I was little more than a tourist in Puerto Rico, and even when I began writing about Albany I discovered I didn’t really understand the city’s principal social force — the Irish Catholic Democratic bossism that held absolute power over the lives of almost everyone in the city. I hadn’t paid sufficient attention to politics when I was working as an Albany newspaperman before going to Puerto Rico, hadn’t observed my father and my uncles closely enough to know that they were truly political creatures.
I also disdained covering politics as a young newsman; and as a novelist I’ve always avoided political partisanship; for time very quickly changes political allegiances, and the novels premised on such allegiances blow away with the first winds of change. Yet if politics is missing from a novel about Albany then it would not be the Albany in which I grew up; for politics was a principal moral code of my city.
As a child and young man I heard very little condemnation of city politics on moral grounds, even from the church; especially from the church. For if you were Irish, which about forty per cent of the city’s population was, by derivation —back in 1875 one in six Albany residents had been born in Ireland — then you probably also belonged to the Democratic Party; and if you were a Democrat, you stood a very good chance of also being a Roman Catholic. And if you were Roman Catholic you gave allegiance not only to the church on the corner, but also to the political boss, Daniel Peter O’Connell — namesake of a great Irish patriot — and Dan was, himself, a pillar of the church, inseparably linked to the Albany bishop and the local priests, who revered him and prayed for him, and whose prayers were answered regularly by his benevolence. Saint Daniel, one maverick Democrat called him.
But Saint Daniel was also running gambling parlors, profiting handsomely from the all-night saloons, the baseball pools, the illegal card games, and the whorehouses. He was in collusion with the grafters and bankers, getting rich with the paving contractors, not entirely for his own sake, for he lived frugally, but for the sake of perpetuating his political power.
Wherever you could make a holy vow or an illegal dollar, that’s where the Irish were, that’s where Dan and his politics were. I don’t mean to imply that the church was in league with the whorehouses, but it was common knowledge that the madams all kicked in to Dan’s coffers. And the bagmen who made the collections were often city detectives. The clergy, with bountiful self-interest, chose to look the other way when this knowledge surfaced, which it did regularly.
I remember vividly in the middle 1 960s when a radical Franciscan priest, who was working with slum people to upgrade their neighborhood, took a list of addresses of South End whorehouses to one of the monsignors who was then a figure of authority in the Catholic Diocese. The monsignor looked at the list and told the young priest, “I don’t believe this. Dan O’Connell wouldn’t let these places exist in the city.” But the South End, for forty years, had been notorious for its red light district. From the 1920s into the 1960s, Green Street, a very old thoroughfare, was the code name of Albany’s bluest corridor of sin. It was as notorious and as widely known as Storyville in New Orleans, or the old Kips in Dublin that Joyce used for his Nighttown in Ulysses.
Within this peculiar prevailing morality, Albany families were interlocked in saintliness and chicanery; and chicanery was, sometimes, only another way of getting on in the world; and objective morality didn’t interest the Albany Irish. They were more imaginative than that. They understood that they had been deprived, that in a previous era they had been social outcasts, unable to get jobs. Families were hungry, and hunger was immoral. Now the Irish were no longer hungry; they had jobs; they had power. Once Dan O’Connell became the political boss, he was as respected as the Bishop. Dan was the man who would save your soul by putting you to work. Of course he was also a rascal; and through the use of loyalty, ruthlessness, generosity and fear, he controlled Albany from 1921 until he died in 1977 — a span of 56 years, unprecedented in the history of American machine politics.
Dan’s last Mayor, Erastus Corning Π, a wealthy patrician Protestant from an old Albany family, who had become Irish by osmosis, served as Mayor from 1941 to 1983 — 11 consecutive terms, another longevity record in American politics. Erastus continued controlling the city after Dan’s death for another six years until he, too, died. This was how you removed a Democrat from power in Albany. You called the undertaker. Until this year.
Some months ago our then incumbent Mayor, an Irish Catholic Democrat by the name of Tom Whalen, announced that after ten years in City Hall he’d had enough. He was resigning, and it looked to some — and rightly so, it turned out — as if he might have a Federal judgeship somewhere in his future. This is unprecedented. Giving up city hall for the bench? The man must be daft. But no. He is of the new breed. Dan is dead, Erastus is dead. The machine is not dead but it is shrunken and arthritic. Albany is new, vigorous, even respectable. And can you believe it, our erstwhile metropolis of sin has been chosen as an All-American City. Dan O’Connell’s bones must be dancing a scornful jig in their grave — dancing to that time-tested political theme of his bygone machine: Honesty is no Substitute for Experience.
I am proud of my Irish heritage and yet I don’t consider myself an Irish writer, or even an Irish- American writer (just American, is my own perception). But I cannot escape the Irish connection, and neither do I try to avoid it. A writer like John O’Hara tried to bury his Irishness and came on as an Anglo-Saxon Protestant clubman; Scott Fitzgerald had a gift of Irish poetry in his soul, but he rarely identified it as such. A writer with whom I share the Irish- American political burden is Edwin O’Connor, whose novel, The Last Hurrah, was a marvelous piece of work that convulsed me with laughter through its very witty treatment of urban and ecclesiastical politics in Boston. Mr. O’Connor understood the social topography of Boston down to the last pew of the church, the last illegal vote. And yet I felt his politics were too hygienic, too bereft of the darker side of the comparable Irish political life in Albany.
A dozen years ago I came across a short book of conversations with Joyce, written by a friend of his, Arthur Power, who asked at one point, “… how do you feel about being Irish?” And Joyce responded, “I regret it for the temperament it has given me.”
If anyone had asked me the same question I would have responded, “I am fond of it for the temperament it has given me.” I am Irish all the way back on both sides of the family, and perhaps I have grown into the temperament, or resigned myself to it, but I would give no thought to exchanging it for something else. As one of my fallen-away Catholic characters says to a minister about what she now was instead of a Catholic, “Well, I’m certainly not a Methodist.”
The element of darkness in the personality that seems to go with being Irish has become increasingly important to me in understanding anybody’s life. I copied out a few paragraphs of what Joyce said to Arthur Power, something I already agreed with and had already put into practice in my novels, yet had never understood quite so clearly until I read Joyce’s words.
He said: “When we are living a normal life we are living a conventional one, following a pattern which has been laid out by other people in another generation, an objective pattern imposed on us by the church and state. But a writer must maintain a continual struggle against the objective: that is his function. The eternal qualities are the imagination and the sexual instinct, and the formal life tries to suppress both. Out of this present conflict arise the phenomena of modern life…. Idealism is a pleasant bauble, but in these days of overwhelming reality it no longer interests us, or even amuses. We regard it as a sort of theatrical drop-scene. Most lives are made up like the modern painter’s themes, of jugs, and pots and plates, backstreets and blowsy living rooms inhabited by blowsy women, and of a thousand daily sordid incidents which seep into our minds no matter how we strive to keep them out. These are the furniture of our life.”
When I wrote my novels on matters akin to what Edwin O’Connor had written, I felt I had to bring in that furniture that Joyce speaks of — the violence and the gambling and the sexuality, along with the shenanigans of the political thieves and the haughty clerics of the church. O’Connor’s comic ward heelers in Boston, and O’Hara’ s country club social climbers, didn’t have anything to do with what was going on down on Albany’s Broadway among those raffish people I knew — the Irish, German, Jewish, Dutch, and Italians — tough, dirty-minded, foul-mouthed hustlers and gamblers and bigots and whoremongers, and, at the same time, wonderful, generous, funny, loyal, curiously honest and very complex people. I felt that this way of life had to be penetrated at all levels; and I felt it also required the surreal dimension that is part of any society in which religion plays such a powerful role.
Even before my family and I moved from San Juan to Albany in 1963, 1 had started doing long interviews with my parents and uncles and neighbors, and I began to see the political and religious ramifications in everything. I was learning what lay beneath the surface of the worlds that I thought I knew — city hall, the church, the newspapers, jazz music, night clubs, sports, family life in North Albany. I discovered the gangsterish life lived in Albany during Prohibition, the 1920s and early 1930s. I learned what it was like to make a living cutting ice on the river in the 19th century, what it meant to work in the Lumber District when Albany was known as the White Pine Center of the World.
And so gangsters populated my first Albany novel, Legs, and the writing took six years of my life, immersing me in not only Albany’s history, but the history of the nation in those vicious years that were called the Jazz Age. That book propelled me into a novel called Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, which concerned the night world that my father and my favorite uncle had inhabited. In that book I wanted to dramatize the power of Irish-American politics in the city: how the bosses — Dan O’Connell and his associates — could impose their will on everybody in town. They controlled the flow of beer in the city both during and after Prohibition. Dan owned a brewery, and if you didn’t take his beer, called Hedrick’s, the police would suspend your privilege of staying open after the legal closing hour, or they’d close your saloon down as a firetrap. And so Hedrick’ s beer was sold on tap in 200 of the city’s 259 saloons. The bosses could raise the taxes on your house or your grocery store if you disagreed with them. Merely by spreading the word they could force a small-time gambler like Billy Phelan to be “marked lousy” — a phrase I still have never heard used outside of Albany, which meant if the pols wanted to isolate you, they could; and you wouldn’t even be able to buy a glass of beer in your own neighborhood saloon.
That was real power, and the individual was subordinate to it. Billy didn’t understand the way his own world functioned, although he thought he did, and so my novel became a study of his imagination, his extraordinary moral code, his misreading of the ways of power. And in order to show all this, I had to reconstruct the city-that-was — the Albany of 1938 — the place that was at the heart of the communal behavior that shaped my story.
In my most recent novel, Very Old Bones, politics is not a dominant issue, though I know it is everywhere unseen in the life of the family. What is visible is the peculiar behavior of certain people in the family who force their inherited morality, or their religious or sexual madness, on their wives, husbands, children, siblings, often with disastrous results. In Very Old Bones the story concerns the Phelans, an Irish and Irish-American family; but I have been struck by a broad reaction to the book by critics, friends, even strangers, who say that the novel tells the true story of their own families. It is hardly news that once a story is developed with the specifics of a single place, it can then transcend that place and take on meanings that were neither intended nor even suspected by the writer. But I do believe that the key word here is specifics, which is how any provincial fictional world becomes transcendent.
Without those specifics the place remains unrealized; and you do not have fiction as I value it. The writer can do all the navel-gazing, all the private psychological analysis, that the novel can bear, but until it’s centered on a place, then it’s a vagrant pursuit, a discursive soap opera, a Sunday afternoon in the park counting leaves on a generic tree. It is disembodied life, lacking the dynamics that create the movement that defines the imaginations of the people who make the story. And they’re very different people in Mississippi, or Puerto Rico, or Dublin, or even Boston, from the people in Albany.
Joyce was insistent on the essentiality of place. In his talk with Arthur Power he spoke of Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Notebook, and he said, “You remember … how local it was — and yet out of that germ [Turgenev] became a great international writer. For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.” My literary ancestors of place have been Irish in part, but many and various really, and I owe equivalent debts to Kafka and Hemingway and Nathanael West and John Cheever and Isaac Babel and Saul Bellow and so many more in whose work the sense of place is central. Even an abstractionist like Samuel Beckett is secure in his place — that cellar, that ash heap, that desolate room, that sterile plain — where his characters suffer the terminal torments of their cancerous souls.
There are cancerous souls everywhere, and pure souls, and lost souls; and Joyce put his in Dublin, and Hemingway put his in Paris, and Babel put his in Odessa, and Beckett put his in garbage cans. I put mine in a house on Colonie Street in Albany. Souls are where you find them, I say, and one place to find them is as good as another. But it’s never the same place. And because it isn’t, it’s never the same souls.
The last gift from Joyce is probably the greatest, and also the most unusable — his language. Whether it’s the exquisite ending to The Dead, or Molly’s exultation as she yields to Bloom for the first time, or any given passage of Finnegans Wake that affects the mind like a Bach suite, it is always the recurrence of proof that literature can exist without plot but not without language.
Faulkner was once asked whether an author has the prerogative to create his own language, and he answered, “He has the right to do that provided he don’t insist on anyone understanding it.” He added that a writer assumes an obligation with his vocation to write in a way that people can understand. “He doesn’t have to write it in the way that every … imbecile in the third grade can understand it, but he’s got to use a language which is accepted and in which the words have specific meanings that everybody agrees on. I think that Finnegans Wake and Ulysses were justified, but then it’s hard to say on what terms they were justified. That was a case of a genius who was electrocuted by the divine fire.”
I wonder why Faulkner kept electrocuting Joyce. But maybe I don’t wonder.
Hugh Kenner wrote of the coherent specificity of Joyce’s language. In his essay on the occasion of Joyce’s 100th birthday in 1982 Kenner wrote of the secret of Ulysses being “utter cohesion, thousands of details quietly supporting one another.” And he mentions how Joyce thought it was “stupid” of George Moore to “make a character look up the time of a train that stopped in his suburb at the same time every day: rather like looking up the time of the 11 o’clock mass.” Such inattention was unJoycean.
“Joyce,” wrote Kenner, “worked with tireless attention to what had previously been inadvertent. He knows how much change a character is carrying, and in which pocket (Bloom set out on that famous morning with four shillings ninepence). He knows the brand of Bloom’s hat, Plasto’s. He knows that ‘wrote’ for ‘write’ is a plausible error in Martha Clifford’s typed letter, because i and ο are adjacent on the keyboard.”
Joyce waged war, Kenner wrote, “against nescience, inadvertence, against the supposition that anything is anything else. Insofar as he could change the world of the mind, he changed it toward order.”
But Joyce’s order is of a particular kind, and is in many respects unusable by anyone else, a form of sudden death to imitators. Eliot said that the price of having a Dante or a Shakespeare [and he could have added Joyce] is that literature can have only one, and those who come later must find something else to do.
Any person who aspires to serious writing knows this. I constantly purge my work of anything that seems to be even slightly Joycean, though that word now has such a broad context that I would have to stop writing and take up mathematics to be rid of its implications entirely. Joyce’s gifts to the art of writing are so abundant, so pervasive, that some things have ceased to be his. The interior monologue that he didn’t create but popularized is only Joycean if it is used to excess; otherwise it is just another tool in the writer’s kitbag.
That said, I must also say that I used Joyce overtly in my last novel, Very Old Bones, an interlude of homage to Finnegans Wake that was the fictionalizing of a true event in my life. That event took place at a closed-down Catholic summer camp on Lake Luzerne in the Adirondack mountains, not far from Saratoga. I stayed there by myself for two weeks in 1971 when I was working on my novel Legs, trying to write enough text so my publisher would send money to avert foreclosure on my home and allow me to continue living at the genteel poverty level to which I had become accustomed. I was staying in a one-room cottage heated by kerosene.
It was October, when the temperatures fluctuate between the radiant heat of an Indian Summer day, and the sub-freezing mountain temperatures of the impending winter night. I had worked all day and, as usual, after cooking a very late supper, I settled in for some reading, which this night was Finnegans Wake. I was drinking Old Crow whiskey and smoking small Tiparillo cigars. I was up to about 30 cigars a day as a way of cutting down on cigarettes. Slowly I felt the chill in the room, and I put on my overcoat, checked the heater, found it cold, kept reading, smoking, drinking, put on my muffler, put on my hat and one glove, leaving the right hand free to turn the page, and in that condition, warmed by the whiskey and the language of the Wake, I defeated the weather utterly.
As usual, I read the Wake’s pages without knowing very much about what I was reading, loving the jokes and the wordsmithery , thinking perhaps I had a grip on a meaning only to lose it, pushing onward into evermore mysterious and meaningless word games, continuing with the belief that surely something would come clear, ever so slowly getting the rhythm of the pages and feeling the onset of a response that was akin to the subliminal suggestions music creates in me — free-floating then, captivated by the growth of sensation first, then in the grip of a confounding emotion; for I found myself moved, almost to weeping, by the beauty of the meaning I could not put into words of my own, and from knowing I was being as genuinely touched in the unconscious as Finn himself is touched by his river of sleeping thought and memory, and I read through to the final pages, experiencing the sublimity of Ana Livia’s monologue, as the River Liffey that she is flows into the Irish Sea, and into Finn’s mind, and my own, and I decided when I closed the book that this was probably the premier reading experience of my life, for never had I been moved to tears and beyond by something that was fundamentally incomprehensible, a supreme lesson in the power of language alone to touch what is deepest in our memory, our imagination. I decided in a much later year to pass this experience on through the medium of my narrator in Very Old Bones, Orson Purcell, who undergoes the same experience I did, but in a summer hotel on the shore of Saratoga Lake. He lifts from that glorious monologue of Ana Livia this fragment, and quotes it to make a point in his story of his life among the women who were all the world to him.
‘Why I ‘m all these years within years in soff ran, allbeleaved. To hide away the tear, the parted. It’s thinking of all. The brave that gave their. The fair that wore. All them that’s gunne. I’ll begin again in ajiffey. The nik of a nad. How glad you’ll be I waked you! My! How well you ‘ll feell For ever after’
Orson finds abundant allusions to his own life and love in this and other segments, as anyone must in Joyce’ s singular book. And then Orson, this young man who has been so put-upon by life, quotes again in conclusion: “‘I done me best when I was let. Thinking always if I go all goes. A hundred cares, a tithe of troubles and is there one who understands me?’”
That last question was what Joyce had asked his wife Nora in Dublin three and a half decades before he wrote that page of the Wake. And I think it’s safe to say, even nine decades after he asked it, that the answer is no, no one. But we are trying.
Brian Nolan wrote this about Joyce: “Perhaps [his] true fascination … lies in his secretiveness, his ambiguity (his polyguity, perhaps?) … His works are a garden in which some of us may play. All that we can claim to know is merely a small bit of that garden.”
But even that small bit of Joyce’s garden: what a splendid gift it has been to us all.
( 1994 )