In college, I was particularly drawn to an author I’d never heard of before, a fellow named James Joyce. He wrote of complex thoughts and feelings but in a simple way. His sentences flowed like swiftly moving water. No author I have ever encountered had smoother prose. Not only that, but his prose never had a false step in it. Over time, he became a god.
During my recent trip to Ireland, I discovered that Joyce is revered over in Ireland, not just in American college English departments. We discovered statues, carvings, photographs, paintings.
In Dublin, a couple magicians invited me to have lunch with them at Bewley’s Oriental Café, which is on the famed promenade called Grafton Street. I stepped inside and breathed in the glamour and the history. Over a fabulous scone and tea, we sessioned, as magicians like to put it, trading secret moves and conspiring, as we are wont to do. Everything we do is a conspiracy against the laity, ourselves being a kind of clergy.
In the middle of my afternoon there, I discovered that Bewley’s is mentioned in Joyce. It’s in his short story, “A Little Cloud.”
Little Chandler had come home late for tea and, moreover, he had forgotten to bring Annie home the parcel of coffee from Bewley’s.
Suddenly, the place was imbued with a golden literary glow. I discovered that there’s a James Joyce balcony and a small painting of Joyce on the wall. I read the story in Dubliners, and discovered that it’s about the frustrating tension between our burning passions and the banality and drudgery that we call responsibility. That’s a tension I have lived, baby, baby.
There were so many different moods and impressions that he wished to express in verse. He felt them within him. He tried to weigh his soul to see if it was a poet’s soul. Melancholy was the dominant note of his temperament, he thought, but it was melancholy tempered by recurrences of faith and resignation and simple joy. If he could give expression to it in a book of poems perhaps men would listen. He would never be popular: he saw that. He could not sway the crowd but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds.
I thought that when I published What Happens to Us.
Later, Claire and I were walking down O’Connell Street, which was named after Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell. Look at a country’s patriots and you will discover the country’s soul. Born in 1775, Daniel O’Connell was a fiery orator who campaigned for the right of political representation in Parliament for the Irish people, which is of course what motivated the American colonists during the Boston Tea Party. In the 1840s, in his sixties, O’Connell campaigned for Irish independence and was jailed for it. His health suffered in prison, and when he was released, he made a pilgrimage to Rome. He died en route. Per his wishes, his heart was buried in Rome, and the rest of his body, in Dublin.
I was sick while traveling, as well. Some days, I simply couldn’t find the strength to walk around. In some photographs, you can see it in my eyes. It was like I forgot to wear mascara.
On one of my healthier days, we posed for a photo beneath O’Connell’s statue, then walked down the street and played around at Joyce’s statue. In one photograph, I’m aping Joyce’s dandyish pose. In another, I’m comically begging Joyce for the ability to write as well as he did.
Joyce is one author to whom I truly aspire. When I first encountered his prose, I was astounded that he could express such complex concepts in such a simple and direct way. In college, I was a literary democrat, averse to such stylistic royalists as Henry James, T.S. Eliot, and Thomas Disch. On top of that, Joyce wasn’t afraid of his heart. The people in his stories were regular people with regular concerns. A crying baby. A colleague who has surpassed the protagonist. Envy and disappointment.
When I begged a bronze Joyce on O’Connell Street for writing ability, then, I wasn’t being facetious, I was being sincere. One’s ability to write is renewed every single day in every gesture you make towards life, and the price you pay is humility, curiosity, and honesty. And if you don’t pay enough, that ability is revoked. At various times in their lives, many great authors have been denied that ability because they wouldn’t pay the price—Salinger, Hemingway, LeCarre, Delillo, and so many others.
But Joyce was an Irishman, as well, and in college, I couldn’t have understood what that meant. I now have an inkling of it. It meant being part of a race of people who were occupied and oppressed in their own country. It meant Irish people not being able to own property in their own country. It meant the occupiers taking land and belongings from them and giving them to colonists.
One 12th-century occupier “writes scathingly of the barbarity and uncouthness of the Irish: their refusal to mine or till the soil correctly or to trade as they ought to trade, their cunning and violent ways, their lack of honesty.”
An earlier source claims that even “the most powerful go barefoot and without breeches, and ride horse without saddles.”
A 14th-century source says that the English occupiers’ “regular clergy dogmatically assert that it is no more a sin to kill an Irishman than a dog or any brute….They have striven with all their might and with every treacherous artifice in their power, to wipe our nation out entirely….” (All of these passages were taken from The Story of Ireland, by Neil Hegarty(Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, New York).
Joyce, then, was part of the movement that was attempting to rescue Irish identity after centuries of being trampled in the dirt. Joyce’s ordinary people with extraordinary passions were an attempt at claiming an Irish literature. It was a literature that encompassed their great lights.
Charles Stewart Parnell, whom English Prime Minister William Gladstone described as the most remarkable person he had ever met. I walked down Dublin’s Parnell Street to take our laundry to the cleaners.
Sean McDermott, who was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916, which led to the Irish Free State in 1922. He was executed for his part in the Rising. Today, there’s a Sean McDermott Street in Dublin.
Oliver Bond, a wealthy Irish revolutionary who was a leader in the violent demonstrations of the 1790s, and died under mysterious circumstances in prison in 1798. Today, there’s an Oliver Bond Street in Dublin.
All of these men are luminaries in the blossoming flower that in 1922 became the Republic of Ireland.
As we all know, oppression has a way of enhancing a people’s literature, music, and other expression. Look at American blacks, South Africans, and yes, Irish writers from Joyce to Dylan Thomas to William Butler Yeats to James Stephens and others.
So, when I was sitting in Bewley’s, I read James Joyce aloud.
I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.
It was lovely to read Irish authors in Irish places. When I was taking a dawn walk in the beautiful wet bogs and heath of County Louth, I read Yeats aloud.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
And whenever I saw a photo of an Irish author, I had my picture taken. I aspire, I aspire. Responsibility beats me back, but then I advance again. Back and forth, to and fro, discouraged and imbued, isn’t it always the way?