Will Self: PsychoGeography - The people's Joyce

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Consider the final days of James Joyce – I have. Fleeing from Paris in the dying days of 1939, the Joyces headed south to the village of Saint-Gérand-le-Puy, near Vichy. Here, as the Second World War girded up its annihilating loins, the great confabulator was gripped by stomach pain in his rooms at the Hôtel de la Paix, and harried by dogs if he ventured out with his dark glasses on and with his blind man's cane. When asked why he hated them so much, Joyce replied: "Because they have no souls."

Meanwhile, his schizophrenic daughter, Lucia, was confined to an asylum at Pornichet on the Brittany coast. Joyce, who believed that his daughter's psychosis was a bizarre product of his own creative fomenting, was tormented by the agonies she might suffer under aerial bombardment, agonies which were, perhaps, a projection of his own pathological fear of thunderstorms.

The Joyces were a year at Vichy, a time during which he did little work apart from correcting the misprints in the recently published Finnegans Wake. Eventually, rather than the encroaching war driving them out, it was terror of rural stagnation. There was a plan for them to go to America by air – but even writing this, almost 70 years after the event, I think we can all agree how preposterous a notion this was. Instead, Joyce decided to head for Switzerland, just as he had during the First World War.

However, this time gaining entry was not quite so easy. All sorts of permissions and passes had to be secured from both the French and the Swiss authorities – there was considerable anxiety that Joyce's adult son, George, being of military age, would be interned. The Irish Minister at Vichy offered him a passport; when he went home and told his father, Joyce asked: "What do you think of it?" "Not much," George said, and Joyce agreed: "Neither do I." For having resisted Irish citizenship in peacetime, he would not accept it even in war.

The Joyces eventually reached Zurich on 17 December 1940. Here he was, back in the city where, as a young and vigorous man, he had written the great bulk of Ulysses. Less than a month later he was dead, after surgery for a perforated duodenal ulcer. What can be more horrible or pathetic than his grandson Stephen's description of Joyce, being carried out of the hotel where they were all staying on a stretcher, his eyes open and staring, his body – in spite of being strapped down – "writhing like a fish".

Reeling, writhing and fainting in coils; Trieste-Zurich-Paris – then Zurich again. The strange, centripetal progress of Joyce, the foremost exilic of 20th-century letters – albeit one banished by his own authority alone – is a timely corrective to the facile transits of our own era. Nowadays we all go anywhere, and demand that our eyes take the prose equivalent of an easyJet as well – for what could be more preposterous, to us, than to have to make an effort, having to make difficult connections, or change narrative trains. Perhaps my low point of last year was sitting with a gaggle of Eng Lit academics at a Spanish-themed restaurant in a provincial English city, and hearing one of them describe Ulysses – with no irony whatsoever – as "a bad book".

To call Ulysses, with its massive expansion and contraction of space and time "a bad book"! Ulysses, the plan of which is chromatic, organic, and peripatetic: a mythopoeic rendition of a still greater, more ancient myth ... well, at least the epithet has the virtue – unlike that which it profanes – of being succinct. In his later years, Joyce, who never seriously intended ever returning to the city that he had abandoned as a young man – and then spent a lifetime meticulously rendering in prose – would become quite outraged upon hearing that this or that business on Grafton Street had changed hands, as if this were a personal affront; or, rather, as if this were a cack-handed rewrite of his own near-perfect text.

What would Joyce make of the Bloomsday celebrations, when eejits dress up in Edwardian togs and retrace the routes across Dublin taken by his protagonists on 16 June 1904? Ulysses may be a bad book – but it's a great excuse for knocking back the Guinness and indulging all the oirishery its author travelled a long way to avoid. An unrepentant foe of the Irish Catholic Church; a bitter opponent of physical-force Republicanism; a hater of British Imperialism – the writer who put a literary IED under the armoured car of the conventional novel, and whose remains were yet interred in a bourgeois cemetery, in the most bourgeois of cities.

During the early days of his first sojourn in Zurich, Joyce was so repelled by the city's cleanliness that he said he could've eaten his food off the streets – 24 years later he returned and busted a gut.

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