Roddy Doyle picks his moments well, I must say. At a party in New York in celebration of James Joyce's birthday, the best known living Irish writer decided to have a pop at the most revered dead one, and in particular, at what is usually considered Joyce's most important book, Ulysses. With a sort of cheerful vulgarity, he told the flabbergasted gathering that "Ulysses could have done with a good editor," and that he doubted very much that many of the people who are forever putting Ulysses in lists of the greatest books ever had actually read the thing.
In Irish literary circles, this outrage is much on a par with saying that WB Yeats's poetry is worse than the average Hallmark greetings card, or that Samuel Beckett smelt of haddock. You just don't do it. As we approach the 100th anniversary of "Bloomsday", the day in June 1904 during which the whole action of Ulysses unfolds, the Joyce industry is preparing for an unprecedented series of celebrations. Doyle was no keener on the surrounding hoopla than on the book itself, saying that "They'll be serving Joyce Happy Meals next."
But as a national emblem, the book is more or less untouchable. Though Joyce got the hell out of Ireland as soon as he could, and though Ireland has long repaid the compliment by banning, ignoring and mocking him - the Irish ban on the 1967 film of Ulysses was only lifted in 2000 - Ulysses has become a celebration of Irishness, the pinnacle of Irish culture. More internationally, it is upheld as the great triumph of modernism, the single justification of the prose experimentation of the early years of the 20th century. Ripping Ulysses apart is not just like burning a flag, it is like slashing a painting, and anyone preparing to do it must expect to be criticised as unpatriotic as well as philistine.
All the same, I think Doyle has a point - or at least, I think he has a perfect right to make the point that he makes. Ulysses is a most extraordinary book to elevate into this kind of iconic position. Though not much happens in the book in an external sense, everything is grotesquely loaded with historical, psychological, mythological significance, of which the parallels with the Odyssey are only the top layer. Every chapter is written in a completely different style, some utterly inappropriate to the material. Long passages of it are terribly badly written, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not; stretches are virtually incomprehensible; a lot of it is painfully unfunny; and, as Doyle suggests, by any normal standard it is far too long. No man ever wished Ulysses longer.
How did such a book attain any degree of popularity, let alone public celebrations of the anniversary of its action? I find it very hard to believe that many people have actually read it; or if they have read it, did so with pleasure rather than out of duty.
I guess that a lot of readers genuinely enjoy the first few chapters, which are full of energy and life - my favourite character in the whole book is old Simon Dedalus, and I could do with a lot more of him and a lot less of his tedious son. They put up with the first signs of playfulness - the newspaper-headlines chapter - but by the time we are being presented by chapters in the structure of a double fugue, or long stretches in the style of the Morte d'Arthur, most people flick to the end, read Molly Bloom's famously smutty monologue and then head for the hills. I don't blame them: I've read it twice, but the second time I was paid to, and even then wondered why.
This is not really about Ulysses, which will perfectly happily survive anything Mr Doyle or I can say about it. Rather, it's about the outraged response to Roddy Doyle's comments, as if, as an Irish writer, he had a duty to admire Ulysses. Not even, apparently, to keep quiet about it if he didn't much like it, as most people don't like it; it is interesting that Doyle made these comments as the invited guest of a Joyce Society; nobody apparently checked whether he had any particular liking for Joyce. It was just assumed that he would.
That kind of attitude is fatal for culture in general. A certain sort of academic mind, accustomed to teaching any and every great work of literature, and keeping personal likes and dislikes quite properly out of the question, is outraged at the idea that a writer could express a strong dislike to something always considered of the highest importance. But it's very unhealthy to try to like everything, and writers in particular have a tendency to discard quite ruthlessly something that they have no use for.
Shakespeare, for instance, has a more or less unassailable reputation. But only an academic will profess interest in all his plays. There are certainly quite a lot - such as a minor one like Love's Labours Lost, or a major one like Othello - which personally I can't stand and would never willingly go to see. And disliking a lot of Shakespeare, you find yourself in very distinguished company: George Bernard Shaw and Tolstoy both had a very well-documented dislike of much or all of Shakespeare, and not in a frivolous way, either. Tolstoy disliked King Lear so much because it was quite opposed to everything he wanted to do through art; and many artists, like Tolstoy, believe so strongly in their own vision of art that they can hardly envisage any plausible alternative.
But this negative aspect to the artist's way of reading goes alongside powerful enthusiasms, which to the outside world may seem slightly eccentric. In many ways, when a writer like Roddy Doyle reads a book, what he is looking for is something that resembles the sort of artist he wants to be. Writers often describe a book as magnificent when what they actually mean is "Reading this book, I saw a glimpse of a book which I would like to write."
From any normal position - the academic's, the ordinary reader's - Roddy Doyle is wildly eccentric to say that Jennifer Johnstone is a better writer than Joyce. She is a very good writer indeed, but very few people would place her books above Ulysses. What Doyle really means is that he would himself like to write a book like Johnstone's: domestic, tender, full of undisclosed pain. He has no desire whatever to write an enormous book full of allusions to myth and arcane knowledge, and for the sake of his own books cannot afford to understand why anyone at all should want to do such a thing.
It is a perfectly respectable and, indeed, inevitable attitude for a good writer to take. Wrestling with forebears is at the heart of what it means to write fiction in an ambitious way. In this case, everything is made more complex because Joyce has, quite unfairly and almost inexplicably, come to take on an emblematic and suffocating status in Irish writing. With fetes, sponsored readings, and the endorsement of the Irish government, he has stopped being just another writer, and become a monument.
But all writers are just another writer, and if we ever stop disagreeing about them, or ever lose the right to call even the greatest of them useless unreadable rubbish, then it will be because we have stopped reading them. One of the telling things Doyle said was that it was hard to write a passage of Irish dialogue without someone assuming you'd stolen it from Ulysses. Of course, if they'd read Ulysses, they'd know whether it was stolen or not, with no assuming necessary.Reuse content