The centenary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses has prompted far more words of commentary than appear in the nine hundred pages of the original novel.
Having read Ulysses three times in the past decade, I have never got over lingering doubts.
Reflecting upon an abstract painting on one occasion, a friend pointed out the development of the work of the artist; the way in which the painter could have presented a straightforward representation of the subject, but that such realism in painting had become unnecessary after the advent of photography and that the place of the painter was to draw out qualities in the scene unseen by the camera. “The artist is a perfectly competent draftsman,” she said, “he could draw you a realistic picture of anything you wanted, but that is not his place.”
The friend’s point was very clearly perceptible in an exhibition of the work of Pablo Picasso I once attended. There were canvases from his earlier as well as his later years.
But how would one tell if the artist was being serious, or just messing around? In Ulster parlance, how do I know that he’s not “taking a hand out of me?”
Being brilliant is not a guarantee of saintliness.
There were lecturers in university days who were brilliant, but who were not above playing games with their students, making assertions that the credulous would note down before debunking the suggestion with a broad grin. Entertaining as they might have been, the dull and steady academics with their solid reams of notes seemed always a much safer proposition.
In politics, the orators, the brilliant parliamentarians, the debating wizards, might tie plodding opponents into intellectual knots before tossing them aside with a flourish – but which is more likely to give an honest, uncomplicated answer?
Cleverness allows obfuscation, a blurring, a disguising, a masking of facts. It allows a pretence that things that are not are.
So there is always a suspicion when reading James Joyce, a niggling doubt.
Joyce’s brilliance is beyond question, his ability to write high literature undoubted. The books about Ulysses are numerous; and some more impenetrable than the original text. But there are moments when a plodding reader might wonder whether Joyce is pulling an emperor with no clothes trick.
Ulysses fans and Joycean scholars are an earnest lot. A suggestion to a Joyce aficionado on one occasion that his beloved writer might have started the decline in the correct use of punctuation through his shunning of the use of inverted commas in Ulysses brought a humourless response.
All the same though, brilliant people do play games, if for no-one’s amusement other than their own, and there are moments when there is a sense that the writer is smiling to himself, moments when there is a temptation to say aloud, “James Joyce, you’re taking a hand out of me.”