Metemdepsychoswandayinarkloan; James Joyce and Me
The relationship of James Joyce to the midlands of Ireland has been comprehensively chronicled by Leo Daly, but to my knowledge his work includes no account of the master’s hiatus away from his desk and his assiduous labours in the service of his race and its history-troubled conscience whilst engaged in the mixing of tarmacadam in Athlone.
I consider there to be, as Vladimir Nabokov has suggested, three essential artistic sides to Joyce. There is the original Joyce - the straightforward, lucid, logical and leisurely one which is to be found in Dubliners and some of Ulysses. Then there is the incomplete and broken-worded stream of consciousness Joyce of which Molly Bloom is perhaps the best example. Finally, there is the parodistic, non-novelistic James who delights in slapstick and mystical dramas not to mention examination questions and cathechistical patterns.
Now I don’t know which of these roles he was rehearsing whilst scraping his shovel across a patch of steaming bitumen in County Westmeath in the late nineteen-eighties. But I do know this, it was while in the throes of discussing the magazine origins of the “Nausicaa” chapter with its delightful marmaladey True Romance-style that I became more than aware of a number of eyes gradually becoming drawn to both myself and my fellow Joycean as we sat there in the penumbral gloom of The Step Down Inn in Athlone consuming hot whiskies to beat the band. These eyes were already focused in a manner which could not be construed as in the least sympathetic - but for what reason I could not for the life of me comprehend.
My companion on that occasion was, and remains, an artist of some distinction. Our debate continued, with a variety of extravagant gesticulations, varying across a wide range of literary themes, including Joyce’s relations with his father John Stanislaus, which movies might have played in the Volta had it succeeded (I recall nominating Sam Fuller and Belle De Jour), the influence of Titbits and The Gem as well as that of music hall comedy and George Orwell’s congruent affections for the enchanting motley of penny dreadfuls.
To my astonishment, I found myself in receipt of a solid, uncompromising blow to the back of the neck and looked up, in a state of serious discombobulation I must acknowledge, to apprise an individual whose bulk was so considerable that had, say, 2,355 stacked hardback copies of Ulysses been stood next to him, they would have only succeeded in effecting an ‘approximation’ of his enormity.
Did you ever see Patrick Tuohy’s picture of Joyce’s father? You remember the blazing eyes the flared nostrils the barely contained manic intensity? Well that’s what this fellow looked like, I’m afraid, with a shiny caubeen titled at an angle(on the Kildare side, as they say-or used to) and a pair of JCB fists squared and at the ready, in extremely naturalistic prefigurement of a production of “The Dead.”
The two of us heard him roar: “What are youse bastards saying about the Joyces? Hah? Look at me, do yis hear?’ In honour of our subject’s legendary attention to phonetic detail, it behoves me to record that the actual pronunciation of the name at the time was ‘de Jysis’.That is to say, to rhyme with ‘mices.’
Troublingly, it took a great deal of time to persuade him - as it did his colleagues who had now appeared in bristling phalanx alongside him - that we were, in fact, “travelling Joycean scholars” who knew nothing about roadworks and even less about the mixing of tarmacadam. This was their occupation, they explained, and for the distribution of which they themselves had only recently arrived in the midlands town.
Had we not been in a position to ‘stand’ them, as Oliver St John Gogarty might observe, a considerable number of beverages, it is a sad but inalienable fact that I might well be compiling this article with the assistance of a few handfuls of broken fingers, if I was in a position to compile at all. However, happy to say, we were - and in a beautifully appointed little restaurant named Hughie’s Grill in the centre of Athlone’s Main Street. Our bill, for burger, onion rings, french fries and beans came to a manageable two pounds seventy five, I seem to recall. We finally bade goodbye to our new friends that night.
As I informed my associate, the Joyce I liked best was the humourous, humane and, arguably, less obtuse one. The dreary dogmas of Stephen often quite bored me, not to say irritated, as did exasperatingly elliptical maternity hospital quizzes. But anytime Bloom happened along I rallied, finding myself delighted more than anything by the sheer exactitude of the reported speech and the phenomenon of his language. Joyce’s use of language is the area of greatest interest for me - that perfectly-tuned aural orchestra which perhaps frustrated Flann O Brien more than anyone, who when he went to it, was to find the treasure chest of working and middle class Dublin speech more or less empty, with nothing remaining but a little poignant printed card: JJ was here.
But, like all great writers, he just sighed and went back to his desk and in the process produced a book that would rival the master and may well be the finest post-war Irish novel, The Third Policeman, whose bicycle Myles could comfortably have parked in Nighttown.
Talk to me about stories in which we pass a row of mean little houses at nightfall, where giant silhouettes are illuminated by candles on lowered blinds, infinitude is apprehended by a saint-boy in dusty rooms or on moonlit stairwells, of ashpits and old weeds, the grim Dutch portraiture of “A Painful Case” , or the mock heroism of ”Araby” where the rough tribes from the cottages made the eyes of the warrior/envoy/artist narrator burn with anguish, and I swear to God I am about to cheer.
I see in Joyce someone who’s there and not there, like Lanty Mc Hale’s goat prepared to go a bit of the road with everybody, recording the electric kineticism of ordinary human chatter. Tunnelling deep into the souls of his sources in search of that extraordinary, ordinary polyphony, in order to comprehend the authentic nature of his race, in truth James Joyce only needed the most fleeting and cursory of glimpses inside his own heart.
One in which, arguably, reposed neither austerity nor puritanism but the best and most individual qualities of the Irish -humourous, convivial and often generous to a fault but more than anything in possession of a unnatural musicality- which ultimately led to the miracle of language that is the most enduring legacy of John Stanislaus’ brighteyed boy Sunny Jim, a gift to the generations from this sacerdotal thaumaturge of agony and elation, our croppy boy conductor of the living and all the dead.
Patrick McCabe is a novelist whose work has frequently been adapted for stage and screen. He is the author of The Butcher Boy, Breakfast on Pluto and The Stray Sod Country.