When is a typo not a typo? In the wor(l)d of Ulysses

June 6, 2017

Thus the unfacts, did we possess them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude —James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

As a copy-editor I try to abide by the typographic oath: First, do no harm. When you’re making changes to a writer’s text, whatever you do, don’t introduce an error. But at the risk of undermining that solid principle, there is an occasional exception.

Enter James Joyce.

Cover of OUP edition of "Ulysses", the 1922 text, with cover illustration by Richard Hamilton featuring black and white figures in quasi-Cubist styleThe length and complexity of Ulysses, and the difficulties of its publication, mean that many subtly different versions of the text exist. The first legal edition in the US, which became its standard edition for decades, was based on a pirated copy, for example.

Typographical errors arose inevitably from multiple sources; complicating things further is the fact that some ‘errors’ were deliberate but wrongly ‘corrected’ by printers or editors. And then there were all those rewrites and updates by the author while the thing was being serialised. And afterwards. Brenda Maddox, in Nora, notes that Joyce wrote ‘as much as one third of the final text of Ulysses in the form of corrections or additions in the margins of the proof sheets’.

So there is no ideal, ‘master’ text; in fact Joyce scholars fight over the best way to decide what this even means.

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Anthony Burgess on James Joyce and dream-literature

January 4, 2016

Fans of James Joyce’s writing who haven’t read Anthony Burgess’s Here Comes Everybody (1965) might want to add it to their list. Anyone who has dipped into Joyce and remains interested but perhaps daunted by his later prose is likely to find it especially helpful.

Here’s an excerpt from an early chapter, on the comic–cosmic nature of Ulysses and the difficulty of that book and its successor Finnegans Wake, in which Joyce set out to put language to sleep:

‘Comic’ is the key-word, for Ulysses is a great comic novel – though comic in a tradition that has been obscured by ‘popular’ conceptions of comedy – P. G. Wodehouse, Richard Gordon and the rest. The comedy of Joyce is an aspect of the heroic: it shows man in relation to the whole cosmos, and the whole cosmos appears in his work symbolised in the whole of language. . . .

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Flann O’Brien on translating Ulysses into Irish

August 8, 2015

I’ve been reading Flann O’Brien again, having picked up Hair of the Dogma (Paladin, 1989), a selection from his riotous Irish Times column ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’, which he wrote under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen. (Brian O’Nolan was the writer’s real name; he had many pseudonyms, of which Flann O’Brien is probably the best known.)

Because Myles excelled at satire and wore many masks, it is hard to tell sometimes just how serious or truthful he is being. But I believe this passage from his article ‘J.J. and Us’ (J.J. meaning James Joyce), about a plan to translate Ulysses into Irish, to be essentially on the level:

I suppose uncertainty is the handmaid of all grandiose literary projects. Many motives lay behind that 1951 decision of mine to translate Joyce’s Ulysses into Irish. If they won’t read it in English, I said to myself, bedamn but we’ll put them in the situation that they can boast they won’t read it in Irish aither.

It’s work, though. And black thoughts encloister me, like brooding buzzards. Is it worth being accurate if nobody will ever read the translation? What’s the Irish for Robert Emmet? And who will put Irish on this fearsome thing written by Joyce himself: Suil, suil, suil arun, suil go siocair agus, suil go cuin.

See the snares in this business, doom impending, heart-break?

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Words changing colour like crabs

February 25, 2013

From the Eumaeus episode of Ulysses by James Joyce:

Over his untasteable apology for a cup of coffee, listening to this synopsis of things in general, Stephen stared at nothing in particular. He could hear, of course, all kinds of words changing colour like those crabs about Ringsend in the morning, burrowing quickly into all colours of different sorts of the same sand where they had a home somewhere beneath or seemed to.

After the noncommittal vagueness of “things in general” and “nothing in particular”, I love how the image of local crabs, so suddenly specific, transports us (and Stephen) briefly out of the human domain across to the Dublin coast and the wordless creatures alive in the sand. It’s a strange and surprising analogy and one with a hint of synaesthesia.

James Joyce: ‘We must write dangerously’

June 16, 2012

On Bloomsday last year I wrote about Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s last and least-read book. This year, being less blessed with free time, I’ll share some lines from Arthur Power’s book Conversations with James Joyce (Barnes & Noble, 1974), which I’ve been thumbing through again.

The first excerpt offers a glimpse of domestic life chez Joyce in Paris, where Power and Joyce first met.

Joyce, a restless man, was continually changing his abode, partly through circumstances no doubt, but also on account of his nature, and shortly afterwards he moved to a pleasant, airy apartment opposite the Eiffel Tower, where I used to visit him frequently.

I always took care not to call at his flat until the late afternoon, when he used to come into the room from his study wearing that short white working-coat of his, not unlike a dentist’s, and collapse into the armchair with his usual long, heart-felt sigh. As often as not Mrs Joyce would say to him,
—For God’s sake, Jim, take that coat off you!

But the only answer she got was his Gioconda smile, and he would gaze back humorously at me through his thick glasses.

Nora’s line always makes me laugh.

On Tumblr I posted a few thoughts from Joyce, courtesy of Arthur Power, on his efforts to convey Dublin through the texture of his words, and his belief in the primacy of emotion in art.

Here he elaborates on the latter idea in relation to Ulysses and writing in general:

Emotion has dictated the course and detail of my book, and in emotional writing one arrives at the unpredictable which can be of more value, since its sources are deeper, than the products of the intellectual method. In the intellectual method you plan everything beforehand. When you arrive at the description, say, of a house you try and remember that house exactly, which after all is journalism. But the emotionally creative writer refashions that house and creates a significant image in the only significant world, the world of our emotions. The more we are tied to fact and try to give a correct impression, the further we are from what is significant. In writing one must create an endlessly changing surface, dictated by the mood and current impulse in contrast to the fixed mood of the classical style. This is ‘Work in Progress’. The important thing is not what we write, but how we write, and in my opinion the modern writer must be an adventurer above all, willing to take every risk, and be prepared to founder in his effort if need be. In other words we must write dangerously: everything is inclined to flux and change nowadays and modern literature, to be valid, must express that flux. . . . A book, in my opinion, should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself, subject, as I say, to the constant emotional promptings of one’s personality.

Conversations with James Joyce is a short (111 pp.), appealing read, with enough contextual detail to enliven Power’s reports but with the pair’s ideas, dialogues and debates very much to the fore. Joyce expounds on his influences, reviews his own work, and muses on his tastes and preferences in literary and other matters.

Joyce, Shaw, Pound and pence

June 16, 2010

In the early 1920s, when the soulful and fearless Sylvia Beach was preparing to publish Ulysses at Shakespeare and Company, she sought subscriptions from potential readers, and received among the replies a mighty refusal from George Bernard Shaw. Shaw had read part of Joyce’s book in serial form, and in his letter to Beach he described it memorably as “a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilisation; but . . . a truthful one”. His letter finished as follows:

I must add, as the prospectus implies an invitation to purchase, that I am an elderly Irish gentleman, and that if you imagine that any Irishman, much less an elderly one, would pay 150 francs for a book, you little know my countrymen.

Shaw said elsewhere that he wouldn’t pay three guineas for the book. Joyce, meanwhile, had a bet on with Sylvia Beach that Shaw would not subscribe. Losing the bet meant giving his patron a silk handkerchief; winning it meant receiving a box of Voltigeurs, his favourite cigars. He loved Shaw’s letter to Beach, and sent copies to several friends — including Ezra Pound, to whom he wrote:

if you imagine that the elderly Irish gentleman who wrote it (the letter not the book) has not subscribed anonymously for a copy of the revolting record through a bookseller you little know my countrymen.

Pound was far from satisfied, though, and exchanged about a dozen letters with Shaw on the matter. In March 1921 he grumbled to H. L. Mencken: “Shaw now writes to me twice a week complaining of the high price of Ulysses.” The correspondence ended with Shaw quipping: “I take care of the pence because the Pounds won’t take care of themselves” (also reported as: “I take care of the pence and let the Pounds take care of themselves”).

L–R: Ezra Pound, John Quinn, Ford Madox Ford, and James Joyce. In Pound's rooms in Paris, 1923. Photograph from Cornell University.


Last year I said I had never taken part in Bloomsday — not in any official events anyway. This year is no different, but like Leopold Bloom I’ll be walking around taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the city (Nora’s Galway, not James’s Dublin). I might bring a Joyce-related book. That will do. If you’re on Twitter, you’ll find me making occasional Joyce-related tweets.

In a tradition I beganagain last year, I’ll finish with a poem — this time a Limerick from the pen of Pound:

There was once a young writer named Joyce
Whose diction was ribidly choice,
And all his friends’ woes
Were deduced from his prose
Which never filled anyone’s purse.

(Pound told Joyce that choice and purse would rhyme perfectly in certain parts of New York.)

Ulysses, Ulysses, soaring through all the galaxies

June 16, 2009

I have never taken part in Bloomsday. Perhaps I should say: I have never deliberately taken part in Bloomsday, though I – like everyone and everything else – could be said to participate tangentially. In the world of Joyce, a connection between any two things is implicit in their existence, and remains only to be spotted, plotted, or forgotted. This was also a legacy of Einstein’s: that no atom could be satisfactorily defined without reference to every other, i.e. to the rest of the universe.

Objectivity never stood a chance.

Infinite interconnection is an idea both beguiling and intuitively true, but long displaced by a default fragmentation. It’s easy to miss or disregard those connections as we go about our daily lives. Were we to afford them our devoted attention, we would surely become infinitely distracted – as we do, momentarily, when our gaze falls on the infinite star map of a clear night sky. The great physicists of the last century rediscovered Indra’s Net, and in Ulysses Joyce mapped it onto a day in Dublin for the perpetual puzzlement of posterity (or at least some of its scholars).

Or did he?

The Irish answer: he did and he didn’t.

le brocquy joyce 23 detailConfession no.2: I have not read Finnegans Wake. At least, not from start to finish, not yet. I read Ulysses only last year, so I’m catching up slowly. This is no place for a book review, but I’ll put on record that I loved every exasperating cascading serenading page of Joyce’s masterpiece. When I finished it I raided the Joyce corner of my mother’s bookshelf for Joyce-related essays, memoirs, and biographies. So I am on a course leading to Finnegans Wake, but before it there is Richard Ellmann’s biography, which I have more than half a mind to begin reading today. It’s either that or the reissued 1922 text of Ulysses.

[Image: Image of James Joyce (detail) by Louis le Brocquy, 1978; oil on canvas, 70 x 70 cm.]

This post was originally intended to be a long and careful tribute to Joyce – “that bizarre and wonderful creature who turned literature and language on end”* – but instead it is medium-sized and extemporaneous. The post title, by the way, refers to a French–Japanese cartoon my sister and I were enchanted by in the 1980s.

1980s, 1880s, 3080s, it’s all the same and it’s all in bloom.

If you are interested in taking part in the general merriment of Bloomsday, the James Joyce Centre website has information aplenty; if time and geography are against you, here is a short recording of Joyce reading from Finnegans Wake. (After 8½ minutes you can beginagain.) The accent and musicality of his speaking voice are a delight, and there is accompanying text here, if you wish to read along.

I leave you with a poem:

Invocation to Joyce

Scattered over scattered cities,
alone and many
we played at being that Adam
who gave names to all living things.
Down the long slopes of night
that border on the dawn,
we sought (I still remember) words
for the moon, for death, for the morning,
and for man’s other habits.
We were imagism, cubism,
the conventicles and sects
respected now by credulous universities.
We invented the omission of punctuation
and capital letters,
stanzas in the shape of a dove
from the libraries of Alexandria.
Ashes, the labor of our hands,
and a burning fire our faith.
You, all the while,
in cities of exile,
in that exile that was
your detested and chosen instrument,
the weapon of your craft,
erected your pathless labyrinths,
infinitesmal and infinite,
wondrously paltry,
more populous than history.
We shall die without sighting
the twofold beast or the rose
that are the center of your maze,
but memory holds the talismans,
its echoes of Virgil,
and so in the streets of night
your splendid hells survive,
so many of your cadences and metaphors,
the treasures of your darkness.
What does our cowardice matter if on this earth
there is one brave man,
what does sadness matter if in time past
somebody thought himself happy,
what does my lost generation matter,
that dim mirror,
if your books justify us?
I am the others. I am those
who have been rescued by your pains and care.
I am those unknown to you and saved by you.

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni.

* Description by Richard Ellmann in the preface to the revised 1982 edition of his biography of Joyce. I edited the post to include the quote and this footnote.