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Someone’s been reading A Portrait of the Artist on Radio4, in one of those sad, reflective, serious voices that out-Bennets Alan of that ilk.

To be sure, we Did the novel at school. Burton Upon Trent Boys Grammar School, which to my shame I didn’t even think of burning down at the time, let alone attempt!

I got the sense that our English teacher – who was one of the good guys – didn’t know what to make of the novel, and I recall that he said as much. But I came back from a summer holiday before the A levels reeking of William York Tyndall’s A Reader’s Guide To James Joyce (Thames & Hudson, 1959/1968 –still on my shelves, heavily taped, and annotated), which turned me from a blank bemused to a full-on enthusiast for this writer’s fiction.

Hence my 2000 mile bucket-list round trip in 2016 to see, but not be seen to see, the statue of that old artificer on the bridge over the Grand Canal in Trieste.

Hearing the mournful rendition of the story though, brought back my pre-Tyndall despair. What a tedious and sanctimonious book it can appear to be, taking itself too seriously, and being taken that way by readers, and perhaps by listeners too. Its charred predecessor, Stephen Hero, which Joyce put to the fire and somebody else had to rescue had an even more self-obsessed eponymous protagonist – and an author that had yet matured enough to recognise him for what he was.

A Portrait, though, is made of more ironic, and subtly comic stuff. It is James Joyce, not celebrating, but satirising the narcissistic youth he grew out of being.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADon’t I recall, from the late nineteen sixties, a brand of multi-coloured cigarettes called Calypso? You could buy singles of them at the local barber, as long as you were under age…..

When I first read Ulysses it was Stephen I identified with. I was going to be a poet too – and there was a chance I could be as good or as bad a one as Joyce had been. But at a later reading I was nearer the age of Bloom, and had been both married and divorced. Stephen haunts the book, just as Rudi, the prematurely deceased child of Molly and Bloom, does, but Bloom inhabits it fully. He is foretold in the opening chapters, and he is uppermost in Molly’s thoughts, and upside down in her bed, at the end.

A hundred and ten years on from the first one, Bloomsday remains…Bloomsday! Not Stephen’s Day, nor indeed Molly’s.

I’ve seen essays on Ulysses that I didn’t even understand the title of. University Departments have been dedicated to study of this book. Professors have made their careers, and livings, out of it. Far more, I suspect, will have been earned by them than Joyce ever saw from it!

Yet a writer like Anthony Burgess (Here Comes Everybody, Faber, 1965), can exhort us to believe that is really just an ‘ordinary’ novel, to be read for enjoyment. If that is indeed true, then it’s what appears to happen to the characters, and what they appear to think about it, that must hold our attention.

Breakfast at number 7 Eccles Street in Dublin is the beginning of our acquaintanceship with Leoplold Bloom. He eats ‘the inner organs of beasts and fowls’, ‘with relish’ and some of us choose to do something similar on the mornings of 16th June that we encounter!

Bloom’s day starts the way it will continue: we ride his consciousness through the routines of an ordinary life. H.E.Bates, writing in a Preface to one of his collections of short stories tells how he decided to stop ‘sucking the significance’ out of trivial events…Joyce sucks for all Leopold Bloom is worth. The opening chapter of this second part of the novel (it’s main part) sees Bloom make breakfast for his wife and for himself (including a trip to the butcher for some of those inner organs), and then a trip to the Calypso’s Grotto of the privy where he – reader I can put no finer point upon it – opens his bowels.

It was this level of domestic detail (among other, later things) that outraged the post Edwardian literary scene onto which Joyce elbowed his way. George Moore (let’s not forget him), had done something similar with the 1894 publication of Esther Waters, which, in this 1936 introductory note gave us the ‘straightforward presentment of men and women in their ordinary life.’ Moore’s previous four books had been banned from circulating libraries for ‘offending against Victorian proprieties’. Back to Ulysses, all through which, Bloom’s inner voice adds a commentary to Joyce’s own. Bloom is an advertising canvasser, and he frames the ads that might suit, or have fitted, many of the items he finds, sees, seeks and encounters as his day unfolds.

The comparison with the contents of Stephen’s mind is worth reflecting upon. To my mind, Stephen’s musings upon the cosmos and the nature of being, seem yet inward looking, while Bloom’s thoughts about the minutiae of what impinges upon his own life, seems to embrace the universe. Mostly, repeatedly, and with a wistful longing, Bloom reflects upon Molly. One of the things, for want of a better word, that this novel might bring you, is a sense of the gulf that Joyce was portraying between the immensity of Bloom’s longing for his wife, and her understanding of it. When we finally meet Molly and live for forty pages within her drifting thoughts, at the end of the day, we may do so in the context of Bloom’s thoughts about her. Because of her position – not in the bed! – at the end of the book, and because of the originality of Joyce’s presentation of her, there is a temptation to think that Ulysses is all about Molly, but my readings have led me, over and over again, to think that it remains, true to its original, all about the Irish Ulysses, Leopold Bloom. He journeys out from home; he journeys back: surely the most difficult journeys for anyone to undertake?OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATelemachus was the son of Odysseus, and the first three chapters of Joyce’s novel parallel those in Homer’s original, telling the story of the Dublin student who might be Joyce’s proxy in the book. Joyce didn’t name his chapters in the published editions, but critics almost always do! Telemachus, Nestor and Proteus form the trio that open the book. In them we see Stephen Dedalus, recently bereaved, and planning to leave the Martello tower where he lives with the medical student Buck Mulligan, a man above his class, but below his wit.

An Englishman called Haines – the French for ‘Hatred’ some have pointed out – is in residence. Joyce was in the Martello tower on the morning of the day in question, with the two men parodied, satirised even, in that opening chapter. An incident took place during the night, not entirely dissimilar to the one described, and, so legend and story has it, it set Joyce off on his own Odyssey of travel, and of storytelling. Following this opening chapter in which the three men breakfast and go for a swim, Stephen surrendering his key to the tower, we see Stephen teaching in a local school, and, in the third chapter, walking on the beach.

The narratives, as is almost obligatory with this novel, are mostly interior. Joyce puts us inside Stephen’s mind, reflective rather than speculative, measuring always, the world against himself, and himself against it. There is some jaw cracking language: the ‘ineluctable modality of the visible’ springs to mind, but that’s the sort of lad Stephen is.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe’ve met him before. He was the ‘Young Man’ that the ‘Artist’ was portrayed as in Joyce’s first published novel, but A Portrait was not Stephen’s first outing. There is a famous, earlier novel manqué. Consigned to the fire by Joyce, but rescued by his sister, Stephen Hero is a wordier, less structured book, and has been kept in print solely by the fame of its creator, and the paucity of works published by him. Even as a school-kid, I couldn’t resist getting a copy to complete my collection. I’m not convinced though, you would read either of these two novels for ‘fun’.

Intellectual, self absorbed, somewhat priggish, Stephen, who, in this early manifestation, has had a sexual encounter with a prostitute, seems curiously uninterested in the goings on that Ulysses was banned for. Even in the brothel, late on Bloomsday, Stephen doesn’t show any real interest in the women. A good dose of Molly Bloom, perhaps we are thinking, would make a man of him. She certainly speculates about that possibility.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe artist portrayed in Joyce’s rendering of Stephen is the one without love, without compassion. His cleverness has trumped his humanity. The Joyce that was celebrating the day he embarked upon his lifelong relationship with Nora Barnacle is showing us, perhaps, the boy he left behind.

We’re having what I’ve described as an ‘assisted reading’ of Ulysses here at the Facets of Fiction factory, over the next few weeks – but who will be assisting, and who assisted you may well wonder!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA