‘1904 and all that…’: Barry Jones on James Joyce

Barry Jones  gave the After-Dinner Speech at the Bloomsday 2017 Dinner, at Mamma Vittoria’s Restaurant, 343 Smith St., Collingwood on 16 June.

I was honoured, delighted and touched to have been installed as Patron of Bloomsday and I look forward to a fruitful association with Bloomsday in Melbourne Inc.

Many of the greatest creative artists in the past 250 years have been exiles. Uprooting and isolation, creating a new identity in a new context, were major factors in reinventing themselves, seeing the world in a different way.

Jonathan Swift was a London exile in Dublin, Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw were Dubliner exiles in London. Gerard Manley Hopkins was an English exile in Ireland.

James Joyce and Samuel Beckett shaped modern literature and our perceptions of ourselves. Both came from Dublin, both chose to be exiles, they knew each other and worked together, but went in different directions, with distinct types of work – one superabundant, the other scaled down and intimate, the whispering voice of the mind. Joyce died in Zürich, Beckett in Paris.

Beckett had two periods as amanuensis and researcher for James Joyce, when Finnegans Wake was being dictated. They both had a passion for Dante, the greatest of all literary exiles.  Joyce’s daughter  Lucia’s unrequited love for Beckett contributed  to her mental breakdown, but Joyce himself was a greater problem.

In 1945 during a short return  to Dublin Beckett had what he called ‘a revelation’: ‘I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.’

Joyce is inclusive, abundant, to use his own description ‘encyclopedic’, post-Freudian, exploring both conscious and unconscious minds, embracing the  whole world (as Mahler  had with the symphony.)

Beckett’s minimalism – the silences, and what is not said – is central  to his work, paring down, down, down… (Mies van der Rohe said that in architecture, ‘less is more.’ So it is with Beckett.)  He loved the chamber music of Beethoven and Schubert, disliked Wagner and Mahler. His subjects would be ‘non-know-ers’ and ‘non-can-ers.’

Both Joyce and Beckett represent the ends of a continuum – but illustrate how creative minds work.

Joyce’s inclusive approach was also adopted by Robert Musil, Thomas Pynchon, W G Sebald and Salman Rushdie. Beckett’s minimalism was anticipated by Franz Kafka, and followed to a degree by John Coetzee. Patrick White and V. S. Naipaul have elements of both.

In my autobiography A Thinking Reed I defined myself as an exile because of my remoteness from the shallowness and toxicity in contemporary public life in Australia, and this took me out of politics and into writing. The last chapter in A Thinking Reed is ‘Years  of Exile.’ The last chapter of The Shock of Recognition is ‘Exiles’.

I began reading Shakespeare, Joyce and Homer seriously in 1949-50, in that order, and it was easy to distract me from studying law. With Homer, I read The Iliad long before The Odyssey.

I had been introduced to James Joyce at Melbourne High School by an older boy, Tom Burgess, who had a deep interest in music, especially Debussy, Ravel, Walton and Britten, and soon disappeared without trace.

I first read the semi-autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), in which the central character is Stephen Dedalus (named for the mythological Greek architect Daedalus, builder of the Labyrinth.)  I also dipped into Ulysses.

February 1950 was a memorable month for me.  I joined the St Kilda Branch of the ALP, matriculated and enrolled as a law student at Melbourne University, and read Ulysses cover to cover. I determined to read The Bodley Head edition of 740 pages in one go, in an 18 hour burst, to parallel the events of Thursday, 16 June 1904. I was always a rapid reader and succeeded, at steady rate of 41 pages per hour.

At 17, my understanding was, no doubt, immature and superficial, but the sheer momentum of the self-imposed goal was unforgettable. The excitement of that first reading of Ulysses has never left me. I have re-read it five or six times since with growing understanding and enjoyment.

Joyce’s first publication was a short collection of poems, Chamber Music (1907).

In 1949 or 1950 I fancied myself as a potential composer and one of my first attempts was setting a poem from Chamber Music, ‘Strings in the earth and air…’, a very early work, probably written in 1901.

Strings in the earth and air
Make music sweet;
Strings by the river where
The willows meet.

There’s music along the river
For Love wanders there,
Pale flowers on his mantle,
Dark leaves on his hair.

All softly playing,
With head to the music bent,
And fingers straying
Upon an instrument.

Joyce was punning in his choice of a title – and he returned to chamber music in Ulysses, where Leopold Bloom reflects:

 Chamber music. Could make a kind of pun on that. It is a kind of music I often thought when she. Acoustics that is. Tinkling. Empty vessels make most noise. Because the acoustics, the resonance changes according as the weight of the water is equal to the law of falling water. Like those rhapsodies of Liszt’s, Hungarian gypsyeyed. Pearls. Drops. Rain. Diddle iddle addle addle oodle oodle. Hiss. Now. Maybe now. Before. (p. 364, Penguin edition.)

Ulysses, serialised in parts in The Little Review 1918-20, had been published as a single volume in Paris in 1922 by Sylvia Beach’s firm Shakespeare & Co. It was banned as obscene in the United States and the United Kingdom until 1934.

It appeared in a very important period in literary history:

1921    Ezra Pound – first of his Cantos – on the Odysseus theme

1922:   February – Ulysses published in Paris.

1922:   T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land published

1922:   Robert Musil worked on The Man Without Qualities

1922:  18 November Marcel Proust died.

It is a sobering thought that in 1950 Ulysses had only been published 28 years earlier. In Australia it had been banned from 1929 (presumably nobody heard of it for the first seven years) until 1937.  But there were enough copies floating around for me to be able to get my hands on one.

In September 1941, Eric Harrison, Minister for Customs in the Fadden Government, announced that he was reimposing a ban on Ulysses, against the recommendation of the Censorship Board. He explained, ‘This book  holds up to ridicule the Creator and the Church…Such books might vitally affect the standard of Australian home life. It cannot be tolerated in Australia any longer.’ Three weeks later, the Fadden Government resigned and John Curtin became Prime Minister. The Ulysses ban was not the main reason for Fadden’s defeat but I like to think it was a factor.

Dr H. V. Evatt, the new Attorney-General, reversed the ban on Ulysses but kept it on restricted circulation, a pointless decision because there were already so many copies in circulation. Norman McCance, a distinguished journalist, broadcaster and amateur ornithologist, who lived opposite, lent me his copy. The ‘restricted circulation’ classification was only reversed in 1953.

In 1958, the first time I left Australia, I visited New York and Dublin.

In New York I bought  Stuart Gilbert’s important book James Joyce’s Ulysses and a wonderful Caedmon LP of of soliloquies by Molly Bloom and Leopold Bloom read by Siobhan McKenna and E G Marshall. It is still available on LP, and now as a CD in the James Joyce Audio Collection, published (2016) by HJS. McKenna’s soliloquy is available on YouTube. (It is a marvellous starting point.) Merran  Evans has drawn my attention to an App. of the whole of Ulysses, superbly read by Jim Norton with Marcella Riordan.

In Dublin in 1958, I visited some Joyce sites  ̶  7 Eccles Street, Buck Mulligan’s Martello Tower at Sandycove and Danny Byrne’s pub. I retraced my steps in Dublin in 1997, 2006 and 2009.

In my UNESCO years, in Paris, I haunted the bookshop of Shakespeare & Co., although I knew quite well that the original store, on a different site, had been closed in 1941.

James Joyce

Educated in Jesuit schools and at University College, Dublin, James Joyce became an expert linguist, mastering French, Italian, Latin, modern Greek, German, Norwegian, and some Hebrew, Sanskrit and Arabic. He was also a gifted singer and guitarist.

On Thursday, 16 June 1904, the date on which the action of Ulysses takes place, now celebrated as ‘Bloomsday’, he met Nora Barnacle (1884-1951) and lived with her for the rest of his life. They married, in London, in 1931.  She is said to have read none of his books.

Joyce both loved and hated the life of Dublin which featured prominently in all his prose works. He left Ireland in 1905, distanced himself from the ‘Celtic Twilight’ of modern Irish letters, and lived abroad in self-imposed exile, in Trieste, where he taught in a language school, 1905-15, Zürich 1915-20; 1940-41 and Paris 1920-40.  He made two brief return visits to Dublin in 1909-10 and 1912. He had to struggle with poverty, acute eye disease (cataracts and episcleritis), serious dental problems and his daughter Lucia’s schizophrenia.  He was a heavy, sometimes pathological, drinker and a slow writer, but obsessive and encyclopedic in range as well.

Early works include the short stories, Dubliners (1914), which was  banned in Australia 1929-33. Joyce was an enthusiast for the plays of Henrik Ibsen.

Ezra Pound  helped get Joyce published and arranged for generous financial aid from Harriet Weaver. Supporters included H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, W. B. Yeats, Sean O’Casey, T. S. Eliot, John Drinkwater and the distinguished non-writer Albert Einstein.

Sceptics included Bernard Shaw, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence. Evelyn Waugh thought Joyce was mad.

The story will be all too familiar to this audience, but I can’t help repeating how the British novelist, translator and patron Sydney Schiff arranged a notorious party  at the Hotel Majestic in Paris on 18 May 1922, to celebrate the première of Stravinsky’s burlesque opera-ballet, Renard, performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Apart from Stravinsky and Diaghilev, Schiff’s invitees included Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust and James Joyce.

As Gordon Bowker writes, in addition to the five icons of modernism, ‘there came the cast of Paris’ High Bohemia and their hangers-on – a great carnival of  courtesans, pimps, voyeurs, pederasts and even a communist-lesbian duchess’ (Élisabeth de Gramont.) As he writes: ‘The evening was a disaster. Joyce, whose day was ending, was drunk and uncommunicative; Proust, whose day was just beginning, found Joyce uncouth and equally unforthcoming.’

Proust talked brilliantly, but not to Joyce. Joyce said that his only contribution  to discussion was a repetition of ‘Non.’ When Proust left, Joyce climbed into his taxi as well, but when Proust and the Schiffs alighted, Proust asked that the taxi take Joyce on to his lodgings.

Joyce and Proust never met again, but Joyce attended Proust’s funeral.

Flann O’Brien  The Dalkey Archive (1965), much admired by our late friend John Clarke, presents a bizarre portrait of Joyce as a Catholic penitent, working in a monastery, writing pamphlets for the Catholic Truth Society and repairing semmits (undershirts) for priests. He protests that his last authentic work was Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and that everything since 1915 had been written by a committee.

He died in Zürich after surgery for a perforated ulcer and is buried there. Unlike Yeats, who died in France, his remains were not repatriated; however, Dublin commemorates many places associated with Joyce and his characters. He remained a British subject.

James Joyce was one of a long list of great writers who failed to win the Nobel Prize for Literature: Ibsen, Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Zola, Hardy, Henry James, August Strindberg, Chekhov, Conrad, Gorki, Wells, Marcel Proust, Robert Musil, Virginia Woolf, Kafka, Pound, Borges, Nabokov, Malraux, Greene, W H Auden, Primo Levi, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Most of those named above were nominated but Proust and Joyce were not. (In the 1920s two Irish writers won the Prize: W.B. Yeats in 1923, Bernard Shaw in 1925.)

Joyce created his own language, almost a pre-language, more in common with music than conventional linear narrative. T.S. Eliot called Joyce ‘the greatest master of the English language since Milton’.

In Finnegans Wake (1939), his other masterpiece, the first page includes

one of Joyce’s great linguistic flourishes: his 100 letter composition, incorporating the word for ‘thunder’ in many languages, representing  the symbolic thunderclap associated with the Fall of Adam and Eve:


Both Joyce and Proust rewrote and revised endlessly, and their page proofs are covered with changes, thousands of words in tiny writing, hard to decipher, which provoke endless controversy about the authenticity of various readings. For different reasons there are bitter debates about which of the published versions of Shakespeare – or Homer – are definitive.

Ulysses (1922) was Joyce’s first masterpiece.

Its eighteen ‘episodes’ describe in minute detail and unprecedented realism a day (16 June 1904) in the life of some Dublin characters from 8.00am to past midnight, including sexuality, eating, drinking and excreting, detritus, star-gazing, some dystopian visions, controversies about religion, crime and punishment, nationalism, the arts and politics. Each of the episodes uses different literary techniques, including  many  parodies. The text includes catalogues of books, music manuscripts, bills, posters, and theatrical dialogue.

Joyce makes masterly use of the technique of ‘stream of consciousness’, words and sentences following one another by an automatic process of mental association. Some, such as similarity of sound (such as rhymes and puns) are fairly obvious; others derive from telescoping one or more words or ideas; others, springing from the width and depth of the author’s knowledge, may discourage readers who are doggedly determined on to find an exact translation of a linear progression.

Ulysses abounds in symbolism. Much of Joyce’s writing has several simultaneous levels of meaning (e.g. ‘Sheashell ebb music wayriver she flows’). He expanded the scope of the modern novel by projecting his characters against the history of western civilisation, revealing an encyclopaedic knowledge of history, mythology, theology, literature, psychology and music.

In his notes and letters, Joyce used names taken from Homer’s Odyssey to describe the eighteen ‘episodes’ in Ulysses, from the first, ‘Telemachus’, to the last, ‘Penelope’, including ‘Hades’, ‘Wandering Rocks’, ‘Sirens’, ‘Nausicaä’, ‘Oxen of the Sun’ and ‘Circe’, but they do not appear in the printed text.

The central characters are Leopold Bloom (parallel to Ulysses/Odysseus), his wife Molly Bloom (Penelope), and their scholarly friend Stephen Dedalus (Telemachus).

Stephen Dedalus is essentially an anti-hero, a composite of Telemachus (son of Odysseus/ Ulysses in The Odyssey), Hamlet and Joyce himself, a teacher, singer, Shakespearean theorist and insatiable conversationalist.

Leopold Bloom appears for the first time in Episode 4, sitting down to eat offal for breakfast. He is the uncircumcised son of a Hungarian Jew who emigrated to Ireland, became a Protestant and committed suicide. Leopold converted to Catholicism  to marry Molly Tweedy and works as an advertisement canvasser for a Dublin newspaper. He has strong appetites, is something of a voyeur, tolerant, indifferent to politics and sensitive about being a cuckold. He would like to write detective stories and is involved in a scheme to sell sewage.

Molly (Marion) Tweedy Bloom, born in Gibraltar, was daughter of an Irish army officer and a Spanish-Jewish Gibraltarian. She marries Bloom and had two children, a girl, Milly, who becomes a photographer, and a boy, Rudy, who dies as an infant. For a decade Leopold and Molly have had a sexual moratorium, sharing the marital bed head to toe.

Molly is an opera singer. Unlike Homer’s Penelope, who remains faithful, Molly has a lover, Hugh ‘Blazes’ Boylan, her manager.

Gerty McDowell is identified with Nausicaä (Episode 13) and her soliloquy precedes Molly’s. She is lame and an object of Bloom’s voyeurism.

There is an Australian association in Episode 10  (‘Wandering Rocks’), describing the extravagant procession of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Earl of Dudley, through the streets of Dublin. Dudley later became Governor-General of Australia where his lavish style infuriated the Labor Party. The actress and film director Rachel Ward is Lord Dudley’s great  grand-daughter.

In Episode 12 (‘Cyclops’) Bloom argues with a (metaphorically) ‘one-eyed’, but unnamed, ranter, fiercely nationalist, insular and deeply anti-Semitic, echoing Odysseus’ encounter of Odysseus with Polyphemus in his cave (Odyssey, Book 9.)

Ulysses ends with Molly Bloom’s great soliloquy, which could be described as ‘exterior consciousness’, as she lies awake in bed, with Bloom sleeping beside her, and yearns for an orgasm.

Don’t we all? And what better place to end?

The Hon. Barry Jones AC, national treasure and the only Australian ever to become a member of all four learned academies, was recently  installed as Patron of Bloomsday in Melbourne