Book Review: Multiple Joyce

Multiple Joyce

“Will you hold your peace and listen well to what I am going to say now?”

This month marks the centenary of the publication of Ulysses by James Joyce, an author who David Collard describes as ‘the greatest prose writer of the century’. Multiple Joyce provides an exploration of the cultural legacy of the celebrated Irishman who wrote about the Irish but escaped the island as soon as he was able. The 100 short essays herein are written with impressive intellectual rigour but also a strong undercurrent of wit amidst the wisdom imparted. After careful and considered reading I now know a great deal more about Joyce and his work than previously – and am no more inclined than before to actually read his books.

Perhaps that is a tad disingenuous. After the fun of the first few essays, Collard waxes lyrical about Joyce’s Dubliners – ‘surely the greatest of all short story collections’. I have this on my bookshelves so paused to reread it, enjoying it no more this time than previously. In admitting to such an opinion I place myself amidst those Collard disparages within these pages as philistine readers. Given his descriptions of aspects he admires in Joyce’s writing, what he draws attention to suggests I would not enjoy any of these works.

I am not put off reading Joyce by the supposed difficulty of his prose – I have been impressed by many works condemned by certain critics with that descriptor. Rather, it is the reports of repeated mentions of sexual acts and musings, by the bodily fluids and objectification of women, of the playing fast and loose with language such as to render text so cryptic as to require patient and repeated study to uncover meaning. I am not suggesting that Joyce is a bad writer – what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ anyway? I simply doubt I would enjoy his work enough to make it worth my time and effort. There are always other books to read, such as this one.

Collard describes Joyce’s writing as ‘subtle, sophisticated and stratospherically accomplished’. George Bernard Shaw, on the other hand, described the fragments of Ulysses he read as ‘foul mouthed, foul minded derision and obscenity.’ Collard muses that those who do not appreciate Joyce’s genius are of inferior intelligence. Bear this in mind when deciding if my thoughts here are worth your consideration.

“Of course there are no objective measures when it comes to literary judgements”

Have no doubt that the essays in Multiple Joyce are well worth reading. They provide interesting contextual background to Joyce and the times he lived in. There are also engaging personal anecdotes from Collard – from literary events attended and those he met there, to his own upbringing among the cultish Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although coming across as confident in his intellectual opinions, the author can also be highly amusing and self-deprecating.

The cultural legacies referenced are wide ranging and entertainingly eclectic. There are hat tips to many other works – classic and contemporary. We share a strong appreciation of the value to literature of the ground breaking, small, independent presses.

As the essays progress it becomes ever more understandable why Collard rates Joyce’s writing so highly, although I did find it interesting that he has not yet managed to read Finnegan’s Wake in its entirety. It seems he can still gain satisfaction from dipping in occasionally.

“Here is something I can study all my life and never understand.”

Alongside the commentary on Joyce’s writing are nuggets on the man and his family. He spent the war years in neutral Switzerland where other writers and artists lived to avoid having to take part in the conflict. Collard muses on what this may say about Joyce’s relation to society.

“Hs apparent indifference to the Great War … may be down to heartlessness, or self-absorption, or high minded dedication to a greater cause.”

Certainly, Joyce appears to have had great confidence in the worth of his writing – that, as Collard has done, ‘his readers would contentedly spend a lifetime deciphering his work’. It is clear our author here believes only those who appreciate Joyce’s work may present themselves as an intellectual. I find it curious that we share many mutually respected acquaintances in the bookish world (in real life and online), that I have read and enjoyed a good number of the more recently published titles he writes about here, yet nevertheless, for my opinions on Joyce, he would still consider me an ‘idiot’ (although to be fair, I doubt he considers me at all).

As well as writing of Joyce, these essays cast their focus on certain works by the man’s contemporaries and other classic texts. There are also mentions of the development of cinema and influential films. Once again, there is an artistic snobbery to note.

“a tendency for film producers to seek a degree of social and cultural respectability through prestigious association and to attract profitable ‘high hat’ audiences – metropolitan, sophisticated and with more ‘advanced’ tastes.”

Collard is a fine writer and I was regularly amused by the turns of phrase he dropped in to many of these essays. On Melville and the reception of Moby-Dick: ‘Melville at the age of 32 now had a promising future behind him’. There may be a degree of condescension in some of the opinions stated but, that aside, there is much of value, interest and gratification to be gleaned.

The collection provides a most enjoyable way to learn more about Joyce – his work, life, times, influences and legacy – without having to read any of his books (sorry, David). To quote Molly Bloom, ‘O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.’ Unlike his subject, Collard avoids the cryptic yet writes with aplomb. I recommend this collection to all readers with an interest in the art of literature, whatever their opinion on Joyce.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sagging Meniscus.

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