Like The Beatles, the Irish writer James Joyce went from being really, really, really good at what he did, to being earth-shatteringly amazing, things-will-never-be-the-same-again good at what he did, to being slightly self-indulgently, no-you’ve-lost-me-now good at what he did. I love three of his books and have no opinion on the fourth.
His first book ‘Dubliners’ (1914) is short stories: the traditional way that writers lower themselves into the water. Only it’s so accomplished, so ready to break free from the conventions of naturalism that it’s awe-inspiring in a way that few books of short stories are. Its coda, ‘The Dead’ is the launch point for Joyce’s extraordinary trajectory.
Joyce seemingly confused himself with his own possibilities. He had several goes at writing ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ (1916), and the end result is a peculiar, dense, atmospheric book. It bends form and struggles to make sense as a novel. It’s overshadowed by ‘Ulysses’ – most books are – but it rewards patience.
‘Ulysses’ (1922) is the BIG ONE. Written as Joyce wandered Continental Europe during WWI, it has inspired a century of literary experimentation but rarely been matched for its ambition, defiant obscurity and sheer invention. You can devote weeks to it, or you can just about read it in a day (if you skip the bits you don’t understand).
Joyce’s last book, ‘Finnegans Wake’ (1939) is one of those things. I’ve tried to read it several times and failed, usually within ten pages. Full of words made from a purée of other words, and with a narrative that’s impenetrable at best, it’s like a complicated atonal opera based on a one-line fairytale. Anthony Burgess did an abridged version of it (show off!), and Samuel Beckett helped Joyce translate it into French (massive show off!). I can’t even read it, I’m too stupid. Who knows, though? You might love it.
Get started with: ‘Ulysses’
Genuinely. You could work through JJ chronologically, it would be great. But have a go at ‘Ulysses’. It’s the story of two men wandering round Dublin on June 16 1904, thinking about all the stuff that people think about in isolation, in social situations, when they’re on the loo, in the bath, in bed, in despair. Its ‘difficult’ reputation is both deserved and undeserved. Yes, it’s dense, long, frequently confusing and a mass of elliptical references, literary jokes and historical allusions. It’s also poetic, funny, uplifting and – let’s not forget this – astonishingly written. The first few chapters are some of the finest naturalistic writing in English. After that, Joyce experiments with form to incredible effect: Q&A, stuff done like it’s a play and Molly Bloom’s epochal closing monologue. After ‘Ulysses’, the novel changed for ever. Do yourself a favour and read it.