The depth of James Joyce’s writing provides source material for academics and culture vultures everywhere but while the number of books about Joyce are of oceanic proportions those worth staying on a bookshelf are disproportionately small by comparison.
Now, McCourt has written a new book, “Consuming Joyce”.
The arrival of the first print copies of “Ulysses” was anxiously awaited in Paris on 2 February 1922.
Sylvia Beach, the publisher, was standing at the Gare de Lyon railway station to receive the first copies from the printer in Dijon and one of them, placed in her bookshop’s window, attracted attention throughout the day. In Ireland, the book’s publication passed unnoticed.
“Consuming Joyce” is about the reception of “Ulysses” from this inauspicious beginning. Ezra Pound, an early champion of Joyce, provided a frame for appreciating his significance in terms of European modernism not Irish nativism.
Ireland’s early decades as a fragile new State were not congenial to someone like Joyce; and how he emerged from silence and hostility, from oddity to commodity, is the journey that McCourt charts.
The 1920s are a sorry chronicle of Catholic-freighted attacks on the novel by people who never saw a copy of “Ulysses”, let alone read any of its pages. In the following decade, Ireland sought to shut itself off, culturally and economically, from the rest of the world.
The growing prominence that Joyce was attracting on a global scale was ignored and self-censorship meant the book never had to be banned in Ireland.
When Joyce died in 1941, Irish officials were mainly concerned with whether he had died a Catholic; his writing constituted an intellectual sin that was hard to forgive.
By 1950, Joyce’s fame saw the Irish government hoping the manuscript of “Finnegans wake” would be donated to the National Library of Ireland but Joyce’s wife, Nora, blocked such a move.
On the fiftieth anniversary of Bloomsday in 1954, a small group of Joyce fans in Dublin celebrated an event that has now taken its place in Dublin’s tourism calendar and centenary celebrations this year will be bigger than usual.
Ireland’s tourist industry was slow to exploit “Ulysses” and as late as 1980 the house of Leopold Bloom’s address barely retained its front door; it would soon be demolished by a property-owning religious order.
An echo of those philistine days can be heard in the 2021 decision not to oppose the selling to investors of the Dublin house that features so importantly in Joyce’s short story “The Dead”. The house’s precious architectural exterior and interior will be demolished to make way for tourist accommodation.
“Consuming Joyce” is a comprehensive survey, written in a mild-mannered way that allows the author, without drawing attention to the many limitations of Richard Ellman’s famous book, to gently inform readers of the need for a new biography of Joyce.
“Consuming Joyce: 100 Years of Ulysses in Ireland”, by John McCourt, is published by Bloomsbury.
(Photos supplied by the publisher)