John Siddique is the author of The Prize and Poems from a Northern Soul, editor of Transparency, and co-author of Four Fathers. His children's book, Don't Wear it on Your Head, was shortlisted for the CLPE Poetry Award. His most recent book is Recital - An Almanac. John gives readings, and mentors and teaches creative writing around the world. He has lately written a series of poems looking at migration in Manchester for Lancaster University, and he was this year's British Council Writer in Residence at California State University, Los Angeles. Here he writes about James Joyce's Ulysses.
John Siddique on Ulysses by James Joyce
I've come to my local library in Hebden Bridge to look at the library copy of James Joyce's Ulysses, which is often referred to as the greatest novel ever written. It is perhaps the most significant book I've ever read. It was the book that showed me the true potential of the written word as a vehicle for human experience, back in the days before I started writing. I have it in mind to write this piece describing to you the wear and tear of the old library copy, and repeating some of the notes written in pencil in its margins as an historical document. I think about the date stamps and the many hands that have held this book, which is at heart a simple story of love, marriage and a betrayal, and about ignorance and how the characters find that love endures under all the ideas and layers they live their lives through.
I can't find Ulysses on the fiction shelf; perhaps it is with the classics. Looking around, I see there is a big Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath section, lots of 'How To' and 'For Dummies' books, a very surprising section on rock music, and an efficient selection of the classics: Shakespeare, Dickens, The Brontës, Plato and Homer - but no Joyce. Asking at the counter I'm told there is a copy in Halifax seven miles away, but it is not on public display.
I head to the bookshop to see when they last sold a copy. We are very lucky in Hebden; a lot of people here are readers, and we have a fab local independent bookshop that will go the extra distance to find things for you. Simon behind the counter tells me they last sold a Ulysses in August, and before that in May the previous year. According to the computer log they sell on average one copy a year.
Ulysses suffers from a difficult reputation. It is supposed to be a very tricky book to read, full of Greek references, stream of consciousness modernism and Irish politics. Several friends I've spoken to about it tried to read it when they were in their late teens as a rite of passage, but they got only so far and then ran out of steam. Some other people I chatted to had read it and love it as I do, read it later on in their late 20s or beyond - after they had loved and lost, and betrayed, or been betrayed. It seems that Joyce may have written a book that wasn't necessarily for young people.
I've never been very much into watching television. Books and libraries kept me sane and gave me space whilst I was growing up, and I developed the habit of reading the complete works of writers I discovered and liked. Joyce's Dubliners was given to me as a present at some point, and I loved his story 'The Dead' - the way the story moved out into the universe at the end as the snow fell and we pondered what real love was. I also read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and was really blown away by the bits where he sees things from the baby's point of view, using the cutesy way a parent speaks to a small child to give the child's perspective. When I then came to Ulysses I realized that what others referred to as stream of consciousness, which sounds like unchained ideas running around stupidly all over the place, was nothing of the sort. Joyce had found a way of transmitting the images and thought patterns and feelings of each of his characters in a very real and accurate way. When you let go and flow along with the book and the truth of his people's lives, you actually get inside their skins. Joyce wasn't satisfied with telling you the simple tale of Leopold Bloom and his wife Molly from the outside. He wanted his reader to live through their eyes, to know what it was like to have not slept together for 11 years since their only child died, how it is to know your wife is having sex with someone more handsome than you, whilst you sit in a bar hoping the music won't stop playing so you don't think of them together in your house. Joyce wants us to live through their routines and their pleasures and the idiot things into which they narrowcast their lives. He wants to show us how one day can change it all. That day for Joyce is June 16 1904, the day when Leopold meets a young bright man and is renewed by his mind and energy. The day when Molly, after cuckolding Leopold with mister virile, thinks through her life and finds her husband is the yes in her life. In Joyce's real life it was the day he first met his wife to be, Nora.
Ulysses is a book to be swept away by, and which leaves one more in touch with humanity and the reality of being human for having read it. No, it's not an easy book. Not because it's too clever, but because it is so real; perhaps that is why it is out of fashion right now. If someone tried to write such a book today, it would have to refer to its own technique just to make sure the reader knew how clever the author was; Ulysses doesn't do that. If you want to puzzle out all of Joyce's cleverness and references you can certainly do that, but if you do you'll be missing out on so much. Joyce in his naughtiness has given the reader who wants to analyse everything a world so large they can be lost in there forever, and he's given the less assuming reader perhaps the most accurate rendering of human lives ever set down in literature.
For me there is not a single day that I don't feel this book inside myself, as if it were someone I'd once loved in a very different time in my life. It is almost as if when reading it the people I met there became part of my life, as much as any friend or member of my family. I'm reminded of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, where each person takes on and becomes a book, but it's more than a recitation of a text, it is flesh, blood and breathing. There aren't too many things I've come across that have entwined themselves in such a way into my life - a handful of people and some books, films and music: Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier, Led Zeppelin's Presence album, a French movie called Un coeur en hiver, Pablo Neruda's The Captain's Verses. Along with the people I love and have loved these things are great blessings in my life. Ulysses is a book that has moved beyond type and paper and story, but perhaps it is too much to tell you all this. I should just say it's a really good book, and the secret to reading it is to keep an Irish accent in your mind for the voices when you are reading it. I should tell you that the plot was pinched a while back and made into a film, which you might have seen, called American Beauty. If you liked that, just wait until you read the real thing.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]