As an undergraduate student who traipsed towards literature, most books, stories, poems and writers often preceded their reputations. To generations of Indian public university students of literature, reading the modern literary artists was a high point of learning life. To my mind, it was here, in the middle and final years of undergraduate life, that one either fell in love with one’s chosen subject or did the minimum to pass the course and then get into working life. So often, so many undergraduate Arts students worked part-time, and invariably got into entry-level jobs by the end of BA. They waited for the document to say they had graduated, and that was that. But for some, the subjects and the teachers worked their magic.
As a teacher now, I can say that the brush with “modern” European literature sparked frisson for many students that the literature of the deep past to some degree didn’t. Contemporary works that were part of the syllabus, even if they dealt with distant places, flung open one’s inner world. They forced you to examine your own life. One read, and close-read, and inhaled in the fraying library copies of books by the great modern writers – all smudged over by generations of past students – at how the language in them didn’t make literal sense but felt and meant like they were written only for you, speaking to you overriding vast continents of space, aeons and eras of time, to reach your own individual station and personal situation.
So many of these writings were akin to messages written by strangers, put into a bottle and thrown into the ocean at one end of the world, which would roll on the waves to reach the shoreline of your heart. I knew at once James Joyce was my friend after reading Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Both books felt like a near-universal epiphany of individuals and societies in immense agony, whose humour nearly always amplified their pathos. These works of fiction provide some backdrop to Ulysses that recorded a century of its publishing birth, early this month.
Even for those who claim to like it, it’s an extremely demanding book to follow, due to its girth, its play with patois, its zillion references to ancient European mythology, Irish culture, the Gaelic past, and its taking-for-granted that every reader of the book knows the bylanes of turn-of-the-century Dublin like it were home.
Its 730 pages on the goings-on of one day in the lives of three ordinary people, Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, present an outstanding challenge to the reader: How can we imaginatively convey the emotional and psychological landscapes inside and outside human beings? Ulysses, remoulding Homer’s Odyssey, is a resounding answer to that question. How can one get into the mental terrains inside human beings while they continue their seemingly quotidian lives that, on very close, viewing – which Joyce compels us to get to – appear nothing less than extraordinary?
In the years that it took me to absorb Ulysses, I felt great admiration, thinking how literature that pushed the aesthetics envelope even saw the light of day. Without the help of his friend Sylvia Beach of the Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company, who encouraged many writers of what are now avowed classics, we may not have had the avant-garde of modern European literature. Beach even put her own money in Ulysses that luminaries like Virginia Woolf, called “tosh”. In its hundredth year, there’s little doubt that Ulysses wouldn’t be published in the traditional sense, in any era. Just for that miracle, may we give thanks.
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