“…You cannot deny that it’s a masterpiece.”
“I can and I do. It is impenetrable, pretentious claptrap. The only people that ever claim to have enjoyed it are those who have never actually tried to read it.”
It had been several weeks since James Joyce’s opus had last been the topic of debate at the Writer’s Circle, but once again Frankie found himself at odds with Penny – whose poet’s heart had been stirred by the lyricism even though, truth be told, she understood barely a word of it, and Deidre – who had read it on holiday in ‘The Lakes’ once a year for as long as she could remember, on one memorable occasion making it as far as the first couple of pages of chapter seven.
“It’s a wonder to me,” continued Frankie, “that he could drink so heavily whilst obviously having his head so firmly up his own arse.” Like Deidre, Frankie had also attempted to read the book annually for decades, although never with the expectation of finishing it. It was just something he did. Like walking on glass, it was only possible to find satisfaction when it was over. Frankie was always happy when he’d finished it. ‘Finished’ as in given up, that is – definitely not as in getting anywhere near the end of the bloody thing. He had no intention of ever making it to the end. It was like any other method of self-flagellation: you had to know when to stop.
For Penny it had been a literary rite of passage, a trial of intellect, and she had made it all the way through from start to finish – although, as Frankie was often at pains to point out, it would have made just as much sense if she’d read it from finish to start – and she loved it. She bathed in the sound of it, the rhythm of it, the feel of it without any sense of knowing what on earth was going on. And having achieved the feat she, sensibly, made no attempt to ever repeat it. She realised that the sheer incomprehensibility of it would start to irk with a second reading. If reading 1 had left her fulfilled although mystified, she felt sure that reading 2 would leave her feeling somehow inadequate – and she didn’t need a book to do that to her. Unlike Frankie, who knew condescending twaddle when he saw it, she still believed that the meaning was there, waiting for her to find it, one day. Although, as it was a timeless masterpiece, she decided that there was no hurry.
Louise Child, cast her eyes to the smoke-yellowed ceiling; she liked Penny, but tonight she wanted to strangle her. The writer of Modern Thrillers and one of the most obviously ‘educated’ members of the circle, seldom took part in these conversations, but today’s topic had roused something in her: a ghost from the past. She was haunted by the memory of her High School English tutor, an unlovely and unloved man, who had coerced her into reading both ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ because it would be good for her. “They’re not on the curriculum, Sir,” she had whined, but he was insistent: he knew that Louise was going to ‘be something’ and, a man of great vanity, despite his penchant for tweedy suits and bushy sideburns, he wanted to be the man that she eventually credited with her awakening.
“It will help your development as a reader,” he’d assured her. “It will open your mind.” He was wrong. It had merely bored her out of it. She had decided to go on to study ‘English Novels’ simply because even a lifetime of ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ was preferable to ever having to consider Joyce again. She wanted everyone to know what she thought of the blessed thing so, she seized a moment of silence and leapt headlong into it.
“Ulysses is a pantomime,” she declared with uncharacteristic conviction. “A fairy tale. It’s a charade. It means nothing. It was simply a means of getting people prepared for what was to follow: throwing words at the page and seeing what stuck. It’s a child’s pasta collage dressed up as fine art. It is Brian Sewell discussing roadkill, simply because the badger was struck by Damien Hirst. It’s being too vain to care what people really think, only what they say they think…” She stopped, suddenly aware that she was centre of attention. It was not a position she chose to occupy.
Penny sensed her discomfort, but she also felt affronted by the strength of her opinions, so she abandoned any attempt to intervene. As usual, she regretted her decision almost immediately, but felt, none-the-less, completely constrained by it. To everyone’s surprise, including his own, it was Billy who first leapt to Louise’s defence. “I’ve never read it,” he said. “But I know exactly what she means. It’s like being expected to like Shakespeare, but you can’t, because you know it’s nonsense. Some brilliant one-liners, a few clever epigrams and what? There is no plot. Go and see it in the theatre and you get the director’s plot: you get what he or she thinks Shakespeare was banging on about, but try and work it out for yourself, just from the text and, be honest, your guess is as good as anybody else’s. What’s the point in buying a book if you’ve got to make the plot up yourself? Well, that’s what I think anyway…”
He looked around the Circle and, for once, he did not sense the hostility his contributions usually managed to engender. Even Phil managed a slight nod in his direction.
“And it’s just so bloody long,” said Frankie. “Like War & Peace.”
“Have you ever read War & Peace?” asked Phil.
“No I haven’t, it’s too bloody long.” Laughter filled the room. It happened from time to time and it always annoyed Deidre, who would really have quite liked a world without it.
“Are you seriously suggesting that all long novels are bad?”
“Not necessarily,” answered Frankie. “Although I would rather like you to name me a good one.”
“What about Middlemarch?”
“Have you read it?”
“No, I thought not. Watched the TV series I expect.”
“You could count the ‘Lord of the Rings’ as a single book,” ventured Billy.
“Indeed you could,” admitted Frankie. “It is, after all, profoundly dull without the benefit of CGI.”
Deidre glanced at her watch and decided it was probably time to call an end to the evening’s meeting. “I think, Mr Collins, that you are probably being deliberately obtuse. Perhaps we should call it a day and bid one another farewell for now, before anyone can be offended.”
The Circle began, haphazardly, to rise and disband.
“Ah,” said Frankie, a triumphant grin spreading from ear to ear. “‘Think you’re escaping and run into yourself.’”
“I have no idea what you mean by that,” sighed Deidre.
“Nor do I,” said Frankie. “It’s codswallop.”
“He’s right,” offered Louise as she struggled her arm into the sleeve of her overcoat “and, as we are leaving, I would also ask you all to remember, ‘Longest way round is the shortest way home.” She smiled at Frankie, who beamed back at her. “Pure codswallop…”
This [Ulysses] is obviously the wave of the future, I’m glad I’m dying of tuberculosis. Katherine Mansfield