Tag Archives: James Joyce

Wain’s reading and writing world


Any bookshop and any newspaper book review section includes many titles by people you have never heard of, and a recent editorial by Alan Taylor in the Scottish Review of Books brought home the startling issue about the huge number of books which are getting written and published but not read.

Like many bookish children, I once harboured an ambition to be a writer (Leaf Collecting is about as far as I have got) and I once read a stimulating book of advice on the topic, written in the 1960s or early 1970s, specifically on how to write a novel which would definitely be published. I am sure the author was the now deceased novelist and critic John Wain – although infuriatingly I can find no conclusive corroboration on this from the supposedly encyclopedic internet.

Let’s assume the author was Wain. He did not share the axiom that everyone has a book in them. On the contrary, he suggested, an aspiring novelist is an eccentric, a misfit, who shouldn’t expect to find many kindred spirits who will share or understand their dedication or obsession. Writing groups already existed then, but I recall that his opinion was these were merely social distractions which would not help the determined writer to actually write and complete a novel. That dogmatic view certainly helped the literary teenager to see himself as part of an old noble tradition, stuck in his garret, suffering for his art.

Wain was very keen that the serious writer should just sit down and write, regularly, every day. This is advice which might still be offered and followed today. Another tip which seemed however to contradict that one was that you should not attempt to write your complete novel much earlier than the age of 30. This is in a way also perfectly sensible – just out of school or university you’ve got a lot of other things to do – but still exasperating to read when you are ambitious, have a high opinion of your talent and are many years yet away from 30. Later, Martin Amis and Zadie Smith each published their first novels at 24 and Bidisha did at the age of 18.

The classic wisdom that you should always write from your own experience was something Wain shared. I remember his pithy form of expression: “Even if you haven’t had such basic experiences as making love or watching someone close to you die, you still have enough experiences for a thousand novels…” He also insisted that in characterisations you should treat all human beings fairly. To which he added wryly that at one time it would have been necessary to say that even poor tramps are human beings – but now it was probably equally necessary to say that even rich aristocrats are human beings.

At the end of the book was the chapter which is the most relevant to me now. He listed some writers whom all aspiring writers should read. He drew a distinction between writers who were serious and others who were trivial, emphasising that serious writers need not be pompous or turgid or dull. Shakespeare, he said, was one writer who was always serious. Unfortunately I did not copy Wain’s full list of recommended reading and I remember only one title, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. When you have read this novel, he said, you actually won’t be any better equipped to write your own novel. But if you don’t read it, he went on (a bit didactic and sententious this, but when you are young you can take very clear directions) you’ll have devalued yourself as a writer and a human being.

Alan Taylor’s article also helpfully calculates how many books people might read in a year, and therefore how many (or few) you might expect to read before you die. My reading speed these days is pitifully slow so my target should be low, and principally works which I’ve been planning to read for three or four decades and never yet got around to. Such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, copies of which sit nearby waiting.

Ulysses was a lot of fun 27 years ago in preparation for my first visit to Dublin, and I feel confident that it would repay a second reading. Actually, I have already managed The Brothers Karamazov, long ago, but I think I still have that copy, so maybe I should give it another chance to provide the value which John Wain promised…


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As Bloomsday approaches


“My literary tastes… have changed hardly at all in the last 45 years,” wrote Anthony Burgess sometime in the 1980s. “I was both disqualified and castigated when, in a school essay competition, I declared that James Joyce’s Ulysses was my favourite book…Now, making the identical declaration, I will be sneered at for the banality of my choice. Everybody knows now that Ulysses is the greatest novel of the century”.

As a great fan of Burgess’ journalism in The Observer during that period, I read him eulogise Ulysses there, and heard him do so at a personal appearance in Glasgow around the same time. Two Scottish novels which have been generally felt to show Joycean influences,  Alan Sharp’s A Green Tree in Gedde and Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, also nudged me further up towards the source.  An imminent first visit to Dublin in 1991 accelerated my first and so far only complete reading of the novel.

A great accompaniment was Frank Delaney’s  James Joyce’s Odyssey , a valuable guide both through Joyce’s writing and the novel’s Dublin locations.  When Delaney published his book, he was keen to help those readers, he said, who had started the book but reproached themselves for not finishing it. It is interesting to muse about  how many (or how few) readers today might reproach themselves for such a failing. A 1997 poll of the best novels of the 20th century, allegedly involving 25,000 members of the public, placed Ulysses only fourth, while a 2009 selection of an “essential fiction library” lowered it to 24.

The modernist structure of Joyce’s novel certainly makes it challenging. The conflation of a character’s thoughts with what he sees or experiences, the avoidance of inverted commas to make conversation harder to discern, the sections which experiment with unusual narrative techniques like the question and answer chapter or the playscript chapter or the 50-page unpunctuated monologue : all these require concentration from the reader to follow the story and the characters. Then there’s the fact that the reader knows that chapters of the novel, although unnamed,  correspond to the adventures of the original Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey, such as the journey to the Underworld or the blinding of the Cyclops Polyphemus or the encounter with the sweet-singing Sirens, so that is another layer of cultural reference to keep aware of.  Then there’s also the fact, reminds Delaney, that each chapter relates to a part of the body, such as the eyes, the ears, the digestive system…  

It may be that to read or hear sections of Ulysses or to see adaptations is to distract you from tackling the whole thing. However,  I certainly enjoyed reading sections of the book alongside listens to BBC Radio 4’s five-hour adaptation for Bloomsday 2012. A recent viewing of the 1967 Joseph Strick film was more rewarding than I remembered from before : there are some good performances (Milo O’Shea, Barbara Jefford, T.P.McKenna and Joe Lynch as Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom, Buck Mulligan and Blazes Boylan respectively) and the 1960s black and white cinematography helps to create an distancing effect comparable to the modernist style and the Edwardian setting.



The statue of James Joyce in Dublin city centre.



“He crossed Westmoreland street …Hot mockturtle vapour and steam of newbaked jampuffs roly-poly poured out of Harrisons. The heavy noonreek tickled the top of Mr Bloom’s gullet”. One of the plaques on the Joyce walking trail in Dublin. When this photo was taken in 1991, there was still a restaurant called Harrisons, serving a Joyce-friendly menu.



“A skiff, a crumpled throwaway, Elijah is coming, rode lightly down the Liffey, under Loopline bridge, shooting the rapids where water chafed around the bridgepiers, sailing eastwards past hulls and anchorchains, between the Customhouse old dock and George’s quay”. The 18th century Custom House was already changing its original use at the time Joyce was writing.


Nowadays the indefatigable Mr Delaney has extended his help further into Ulysses podcasts, and there is always interesting supporting material on the web-site of the James Joyce Centre.

Does all this assistance stimulate or deflate a reader’s stamina and dedication for a demanding 700 page novel? Delaney reminds us that Joyce himself gleefully said that he had put in enough puzzles to keep the professors busy for centuries.  One solution he himself proposes is to treat the novel as a series of paintings.  Or perhaps as a reference book, something to be dipped into occasionally, rather than worked through from cover to cover?


References :

Burgess, Anthony  (1987)  Homage to Qwert Yuiop : Selected Journalism 1978-1985    London : Abacus

Delaney, Frank, (1983)  James Joyce’s Odyssey : A Guide to the Dublin of “Ulysses”   London : Granada



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