The Sunday Magazine

'Yes I said yes I will Yes': A celebration of the life and literature of James Joyce

James Joyce exploded the way we think about language, literature, and the world we live in. His writing has been claimed by the academy — but it celebrated ordinary people and the joys of everyday life. In this hour-long special, Michael Enright explores the life and work of one of the world's most influential novelists.
This mural at the James Joyce Centre in Dublin contains scenes and phrases from Ulysses. (Pauline Holdsworth)

James Joyce was a man full of contradictions. One of his biographers, Gordon Bowker, writes that Joyce "loved his father yet reacted against his tyranny; he loved his mother but spurned her intense Catholicism; he loved Ireland but not its romanticization; he grew up an Irish nationalist but rejected the Ireland that nationalism created; he loved the English language yet attempted to reshape and reinvent it; he grew up hostile to Britain but had a lingering attachment to it."

James Joyce's compatriot Sean O'Faolain called him "the great literary rebel of our time." (Fran Caffrey/AFP/Getty Images)

His fiction never strayed far from the people and the places of his life. But although it was rooted in the intimate and the local, Joyce's writing spiralled out beyond Ireland and his own life to create a new language for representing the human experience of the world.

And while Joyce's work today is often seen as belonging to a distant and elite academic world, Joyce's writing was grounded in the anxieties, joys, and heartbreaks of everyday life, and he wanted to create texts that would be cherished by the ordinary people who populated them. 

In this hour-long special, Michael Enright explores the life and work of James Joyce alongside David Norris, Declan Kiberd and Jennifer Levine

Michael and Senator David Norris sharing a laugh at the James Joyce Centre in Dublin. (Chris Wodskou)

David Norris, the Irish senator who successfully sued his government to decriminalize homosexuality and who led the charge to legalize same-sex marriage, says Joyce taught him a "fearless honesty."

[Joyce] wanted to change the quality of mind and introduce a kind of fearless honesty. And I learnt from that, and I learnt to devote myself to that, whatever the consequences. You know, I tell the truth, and sometimes, it's uncomfortable, and sometimes, it's not what the public wants to hear. And yet there are times when I can do as Joyce did in Paris in the 1920s in his drink - he just suddenly threw up his umbrella and shouted to Hemingway, I made them take it!- David Norris, Irish senator and gay rights activist

David Norris on celebrating Bloomsday and falling in love with Joyce
The door of 7 Eccles Street, the house at the centre of Ulysses, can now be found at the James Joyce Centre in Dublin. (Pauline Holdsworth)

Declan Kiberd is one of Ireland's leading cultural historians and Joyce scholars. His books include Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life, and he currently teaches at Notre Dame University.

He says that however daunting his books appear, Joyce didn't think of himself as writing for a rarefied audience, but for the average Irish person.

Declan Kiberd on religion and reclaiming Ulysses for the masses

I think Ulysses is intended for ordinary people. It celebrates their lives. And it is not necessary to have read Homer, or Hamlet, or anything else to understand the pressure of everyday experience that lies behind Ulysses... I think the academic industry has been a bit of a disaster, actually, for the more populist Ulysses one imagines Joyce saw himself as writing.- Declan Kiberd
This statue of James Joyce in downtown Dublin has been nicknamed “The Prick with the Stick” by locals. (Pauline Holdsworth)

Jennifer Levine has taught a seminar on Ulysses at the University of Toronto for many years. She was also part of a Finnegans Wake reading group that read the book out loud for the simple pleasure of hearing the language — without the pressure to pick it apart. 

We were curious. We wanted the experience of reading [Finnegans Wake] and of being with it, not necessarily of knowing it...We found after a while that it was a heck of a lot more fun to read it and to hear it than to fuss over it.- Jennifer Levine, on reading

Levine says Joyce broke with realism, but he also pushed realism farther than it had ever been pushed before by introducing a new frankness about sexuality and bodily functions, and reminding us that "[w]e are attached to bodies, that we are not just talking heads." 

Jennifer Levine on the beauty and earthiness of Joyce's writing

WEB EXTRA | To see David Norris — and a host of other Dubliners — participating in the annual madcap Bloomsday festivities, watch the video below. 


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