I first encountered James Joyce on the banks of the Suez Canal, a bleak and unpromising setting for any meeting. In one direction lay desert, scorching and soulless, in the other the silhouettes of ships heading majestically like silent ghosts towards ports and harbours unknown. After some years of travel I was returning to England and the prospect of a life among books and sleepy dons, far removed from dismal and dangerous places.
I had acquired the newly published Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse, a shrewdly chosen collection which gathered together most of the poets who can still set my pulses racing – Lawrence, Owen, Sassoon, Eliot, Yeats, Auden, Spender, Dylan Thomas and Louis MacNeice, whose poignant ‘Prayer before Birth’ and deliciously preposterous ‘Bagpipe Music’ were undoubted coups de foudre. But the most incomprehensible piece of nonsense in the anthology was a poem called ‘The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly’ by ‘James Augustine Joyce’. The short profile introducing the poem was the first I ever knew of the life of this strange Irish genius.
So my discovery of Dublin’s Dante was not by the usual route, via A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Dubliners (they came shortly afterwards), but by way of this extract from the bizarre and labyrinthine Finnegans Wake, the interior monologue of the slumbering Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker of whom the mysterious Mr O’Reilly is one of several incarnations.
Back in England, waiting to start university, I was browsing in a provincial bookshop when my eye fell on ‘Ulysses by James Joyce’, which I had wrongly imagined to be banned. It was a reprint of the beautifully designed 1936 Bodley Head de luxe edition, with an olive-green cover and Eric Gill’s iconic Ulyssean bow running along the spine. And despite its reputation as an ‘indecent’ book it was unbowdlerized. I now know that Joyce refused to see it published oth
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