Posted by: jbwuk | February 28, 2012

Sit back and have Joyce read to you – Ulysses Revisited

A review of Ulysses Revisited, Sunday 26 February 2012 at Jewish Book Week, with novelist Howard Jacobson and actors Henry Goodman and Derbhla Crotty.

All is clear, yes, beautifully clear, what once lay hidden in an impenetrable maze of printed words is now illuminated…yes… you are not meant to read James Joyce at all, you are meant to sit back and have him read to you, yes, preferably by top rate actors in whose hands the meaning and brilliance and, yes, clarity, yes, the clarity of Joyce’s prose will be fully revealed and made entirely manifest – yes!  

Those of us lucky enough to be in the audience for Ulysses Revisited on the last day of this year’s JBW experienced this revelation at first hand.  Howard Jacobson treated us to the full fire and brimstone of his passion for Joyce (he’d make a fine Presbyterian Minister, if he weren’t a Jew), bludgeoning us with virtuoso rhetoric into submitting to his notion that Ulysses is the greatest Jewish novel of the 20th century.

 The blistering polemic was intercut with passages from the book itself, read by actors Henry Goodman and Derbhle Crotty, who wooed the meaning from Joyce’s prose as if it were no more troublesome than a walk in the park, teasing out the multi-layered wordplays and elliptical thought processes with consummate skill.  Was this really the same Joyce I’d struggled with for years? It was as if he’d suddenly been translated into English. Perfectly comprehensible English at that.

Leopold Bloom, argued Jacobson, is not just a Jewish character, but the Jewish character par excellence by virtue of his inherent, inconquerable masochism.

Joyce draws us into the inner sanctum of Bloom’s mind, where we encounter the depth charge of this masochism: the insatiable appetite for life and suffering and everything in between. The lust for the forbidden, for the sexual and sensual and actual treif.  The longing for the lost.  The yearning for home and all its unattainable comforts. 

Ulysses shows us, Jacobson convincingly argued, ‘the healing power of creative exile into oneself…the dignity of the average damaged person.’  Leopold Bloom’s relationship with Molly is the relationship between the Jews and God:  it goes on mostly in Bloom’s head while Molly herself is mostly upstairs and unavailable; it is built on the expectation of discomfort, and it is revolves on the deeply held belief that ‘it requires great potency to deserve great punishment’. 

 This was a performance, rather than a talk, a triple delight that cleverly enacted Jacobson’s masochist’s manifesto.  While Jacobson brilliantly bludgeoned, Goodman and Crotty sweetly seduced.  And we, the largely Jewish audience, couldn’t get enough.  Hit us with more of your wonderful words, Howard.   Soothe us with more of your lyrical reading, Henry.  More, more and still not satisfied.  

 But it was Derbhle Crotty’s rendition of Molly Bloom’s famous interior monologue that had us – well, me at least – melting in my seat, as her lovely Irish voice evoked Molly, lying in bed at night with her husband, the wandering Jew’s wandering hands invisibly accompanying her wandering thoughts, punctuated by the mounting tide of those orgiastic ‘yes’s.  Eat your heart out, Meg Ryan – James Joyce definitely got there first.

Rebecca Abrams’s novel Touching Distance (Macmillan) is a Jewish novel with no Jews in it. 

She is also the author of four works of non-fiction, an award-winning journalist and a tutor in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford.  She is currently writing a novel set in British Mandate Palestine.

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