James Joyce

By Hannah Shagan, TIWP Student

One day we went to this wonderful Italian restaurant for my dad’s birthday. It was in Lafayette on a street full of hit-or-miss restaurants and we were going in blind. We walked through their front garden in the settling November dusk. They brought us through a hobbit hole hallway, round and well-lit, past doors marked ‘Closed for private venue’ that were left open a crack so simpletons like us could gawk at the fat old men in suits. We came to a round room. The wall across the way had windows into the kitchen and you could see the cooks in white paper hats bustling around with eggs. We sat at the honorable table in the center of the room. A little candle glittered in the center. It was the kind of place where they push in the chairs for you, if you’re a woman, but won’t be bothered if you’re a man because the waiters all have skinny arms and struggled enough just to push my chair in. We examined the menus and our waiter came to present us with bread. He had a penciled-on mustache and slicked-back hair that clung to his scalp. It shone with five cans of hair gel which was also what he shined his shoes with. We ordered and as we settled in to wait, nibbling on warm bread, the conversation shifted to the world at large. 

We talked about Britain. This was years before I went, back when it seemed like a shire of pleasant pastures and mountains green, the kind of place to inspire Tolkien, before I learned that it is also a dystopian hell-land. We talked about Brexit. Dad’s cousin, who in her retirement had the chance to pick up whatever odd jobs she wanted, had recently started designing pen case covers for an Ireland based art supplies company. She’d described the wonderful people she was working with and then how she might lose the job because the Brexit situation was giving the company a terrible time. My brother asked what Brexit was. My dad explained that Britain was planning to leave the European Union so they didn’t have to listen to their regulation and immigration policies. Noah, my brother, asked why this was a problem for Ireland. And then the conversation predictably switched to history. This is what every family conversation inevitably does.

England—once the empire that god himself wouldn’t trust in the dark—began its conquest of the world with the countries surrounding it. This included Ireland. He mentioned Oliver Cromwell, great, great, grand nephew to the protagonist of my favorite trilogy, who’s name in Ireland carries the same weight as Hitler’s in a room of Jews. Just from that sentence, I bet you can imagine what a bitch England is. Anyway, in 1916 (cue the song Zombie to start playing “In Your Head…”) Ireland fought England for its independence from that little Anglican bastard. However, not all of Ireland wanted to be independent. There were six counties who wanted to stay British. Today those are Northern Ireland. Anyway, there was a war to try to reclaim Northern Ireland—but the conversation turned back to that later. What was important now was the next question my brother asked: “Has Ireland ever done anything of importance, like ever?” He always asks questions like that.

“Well, Ireland is home to some fantastic writers,” said Dad, “including one of the best writers in the English cannon—” (I scooted to the edge of my chair. When my dad uses the term ‘English canon’ he always has a wonderful story to tell.) “—who’s also one of the most confusing ones: James Joyce. His magnum opus is a book called Ulysses. One of my favorite book reviews—though the author escapes me now—once wrote that if Joyce had never named the book Ulysses, then some time, decades later, a grad student would have read it and thought ‘huh, this is kind of like the Odyssey’ and would have wrote a paper and been done with it. However Joyce gave us that title, a key to unlock his unconquerable book. It’s so complicated that when you read it, you need to read another book with it just to help you understand what’s going on.” My dad was glowing by this point.

“That book is one of the hardest books to read. It’s a stream of consciousness narrative, twisting, full of random tangents, tone changes, and exaggerations. My favorite part is the chapter about the Sirens. When you read it, you’re struck by the tone change. You don’t understand until you’ve reread it three times but that chapter… It’s written like music. The scene begins with banging on a pot, a bell ringing from far off, a whistle blowing, until the entire city square has filled with music and the writing style changes to reflect it. It feels like a lyrical fever dream.”

He spoke like he was in love. We could see his soul. It was beautiful. Just then the food arrived. We ate and I waited for him to pick up his narrative.

“It has one of my favorite lines actually,” my dad said, whipping his mouth, “one character says: ‘you know Ireland is the only country never to have persecuted Jews?’ ‘Really?’ asked another character, ‘why’s that?’ ‘Because… it never let them in.”

We nodded and giggled. Honestly, we snorted so loudly our stuffy waiter stared at us, mouth hanging open like a fish who considered joy to be a scandal. It was the kind of bitter truth you can only find funny when it belongs to you.

“I read it in college,” said my dad, “in a comparative fiction class. It taught me what language is capable of. It made me fall even deeper in love with reading.”

I want a class like that. I want to go to college just to have that class. I wanted it with fire and I daydream about it and my chest hurts as I’m cheated of that kind of education.

“What else did Joyce write?” I asked through a mouthful of steak.

“He once wrote a short story about a dinner party. It’s during the Irish civil war and everyone’s agreed not to talk about it. That means there are questions you can’t ask each other, like what’s your religion and where do you live. And as they talk around the issues, the woman hosting them smells something that reminds her of a young man who loved her and died many decades ago. She hasn’t thought about him in years but that smell makes her remember. At the same time, there’s a war going on at the table. I hadn’t realized until I reread it but as the conversation goes on, the cutlery are fighting. Armies of salt and pepper march across the table. There are casualties on both sides. Joyce writes lots of stories about the Irish Civil War.”

“I know a story about that,” I said with more than a little mystery. They tell me to go on. I turn somber, hesitant, as I try to tell one of those books we sacrificed to Kill a Mockingbird to read.

“It’s called the Sniper. It begins with a man lying in wait on a roof. There are explosions below him. Informants and darkness. He lights his cigar, which was a mistake because he was spotted by an enemy sniper. They battle. It’s a hard fight. They’re evenly matched and all the while the sniper wonders who in the world this person is. He gets shot but manages to kill the other sniper. He’s really curious, so before he leaves he goes to find the sniper he killed. He takes of his mask and sees…it’s his brother.”

Have you ever been rendered out of breath just by sheer emotion? They told me it was a good story, that I told it well. I was glad. I’m terribly self conscious about my voice. Always have been. My parents compared memories about the Irish Civil War in the later 20th century. The reason that Brexit is dangerous is because it could start off fighting again. And it’s separated families. Now your cousins are in another country and you can’t get to them without money and border control. I can’t believe Britain is still doing that to people. Still.

My parents told more stories. We laughed. And then we left. But before we did my dad shared one final snippet about Joyce, one from his last book, Finnegans Wake, too dense for even my dad to finish. “As he was dying, Joyce had his last book transcribed as he spoke. Then someone came into the room. They had a conversation. When the person left the student transcribing apologized to Joyce. He’d recorded the whole conversation. He offered to cut it but ‘No,’ Joyce said. ‘Leave it in.’ That writer became one of the other Irish literary geniuses.” 

So a random conversation just remains. Another snippet of life captured forever. Isn’t that chaotic? Isn’t that kind of beautiful? That night I dreamed about an army of salt shakers and the words of a book rising up to form a song. That night I fell in love with language.

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