Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2022), Reviews, Volume 30

RTÉ1, 3 February 2022

By Sylvie Kleinman

Above: Ulysses, first published in Paris in February 1922. This slightly formulaic yet stylish documentary commemorated the centenary of its publication. (NLI)

This slightly formulaic yet stylish documentary commemorated—indeed, unashamedly celebrated—the passage of 100 years since the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses in Paris on 2 February 1922 (his 40th birthday). Part of a busy programme to mark this other defining Irish centenary, its perspectives on Ireland’s most cherished exile reached well beyond the traditional ‘literary-cultural’ merits of his universally acclaimed, if eternally tantalising, masterpiece.

It overviewed Joyce’s challenging upbringing in Dublin, his privileged education and precocious intellect, and then his exile and literary career. We were reminded of the polarised reactions to how he scurrilously but ‘modernistically’ verbalised Leopold Bloom’s day of raw urban odyssey, and the inevitable rejection here of such blatant blasphemy. It also challenged us, if not truly convincingly, by projecting a relatively new historical conversation. It asserted that Joyce’s ‘nationalism’ permeates his magnum opus and other works, and that he was far from being apolitical. The pitch was clearly addressing a general public now attuned to how that Irish ‘revolutionary’ generation, born in the 1880s, self-identified, as the ‘decade of centenaries’ closes.

Any reservations must be weighed against the fact that it is dedicated to Frank Callanan SC, who devised and wrote it with producer-director Ruán Mangan but died suddenly in December 2021. A historian of the 1890s, Callanan had critically explored Joyce’s Parnellism and challenged the assumption that he was then indifferent to Irish politics.

Above: The Joyces, the documentary claimed, had experienced a descent into poverty, but we were shown this studio photo of James as a child, a bonny boy in crisp clothes with shiny hair and not a nit in sight. (Poetry/Rare Books Collection, University Libraries, State University of New York, Buffalo)

It made for very good viewing, with excellent location shots encompassing Dublin, Paris and especially the less familiar Trieste, and the interviewees were all engaging and upbeat. Nevertheless, for a country forever congratulating itself on its creativity, it just won’t let go of the conventional expository form of documentary. Some of the narrative explanations were either superfluous or questionable from a historical perspective; some disconnects between the images and the emphatic voice-over were more objectionable than Bloom’s hand down his trousers on Sandymount strand. The experts are interviewed individually, mostly plonked on a chair, albeit some against interesting backdrops, but their short bursts are sometimes edited down to the point of choppiness. The final product doesn’t always make robust historical sense. Take the compelling contention that Joyce’s ‘nationalism’ as expressed in Ulysses was ‘unique’. His ‘war against the Catholic Church and nationalism may have been motivated by the deepest commitment to his people and culture’. From Trieste, he looked back at Dublin and there his ‘unbroken bond with Ireland’ found expression in articles and ‘lectures … surprisingly patriotic in tone’ [our emphasis]. Callanan promisingly states that his writings on ‘Irish nationalism then were more aligned with his political generation than was ever expected’, but within a nano-second we heard a mellifluous extract from Joyce’s 1907 Trieste lecture on Ireland as an island of saints and scholars, praising the outward radiation of the ‘culture and vitalising energy’ of her medieval monastic learning. The on-screen illustration was (surprise) the Book of Kells. How this demonstrates the patriotism, let alone nationalism, of someone only three months younger than Willie Pearse is baffling—a minor TV history nightmare from which we want to wake up. These terms are too laden with contextual politico-historical meaning to apply to pride in one’s cultural heritage. Perhaps that’s why they also used the conveniently vaguer ‘nationalistic’. The voice-over then asserted that in ‘this lecture’ Joyce equated British tyranny in Ireland with the worst excesses of colonialism, just like what ‘the Belgians were doing in the Congo today’. Though we were spared pictures of whites massacring Africans, privately we mused that, for his fee, he opportunistically gave the audience what they were expecting.

Above: James Joyce (standing, second from left) with the professors and students of the BA degree class of 1902 at University College Dublin, where there had been much mingling with prosperous Catholics for whom there was plenty of opportunity, and not just intellectual. (Helen Solterer)

The defining trope of Irish misery was also rolled out: to an aerial shot of Sackville Street (bustling with all those thriving businesses), we were informed that in Ireland in 1904 there was ‘little economic opportunity’, no doubt owing to the British domination just mentioned. Joyce’s writing is realistically infused with this endemic poverty: people are ‘struggling’ to find the price of a drink, yet alcoholism is rampant. The Joyces themselves, it continued, had experienced a descent into poverty, but we were shown his birthplace in Rathgar, a studio photo of a bonny boy in crisp clothes with shiny hair and not a nit in sight. At University College, there had been much mingling with prosperous Catholics for whom there was plenty of opportunity, and not just intellectual. Especially interesting was the passage on his deep (if romanticised) admiration for Parnell, whose very present absence overshadowed the 1890s and Joyce’s adolescence. He deemed that Ireland, by overthrowing him, had lost its potential Moses and would remain enslaved. In the ‘Telemachus’ episode, Stephen after all is the servant of both ‘the imperial British state … [and] the Holy Roman catholic and apostolic church’.

Above: Frank Callanan SC, who devised and wrote the documentary with producer-director Ruán Mangan but who died suddenly in December 2021. (Dave Meehan)

The conclusion was, like the end of Ulysses, optimistic and life-affirming: Joyce had proved himself ‘an accurate prophet’; Ireland became more open, pluralistic and European. Eventually, but between that moment of publication and the freedoms we enjoy today Irish society had gone through a particular form of oppressive hell. No need was felt to comment on the obvious, that Ireland is no longer held back by prudery nor enslaved by the spectre of sin. In an effortless scene, Katherine McSharry of the National Library, in the very august main reading room, which Joyce had frequented, enthusiastically read out Molly’s universally notorious soliloquy. The writer Eimear McBride light-heartedly commented on Molly’s self-pleasuring as her ‘having a wank, on her own’, with Bloom asleep beside her, projecting that Joyce is cool today. In fact, Molly’s ‘human, all too human’ ‘Yes’ was the last word, just like in the book. But did life-size images of the word imply that Joyce would have supported recent referenda? Stating that he would have been delighted at the Ireland of today totally elided not only homelessness but also Dublin’s dysfunctional planning and the progressive loss of its chatty soul, which he so famously eternalised. Yet overall it was a thought-provoking journey into perhaps not so impenetrable a terrain of Irishness as we feared, ably bringing this true artist together with his sprawling canvas. Callanan’s forthcoming James Joyce: a political biography (Princeton University Press, 2023) will undoubtedly spark new debates.

Sylvie Kleinman is Visiting Research Fellow, Department of History, Trinity College, Dublin.


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