I first sailed into James Joyce's Ulysses when I was 14 years old. I use the word sailed into instead of read because, as its title reminds us, the book is like an ocean; you do not read it, you navigate it.
Like many people whose childhoods are lonely, I had by the age of fourteen an imagination that was already grown-up, ready to put to sea; what it lacked was experience. I had already read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and its title was the honorary title I gave to myself in my daydreams. A kind of alibi or a kind of seaman's card - to show, when challenged, to the middle-aged, or one of their agents.
It was the winter of 1940-41. Joyce was in fact dying of a duodenal ulcer in Zurich. But I did not know that then. I did not think of him as mortal. I knew what he looked like and even if he suffered from bad eyesight, I did not picture him as a god, but I felt him through his words, through his endless perambulations, as ever-present. And so not prone to die.
The book had been given to me by a friend who was a subversive schoolmaster. Arthur Stowe his name. Stowbird I called him. I owe him everything. It was he who extended his arm and offered me a hand to grasp so I could climb out of the basement in which I had been brought up, a basement of conventions, taboos, rules, idees recues, prohibitions, fears, where nobody dared to question anything and where everybody used their courage - for courage they had - to submit no matter what, without complaining.
It was the French edition in English published by Shakespeare and Company. Stowbird had bought it in Paris on his last trip before the war broke out in 1939. He used to wear a log raincoat and a black beret acquired at the same moment.
When he gave the book to me, I believed it was illegal in Britain to own a copy. In fact this was no longer the case (it had been) and I was mistaken. Yet the 'illegality' of the book was for me, a fourteen year-old, a telling literary quality. And there perhaps, I was not mistaken. I was convinced that illegality was an arbitrary pretence. Necessary for the social contract, indispensable for society's survival, but turning it's back on lived experience. I knew this by instinct when I read the book for the first time, I came to appreciate with mounting excitement that it's supposed illegality as an object was more than matched by the illegitimacy of the lives and souls in its epic.
Whilst I read the book, the Battle of Britain was being fought in the sky above the south coast of England and London. The country was expecting invasion. No future was certain. Between my legs I was becoming a man, but it was quite possible that I would not live long enough to discover what life was about. And of course I didn't know. And of course I didn't believe what I was told - either in history classes, or on the radio or in the basement.
All of their accounts were too small to add up to the immensity of what I did not know, and of what I might never have. Not, however, Ulysses. This book had that immensity. It didn't pretend to it; it was impregnated by it, it flowed through it. To compare the book with an ocean again makes sense, for isn't it the most liquid book ever written?
Now I was about to write: there were many parts, during this first reading, which I didn't understand. Yet this would be false. There were no parts that I understood. And there was no part that did not make the same promise to me: the promise that deep down, beneath the words, beneath the pretences, beneath the claims and everlasting moral judgment, beneath the opinions, lessons, boasts and cant of everyday life, the lives of adult women and men were made of such stuff that this book was made of: offal with flecks in it of the divine. The first and last recipe!
Even at my young age I recognized Joyce's prodigious erudition. He was, in one sense, learning incarnate. But learning without solemnity that threw away its cap and gown to become joker and juggler. (As I write about him, something of the rhythm of his words still animates my pen). Perhaps even more significant for me at that time was the company his learning kept: the company of the unimportant, those forever off stage, the company of publicans and sinners as the Bible puts it, low company. Ulysses is full of the disdain of the represented for those who claim (falsely) to represent them and packed with the tender ironies of those who are said (falsely) to be lost.
And he did not stop there - this man who was telling me about the life I might never know, this man who never spoke down to anybody, and who remains for me to this day an example of the true adult, which is to say of a being who, because he has accepted life, is intimate with it - this man did not stop there, for his penchant for the lowly led him to keep the same kind of company within his single characters: he listened to their stomachs, their pains, their tumescences: he heard their first impressions, their uncensored thoughts, their ramblings, their prayers without words, their insolent grunts and heaving fantasies. And the more carefully he listened to what scarcely anybody had listened to before, the richer became life's offering.
One day in the autumn of 1941 my father, who must have been anxiously surveying me for some time, decided to check out the books on the shelf by my bed. Having done so, he confiscated five, including Ulysses. He told me the same evening what he had done and added that he had locked all five in the safe in his office! At this time he was doing important war work for the government on the question of how to increase factory production. I had a vision of my Ulysses locked away under folders of government secrets, labelled Highly Confidential.
I was furious as only a fourteen-year-old can be. I refused to compare my father's pain - as he had asked me to - with my own. I painted a portrait of him - the largest canvas I had done to date - where I made him look diabolic, with the colors of Mephistopheles. Yet my fury notwithstanding, I couldn't help acknowledging something else: the story of the confiscated books and the father in fear for the son's soul and the Chubb safe and the government files might have come straight out of the confiscated book in question, and it would have been narrated with equanimity and without hate.
Today, fifty years later, I continue to live the life for which Joyce did so much to prepare me, and I have become a writer. It was he who showed me, before I knew anything, that literature is inimicable to all hierarchies and that to separate fact and imagination, event and feeling, protagonist and narrator, is to stay on dry land and never put to see.
Under the upswellinng tide he saw the writhing weeds lift languidly and sway reluctant arms, hising up their petticoats, in whispering water swaying and upturning coy silver fronds. Day by day: night by night: lifted flooded and let fall. Lord, they are weary; and, whispered to, they sigh. Saint Ambrosio heard it, sigh of leaves and waves, waiting, awaiting the fullness of their times, diebus ac noctibus injurias patiens ingemiscit. To no end gathered; vainly then released, forthflowing, wending back: loom of the moon. Weary too in sight of lovers, lascivious men, a naked woman shining in her courts, she draws a toil of waters.