Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)
'Too hot to quarrel' in James Joyce's laidback Ceylon
The “Cinghalese” make an appearance in the greatest literary work of the 20th century. Celebrating the 133rd birthday of the great Irish writer, who was born on February 2, by Stephen Prins
Just think: we Sri Lankans enjoy a spot in the most celebrated novel of the 20th century! And a most idyllic spot it is. In a sunny clearing, somewhere in the thick, lush, overgrown text of ULYSSES, is a patch of old Ceylon, early 20th century. It is a finely etched miniature. A hallucinatory colonial vision of our tropical paradise, and the widely noted laidback “Cinghalese” lifestyle.
A Ceylonese might squirm a little from mild embarrassment, even as he/she smiles at the beauty of the prose. Poetry, actually.
Last week the reading world celebrated James Joyce’s birthday. If he were alive, he would be 133 years old.
Correction. He IS alive. Very much so. The Irish writer, who was born on February 2, 1882, in Dublin, lives in dignified retirement wherever his books are read and studied. James Joyce is, to use a current term, a Global Figure.
Bring out the Books. Blow out the candles. Cut Miss Houlihan’s cake.
The heady Ceylon mention in “ULYSSES” is a reference to the tea and apathy for which we are famous, and as imagined by the book’s lead character, Mr. Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew. The thoughts are subliminal and come in fragments, pieces of a stereotype sepia-tinted version of an old tea-growing Ceylon, peopled by English, Scots and Irish planters, traders and bankers. The scene is set 111 years ago. It is a Thursday, 16 June, 1904. Listen: “. . . choice blend, made of the finest Ceylon brands. The far east. Lovely spot it must be: the garden of the world, big lazy leaves to float about on, cactuses, flowery meads, snaky lianas they call them. Wonder is it like that. Those Cinghalese lobbing about in the sun in dolce far niente, not doing a hand's turn all day. Sleep six months out of twelve. Too hot to quarrel. Influence of the climate. Lethargy. Flowers of idleness. The air feeds most. Azotes.
Hothouse in Botanic gardens. Sensitive plants. Waterlilies. Petals too tired to. Sleeping sickness in the air. Walk on roseleaves.”
A heady sensuous dream of a tropical Eden. Except for the “cactuses”, which stick out like pricked thumbs and belong elsewhere, the picture is perfect. It’s a microcosm, an idealised world of delicious leisure, painted in thick-thin strokes of humid green.
To switch metaphor, the Ceylon segment is a gem, set in a bigger paragraph. An emerald.
Just when did Irishman James Joyce enter our world, in faraway Ceylon? Half a century ago. Was it Night or Day? It was Midday. Where? At a 150-year-old Britishstyle non-Catholic, non-Christian, nondenominational Colombo 7 boys’ school.
We had just arrived, the 300 of us, from assorted primary sources. The bell rang to say the Great College Experience had begun. Our eyes swam, our heads tilted back. Everything about the redbrick buildings and gardens and grounds towered and sprawled. Excitement, eagerness, wonder, fear were the dominant emotions. In our satchels were old, new, and near-new textbooks. Also non-textbooks. Novels. Comics. Magazines. Boy’s Own Paper. Health & Strength.
Mr. James Joyce too would get into the mixed bag. In time.
One sunny day, in Form One, the Author of ULYSSES came to class in the shape of a fat little item titled “The Portable James Joyce.” Toting it was classmate Rohan Abeyratne, now a Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, USA. He was happy to lend us the book, an object of grey beauty, generously plump and full of pleasing print. There was a bit of everything from the Joyce canon: the short stories of DUBLINERS, the poems of CHAMBER MUSIC, the play EXILES, and extracts from the three novels, A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, ULYSSES, and FINNEGANS WAKE.
Jejune as we were, we had begun our Joyce journey.
DUBLINERS first. Easy to read, but strange. Unlike other short stories, these have no real beginning, middle, end. They read the way home movies look. The atmosphere is powerfully Roman Catholic. Finally, we feel welcome, in spirit, after all those Church of England storybooks. For the first time we open a book that exhales incense-heavy air, which we take in deep breaths. There’s something else, something sinister, like the shadow of a cloud passing over a sunny scene. That scene of two boys sitting on a river bank, for example. They are joined by an older man who engages them in strange talk. The boys are spooked out. That sort of thing happens. Death and Corruption hang over DUBLINERS.
A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN comes next. The first impression is of feeling thoroughly at home in the book. The opening line is fresh as the morning:
“Once upon a time, and a very good time it was, there was a moocow coming down along the road, and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.”
We first heard those words in ‘64, quoted from memory by English-Latin Master, Mr. Viji Weerasinghe. He had a store of memorised goodies.
So much is so familiar – again the Roman Catholic aura, the murmurings of confession and communion, and the severe boys’ school tensions, with kind- cruel teachers and just-unjust canings. And, of course, The Guilt. Spades of guilt. Sin gravely and expect to burn in Hell for Eternity. Hell’s fires illuminate the long terrifying nightmare-inducing sermon.
ULYSSES followed, but in that instance our introduction had nothing to do with Literature and Great Books of the Century.
James Joyce was Juicy, went the schoolboy gossip. Our Eyes Would Pop, the Older Boys said.
As you, dear Reader, have guessed, the Boys are Up To No Good. It is the 10.15 interval, middle of term. In the school library, the stealthy gang in Indian file heads towards the letter J. At the far end of the Fiction-Literature aisle, halfway up the alphabet, they open a glass-paned cupboard, look over their shoulders, and reach for the Big Bad Book. Seeing is Believing. The much-consulted tome falls open at The Page Itself. How many hundreds of curious schoolboys would have turned to this particular page? Grubby prodding fingers have left their mark. Dirty fingerprints, dirty page. There, in black and white, circled with a blue pen, are The Words. Bad, Banned Words. Four letters each, picked up from the Older Boys. Toilet words. We rub our eyes. Even the Worst of Bad Words get into Books. Into Literature! The gang shoves the book back into the depths. We will be back, ULYSSES.
Enter the giddy orbit of 20th-century World Literature. Register the Shock of Modernism. We made repeat visits to the Book, which in time turned out to be the Storybook of the Century.
Once the reaction at seeing those fourletter critters in print had worn off, we started examining the surrounding words. Shock Two. This is a rules-of-grammar jolt. Where, pray tell, are the Commas, the Full Stops? There’s nothing to indicate a recognisable sentence, with a beginning and an end. Flipping pages, we are grabbing at one monstrosity of an unpunctuated sentence that goes on for 43 flipping pages. Flipping hell. This is Smashing the Rules. How smashing of Mr. Joyce to say to hell with rules. Welcome to the Big Bold Unbowed World of Modern Literature! Bowled over, we are. Going over one weekend to see Cousin Stefan, who lived around the corner, in Buller’s Road, we found ULYSSES in his father’s enormous library. (The father was Vernon Abeysekera, Government Agent, English and Classics Scholar.) This edi- tion had a hard red cover. Inside was Shock Three.
Filling the page on the left, top to bottom, was a giant black Snake.
The letter “S” stamped in the biggest possible font size. Like any snake, it was seductive, fascinating, frightening. With a hiss, it sets into sinuous motion the next 647 pages of fabled text.
Read on. Mark choice Joyce word wedges.
You are challenged not to smack your lips as you read what must be the Most Appetite-Inducing Passage in English Literature. Try this on your tongue:
“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”
Under the category Realistic Cat Sounds in English Prose, James Joyce’s has to be the best.
“— Mrkrgnao! the cat said loudly.” (Chapter 4)
ULYSSES is a Day Book, just as FINNEGANS WAKE is a Night Book. The action covers a single day in Dublin, starting at 8.00 in the morning and ending at night. In bed.
Obscenity charges were levelled twice at ULYSSES. The first trial, in 1921, put in the dock a literary magazine that ran excerpts of the book. The book was banned in the US. The second trial, United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, in 1933, ended with a “not obscene” verdict. The case was a landmark victory against censorship.
ULYSSES was serialized from March 1918 to December 1920, and published in full in February 1922. The blue-cover first edition is a collector’s prize. A copy fetched £275,000 five years ago, a record price.
We met someone who had read ULYSSES in its precious first edition.
Mr. Raymond Adlam, former Professor of English, Rangoon University, and British Council adviser to the Department of Education on the Teaching of English as a Second Language, told us he read the book for the first time as a teen, borrowing it from his English Lit teacher, back in Wales.
The book had left the student in a state of “complete shock.” He told his teacher that he understood why he had hesitated to part with ULYSSES, even briefly. It wasn’t for its shock content that the teacher was nervous. It was for its first edition value. There were uncut pages the student had wisely left untouched, for cutting would have dramatically lowered the edition’s auction value.
CHAMBER MUSIC is the title of a collection of poems by a very young James Joyce. Teaching a poetry class for the GCE Ordinary Level, circa ’67, Mr. Viji Weerasinghe spontaneously recited, from memory, the opening lines of a Joyce ayre: “Lean out of the window, / Goldenhair, / I heard you singing / A merry air.” The finespun lines were suspended among the dust motes floating above our desks. Lit gilt filaments. Now: Here Comes FINNEGANS WAKE, Everybody.
The book’s midsentence ending connects with the (midsentence) opening. A word circle.
Mr. Raymond Adlam advises saving baffling FINNEGANS WAKE for Later Mature Reading.
Thunder rolls tremendously in FINNEGANS WAKE. There are 10 Thunder-words, of roughly 100 letters each. The words irritated the polymath Douglas Amarasekera, Professor of Mathematics, University of Ceylon. During a conversation at his home about Modern Literature, he suddenly left the room to return with a copy of FINNEGANS WAKE. He found what he was looking for. It was the first Thunderword. We couldn’t help him because, at the time, 1972, we hadn’t heard or heard about Thunder-words. Here is the rumble that bothered the Professor:
Unlike a math poser, the linguistic puzzle refused to yield, unravel. The 98-letter word would have been a problem for the professor who, in an essay on writing, said: “. . . the best style of writing is the style that conveys the idea as efficiently as possible. To convey the idea efficiently, the words should be clear. They should be precise.”
Of course, the professor was talking about expositional writing, not literary work, but even so it was obvious the Thunder-word and the heavy word shower around it had blurred any meaning for him, spoiled any story enjoyment. It was only long after that Joyce exchange that we found, in the British Council Library, Anthony Burgess’s clarifier, “A Shorter Finnegans Wake.”
(Note: Like Colombo’s ritzy WATERS EDGE, FINNEGANS WAKE does not sport an apostrophe.)
Nighttime is the time frame of FINNEGANS WAKE. In Joyce’s own words, “the action of my new work takes place chiefly at night. It's natural things should not be so clear at night, isn't it now?” he said, in response to complaints that the book was “obscure.”
EXILES, James Joyce’s only play, is deemed awkward to stage by theatre folk. Late one night, years ago, we tuned into the SLBC Play Hour and heard the last passionate moments of EXILES. Two voices, a man and a woman. It was a Harold Pinter radio production. The female speaking was the actress Joan Plowright. We had missed something artistically beautiful and powerful.
A day after the 2009 Galle Lit Fest, the Irish novelist Edna O’Brien, a James Joyce devotee, gave us an interview for a feature that appeared in this newspaper. The meeting took place at the Amangalla hotel, inside the Fort. When the hour was up, we produced a copy of her novel “Night” for signing. She signed and then announced that it was a special day – for her, for Catholics, for Joyce fans. It was February 2, Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. Also, the birthday of James Joyce. Over her signature, she wrote a few words about mutual love for the great Irish writer.
Time to end our rambling essay. Appropriately.
The glorious affirmation, the stream of incandescent YES-es that bring ULYSSES to a close, are famous.
Here is Molly Bloom, fickle wife of Leopold Bloom, ecstatically dreaming: “… and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and would I yes to say yes my mountain flower … yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
The End. The Beginning.