On James Joyce


Whenever people ask me who my favourite writer is, I blurt, without even letting them complete the question, “Joyce, Joyce, it can’t be anyone else.” And the reactions I normally receive are mixtures of surprise and doubt.

A writer who have not read even one Austen or Bronte novel, says his favourite writer is Joyce. It surely would stir doubt about the honesty of the statement. Even it can reflect pompousness, pretentiousness or boastfulness of an aspiring writer who wants to let people know that he knows things.

I don’t want to defend myself, I don’t need to. And I am not bound to explain myself either, because I really don’t care.

This post is my dedication to the writer for whom I have the purest, the most childish love possible between a writer and a reader.

(Before starting, I confess: I have not read “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake” yet.)

 

I never knew I want to be a writer. I am good with mathematics and science has always been my easy choice. Still, when time or mood permitted, I picked a random book and read. My childhood books consisted of the Bengali translation of “Tintin” and Bengali comics like “Nonte-Fonte”, “Batul the Great”. I never needed to seek stories in English language. Feluda and Byomkesh gave me all the Sherlock Holmes I wanted to read and “Chader Pahar” (The Mountain of Moon) gave me all the adventures I aspired to have. When I needed some serious stuff, I had our good old Tagore.

During my college days, I didn’t regularly read books. My selection was so random that I read one book by Bhagat, then next by Robin Cook, then Hosseini or Ken Follett or Coelho. I never wrote much either. One or two scattered Bengali poems max.

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James Joyce


So 19 years of my life had passed and I had read only some 20+ books. After graduating in engineering with rather good marks, I had too much free time. I watched all the movies I got from hostel and had all the boozing I could indulge myself in while staying in home.

I could do nothing but read books. I read “The Idiot” by “Dostoevsky” next. Strange, isn’t it? I just randomly picked it from my ebook collection I got from my hostel friends (reading or not you got to have collections to show off). It was long but I liked it. It was good time-pass for me. I read “1984”, “A Passage to India” after that, which I got from our town library. I attempted to read “Beloved” and “Midnight’s Children” back then but couldn’t understand it.

One day, I happened to come across a book titled, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” By then, I started to doubt whether I’d remain an engineer and go for research in control and automation.

The title and the content of the book had a kind of ironical justification to my mental condition back then.

There were few thoughts, emotions I used to have when I was child and I thought only I thought that, and they were my secrets, my very own little but extremely personal ones. No one knew it. But here was this book where I was seeing Stephen doing things, thinking things that shook me at the most vulnerable corners of my mind. For example when I read:

But he was not sick there. He thought that he was sick in his heart if you could be sick in that place. Fleming was very decent to ask him. He wanted to cry. He leaned his elbows on the table and shut and opened the flaps of his ears. Then he heard the noise of the refectory every time he opened the flaps of his ears. It made a roar like a train at night. And when he closed the flaps the roar was shut off like a train going into a tunnel. That night at Dalkey the train had roared like that and then, when it went into the tunnel, the roar stopped. He closed his eyes and the train went on, roaring and then stopping; roaring again, stopping. It was nice to hear it roar and stop and then roar out of the tunnel again and then stop.


I literally used to do that. During the boring lectures in the programs at my missionary school, I used to do that (opening and closing ear-flaps) and entertained myself. I thought I knew a trick that no one knew. It was mine. Mine. But this strange author came and took that away. For the first time, I realized what words could do to a person. I read that part again and again. After that, I came across this paragraph,

He turned to the flyleaf of the geography and read what he had written there: himself, his name and where he was.

Stephen Dedalus

Class of Elements

Clongowes Wood College

Sallins

County Kildare

Ireland

Europe

The World

The Universe


I wrote that in my school copies. (Anirban Nanda, Class 4, Section A, Saradamoni Sisu Niketan, Haldia, West Bengal, India, Asia, World, Universe.) How the hell Joyce knew that?

Though winter is short in my country, I cherished those nights inside quilt as described below.

First came the vacation and then the next term and then vacation again and then again another term and then again the vacation. It was like a train going in and out of tunnels and that was like the noise of the boys eating in the refectory when you opened and closed the flaps of the ears. Term, vacation; tunnel, out; noise, stop. How far away it was! It was better to go to bed to sleep. Only prayers in the chapel and then bed. He shivered and yawned. It would be lovely in bed after the sheets got a bit hot. First they were so cold to get into. He shivered to think how cold they were first. But then they got hot and then he could sleep. It was lovely to be tired. He yawned again. Night prayers and then bed: he shivered and wanted to yawn. It would be lovely in a few minutes. He felt a warm glow creeping up from the cold shivering sheets, warmer and warmer till he felt warm all over, ever so warm and yet he shivered a little and still wanted to yawn.


In short, I felt Joyce wrote this book for me to read. It was meant for me. The struggle of Stephen to find his vocation in later chapters resonated with me. Though the prose was becoming denser with each chapter, I read the book line by line. Read each sentence again and again until I understood it. I read it three times in a row. I almost ruined the library copy.

There are many more deeper secrets that I share with this book and for this reason, whenever I feel down, I read it; whenever I feel a block, I read it.

I read Dubliners after that and with each story —I must emphasize on ‘each’— I learned unexplored sides of human emotions. So, yes, even if Joyce had never written (thank God he did) “Ulysses” or “Finnegans Wake”, I’d worship him all the same.

Joyce is not just another writer for me; he is my tuning point, my Literary Guru.

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