Things build on other things, we know about that. It was a facet of science books that used to irritate me greatly as a kid. I want to know all the cool new stuff about Pluto now now now, my impatient little nerd brain would shriek, but no, they’d have to take me through the entire history of the thing first: through Ptolemy and the ancient Greeks, Galileo and his lens grinding, Newton locking himself in darkened rooms.
As some astronomer once said on one of those manipulative ads for some telecom concern: “if I can see further than you, it’s because I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.” I don’t know what the above has to do with giving all your money to Vodafone, but it is certainly true of literature.
Any prose writer over the last eighty years who has fancied themselves as having something serious and artistic to say cannot possibly operate in blissful ignorance of the likes of Joyce, Nabokov or Beckett. You might quite legitimately hate them, but acting as though they’re not there isn’t likely to get you far.
In the case of Joyce, many writers spend frustrating years trying to separate the good from the shit in a way that conforms with the diktats of whoever happens to pass for the literary establishment at the time.
This can be tough: there’s no doubt that the man who wrote ‘The Dead’ was an awe-inspiring talent, in such total and frightening command of his craft that nearly eighty years later, when John Huston chose to make the movie which would be the glorious swan song to his career, he used Joyce’s precise text, word for heartrending word.
But later: there are parts of Ulysses so powerful and accomplished that it’s almost obligatory to go for a long walk and a stiff drink, maybe stare out at the shapeless sea and wonder if you wouldn’t be better off going into I.T. or something, something that pays (by the way, if I.T. had been around in Joyce’s day, he would certainly asked himself the same question more than once. He might actually have been good at it.)
And yet there are the other parts, the bits where this bible of modernism makes about as much sense as the parts in the other bible concerning the best way to skin someone who’s stolen your goat.
One Irish critic controversially – and very bravely – suggested that a really good Editor might have bent Joyce over his or her lap and cut Ulysses by about 50%.
Maybe. But I don’t know which bits she’d have left in. Neither does anyone else. Therein lies the problem. And as for Finnegan’s Wake …
Well, I have met a couple of people who claimed to understand it thoroughly. They would smile at me in a kind of blowsy mysticism, as if they’d taken secret knowledge down from a mountain only they knew about. They’d mutter something about music and then smile vaguely again as the nice men came back to return them to the secure facility in which they had been housed, for their own good and that of everyone else.
I want to write a science fiction story in which people, for reasons only obscurely explained, choose to enter a virtual reality simulation known as ‘Beckettworld,’ in which you get to hang around grey landscapes in long shabby coats, ruminate upon the meaninglessness of existence and wonder if the figure coming towards you might be in possession of a sandwich.
Here’s the thing: I think such a simulation might actually be a surprise hit. The older you get – and maybe it’s not actually to do with getting older – the more there’s actually something terribly comforting about a lot of Beckett. Maybe it’s partly the familiarity of the land, those dreamscapes in which nothing ever happens. After all, as David Byrne has said, isn’t Heaven really a place where nothing ever happens?
There is also a paradoxical comfort to be had in the grimness of Beckett’s subject matter. After all: if we’re totally screwed, then there’s no point in worrying about anything, is there? Why fret about the outcome of a game whose rules were bent long before you entered?
Just sit back and have another weird, elliptical conversation. Maybe even have a little nap: try out Beckettworld.
Every so often, someone tries to pass water on the Nabokov thing by pointing out, entirely reasonably, that ‘Lolita’ is an attempt to humanise paedos.
Fair enough, and I’m not exactly mad about Vlad either. I find the stylistic flurries, the literary preenings and poutings, a little too much, a little precious. But the cognoscenti have spoken. And when it comes to stuff like this, literature is even more reverential than science, than religion.
You’ve got to give every appearance of dancing most gratefully on that giant’s shoulders, even if you secretly think they’re not that much of a giant.