It was through James Joyce that I learned to see something in language that carried a radiance, something that made me feel the beauty and fervor of words, the sense that a word has a life and a history.
I came across that quote while scrolling through my Instagram feed, paused, and read it again. And again. And again.
That is the effect James Joyce has on me. I have to stop what I’m doing and read, over and over, really digest, and swim around in what is being written about him, what accolades are being showered upon him, what greatness is being celebrated, mostly because I do not feel the same. At all. In fact – and this is probably admitting to some sort of writerly sin – I rather abhor him. So much that I’ve never read anything he’s written besides Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
And I read that in my high school AP English class.
When I was 17.
Jesus, Madhuri. Talk about holding a grudge.
[It’s worth noting that is the first time I have ever addressed myself in the third person. It’s worth noting it will also be the last.]
Up until today, I’ve been rather expert about letting Joyce testimonials go in one ear and out the other, all the while rolling my eyes, and thinking back to the torture I felt as I turned every page of his novel during high school. But that DeLillo quote stopped me in my James-hating tracks, made me do a double-take, and for the first time ever, reconsider myself and Mr. Joyce and the fact that perhaps all these years, I’ve been wrong.
For anyone who knows me well, that moment of reflection was significant for two reasons, one being based upon what I’ve clearly set forth above, James and I are not friends, and two being that with regard to such passionately held beliefs, I’m always right. I can and am very much a jerk like that – ask my son’s father, he’ll give you an earful on that aspect of my personality.
Hence my refusal to consider James Joyce and his body of work at all, in any way, shape or form, for the past twenty-five plus years. Because I am always right.
At least I thought I was until I crossed paths with DeLillo and his interview, especially the phrase: the beauty and fervor of words.
Something there – the beauty and fervor of words – hints at all kinds of magic, the sort of magic I love, magic that springs from playing with words, fitting them together to create beautiful, rhythmic, complicated ideas within ideas within ideas, layers upon layers of fantastical literary acrobatics. More Garcia Marquez than Joyce…more Naylor than Joyce…more Amado than Joyce…more Rushdie than Joyce…more Morrison than Joyce…more Lahiri than Joyce…
Then again, maybe not.
I pondered this for a couple of hours, toying with the idea that perhaps there is magic hidden in the pages of a Joyce novel. I lawyered while questions of Joyce worried my mind, danced along the edges of my reality, gnawed at my conscience until finally I texted my childhood partner in crime, the one person who knew my AP English James Joyce woes better than any other, and released my thoughts into the ether:
I love the magic of words and couldn’t help but wonder whether I, too, would love James Joyce had he been introduced to me (us) by someone better at making such introductions than _________?
And therein lay my quandary – was I willing to place my distaste for Joyce at the feet of another? For so long, I’d taken ownership of our non-existent relationship, feeling something akin to pride in my long-standing refusal to acknowledge the Irishman (remember? I am always right). But perhaps he was never presented to me in the proper manner? Maybe under different circumstances – high school English, didactic teacher, authority-questioning student – our relationship would also be quite different. Maybe under different circumstances, I, too, would know and understand the beauty and fervor of Joyce’s words.
Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
My childhood friend believes Joyce is my perfect literary foe and I must dive back into his work, if for no other reason than to go to my grave saying I gave him another shot and I still find him unworthy. I think I have little choice but to dive back into his work because I cannot walk around constantly wondering about his words and their magic and our potential love affair.
Because if nothing else, I am a sucker for a brilliant wondrous freakish love and nothing would be more freakish than some of me wrapped around some of Mr. Joyce.