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Shell Shocked: James Joyce: The cure for coronavirus

By Staff | Apr 7, 2020

Art Stevens

We’re all stuck in our homes and trying hard to ease the boredom as best we can. I decided that one way of easing the boredom was to tackle a chore I had put off since I attended college and that is to read a novel by James Joyce. I had tried to read one of his novels when I was in college, but the attempt left me in tears and led me into psychotherapy.

James Joyce is the master of free association, a thinking process I know all too well. I picked up a copy of “Finnegan’s Wake” and read page one. Then I read page one again. And again, and again. Finally, I put the book down. I was in a cold sweat. What’s wrong with me? Don’t I understand the English language? Why can’t I make any sense out of the very first page of a novel that is considered a masterpiece? After all, I’m not a moron.

Maybe I’m just not up to the challenge. I’m a simple man who enjoys reading simple prose. I’m not a literary scholar. I should just put “Finnegan’s Wake” back on the shelf and admit defeat. Trying to read James Joyce is like trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together with your eyes covered.

Well maybe I could give it a few days and give Joyce another try. I picked up a book by Ernest Hemingway in the meantime and read the following passage:

“Are you sure?” he said.

“Yes, I’m very sure,” she replied.

“Could it happen again?”

“It certainly could.”

“Dawn had come. He was sleepy. She sipped her coffee. The street was being cleaned. The tourists would be there soon. They sighed. She looked him in the eye. And walked away.”

Simple prose, right? How’s that for understandable literature. And then I took a deep breath and took another crack at James Joyce. I opened “Finnegan’s Wake” gingerly, took a deep breath and read the very first sentence. Moments later I threw the book out the window, let out a loud shriek and put my head in the oven. Here’s the first sentence:

riverrun, past Eve and Adams, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth, Castle and Environs.

Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war; nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s giorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time …

Punished enough for one day? Then try reading page two.