“Joyce built a whole universe out of a grain of sand”
Salman Rushdie, the author of the “Week of the Book” present, was carried along by James Joyce’s Ulysses as though the book was rocket fuel.
The wing of the Rijksmuseum looks like a fort. His bodyguards (beside his own there are three other of the city of Amsterdam) have left for a cup of coffee, and the one walking along Salman Rushdie watches me with a slightly disturbed and slightly concerned expression. Many images must haunt the head of the man who wrote this year’s “Week of the Book” present: frightening images, images of the future, images of old myths and modern internet legends. Somewhere in that hyperactive brain also roams the spirit of the Irish-born writer James Joyce (1882-1941). Rushdie: “Joyce is always in my mind, I carry him everywhere with me”.
Who it was who called his attention to Ulysses (published in Paris in 1922) Rushdie does not remember, but he knows that it was in the first year of his study of history.. “Everyone said that it was such a sealed book, hard to penetrate, but I did not think so at all. You never hear people say that there is so much humor in the book, that the characters are so lively or that the theme – Stephen Daedalus in search of his lost father and Bloom looking for his lost child – is so moving. People talk about the cleverness of Ulysses and about the literary innovation. To me it was moving, in the first place”
Stephen and Bloom, those were the characters which touched him immediately. He quotes from memory: “Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls”. Those were the first lines of the second chapter. “I am myself disgusted by that kind of organs”, he grinned. “There are still so many little things I always have to smile about when I think of them. That commercial, for example: “What is home/without Plumtree’s Potted Meat?/ Incomplete”. That is still funny. Joyce used many stylistic means which were novel in his time, newspaper headlines for instance. Is it not moving that he makes Ulysses happen on the day that he met his wife! He kept that newspaper, carried it always with him and used all of its details, including the names of the horses in the races. In short, he built a universe out of a grain of sand. That was a revelation to me: so that is the way one could also write! To somebody who wanted to be a writer, like me, it was so perfect, so inspiring, that it made one need to recover. I have thought for some time: I quit writing, I become a lawyer. Later I thought that there may be some little things still worth doing.”
Such as in the field of linguistic innovation? “Joyce spoke against the politisizing of literature, but his language is a purposeful attempt to create an English which was just not a property of the English. He employs a lot of borrowed words from other European languages and creates an un-English kind of English”. Was that not also the goal of Rushdie himself? “Certainly. The Irish did it, so did the American and the Caribian writers. While English traveled around like that, the people felt the need to innovate it. So I did. But the Joycean innovation was the greatest of all. It is an example that deserves to be followed”.
And what about Joyce’s famous monologue intérieur ? “That stream of consciousness was not an invention of Joyce, but he used it more subtly than anyone else. Bloom’s inner voices were about very common things, about a hungry feeling or so. Joyce demonstrates that the material of daily life can be as majestic as any great epic. The lives of ordinary people are also worthy of great art. One can create grandeur out of banality. That was precisely the criticism Virgina Woolf had on Joyce. Woolf was a bit too snobbish for it”.
As the best example of the stream of consciousness Rushdie “of course” considers Molly Blooms monologue at the end of the book. “In the past I could recite whole parts of it: “and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” That conclusion is absolutely rocket fuel at the end. You have a book behind you in which the behavior of people is not strictly transparent and then suddenly you feel not only the skin of that woman, but her whole body, all her flesh and blood, that is a baffling climax. Of course also very erotic, although as yet the novel was not erotic at all. At that time literature did not extend to erotics, to the sexual fantasies of women. Impossible to imagine Virginia Woolf doing something like that”.
Ulysses is in fact a national epic about Ireland. “It is a grand homage to the country that has never understood him” says Rushdie. “He was regarded there as a pornographer and blasphemer. Now he is viewed as Ireland’s national monument. Well, that’s easy. I do understand how Joyce felt. I am close to him. I feel a kinship, not so much between our types of authorship, but rather between his eye and ear, his mind and mine. The way one looks at things”.
Nevertheless, they would not have become friends, he believes. “Joyce was not very good at friendship. There is a story about his put-down of Samuel Beckett, who adored him and often came along his place. He plainly told him that he only loved two people in the world: the first being his wife, the second his daughter. His only encounter with Proust was also very comical. Joyce and Proust met each other when leaving a party. Proust had his coach standing at the door and was wrapped up fom head to foot, afraid as he was to catch a cold. Joyce jumps into the coach uninvitedly, lights a cigar and opens the window widely. Proust says nothing, neither does Joyce. It is like a silent movie. Two masters of the word, who say nothing to each other and yet disclose themselves. Fantastic!”
In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Joyce mentions the weapons with which a writer can defend himself against the outer world: silence, exile, and cunning. Are those the weapons Rushdie recognizes? “Well, that was a very good stratagem in the time of Joyce. Like Voltaire, Joyce believed that a writer should live near a border, so that he could leave immediately if problems arose. At present that does not work anymore: I have experienced it personally. And silence is an overrated artform, which people now too often impose upon you”.
But are writers not regarded more and more as intellectuals and are they not continually asked for an opinion? “I believe that worldwide there are more and more efforts to impose silence upon writers – and that not only applies to me. It is easy to point to the Arab world, or to China, but even in the United States there are people who want to ban Harry Potter books from schools, because they contain something about witchcraft. Even something harmless like that provokes an attack. We live in a time with an increasing urge to censorship. Various interest groups–including antiracist or feminist movements– demand it. When Kurt Vonnegut is banned from public libraries and not everywhere it is allowed to teach about Huckleberry Finn, then you just cannot assume straight-away that there is something like freedom. Against silence it is that now we have to fight. And exile does not work. Therefore, cunning is the only thing that remains”.
Every year there is in the Netherlands a special week, called the Week of the Book, in which– to promote the new titles– anyone spending more than $10 in a book store receives an extra book, which is specially written for the occasion. In 2001 it was Salman Rushdie who was invited to write the book, and his Woede (i.e. Fury in English) became the year’s present. He was also invited to the Gala of authors with which the Week of the Book started. This year the party was held in a wing of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.) It was here that Margot Dijkgraaf, literary critic of the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, interviewed Salman Rushdie for the series The Crucial Book, in which writers expound their views on the book that has most influenced their ideas. [K.G.]