On the subject of Joyce’s Ulysses, however, I believe that Coelho is, quite simply, wrong. He says that it has “harmed literature.” How can any book do this? Bad books (history alone will judge whether any of mine, or Paulo’s, fall into this category) fade into obscurity and harm nobody. Occasionally one of my postgraduates unearths one, and uses it to make some comment on the time in which it was written. Will people still be reading Ulysses in a thousand years’ time? I don’t know, but if there are bookmakers in Heaven (or in Hell), I will put a few pounds on it (as I will on Coelho’s Aleph).Ulysses is, according to Coelho, “pure style,” by which, presumably, he means that it has no real substance, just, perhaps, some sort of literary eloquence. Well, I accuse Coelho of literary eloquence, and would even like to claim some measure of it for myself! But there is substance, also, in Ulysses, an attempt to create an epic from the mundane: to say that, in the lives of the most ordinary people, there hides an Odysseus, a Telemachus, a Circe. If this does not ennoble the human spirit (which I think is what literature ought to do), then I don’t know what does.
One of my friends, a fellow writer, commented recently that she would have to live 142 years in order to read all the books she would wish to read. My response was that it would take me far longer. But perhaps, if I were immortal (which, of course, I’m not), I could spend 142 years or more just reading and re-reading Ulysses. I’ve read it, I think, six times now, each time discovering new and different things. The Irish-American writer, Frank Delaney, has a fantastic podcast (www.frankdelaney.com) which puts a new gloss on it, even for me. He is taking his time, as the book deserves, aiming to finish, I think, in his hundredth year. At that point, I think I might just be ready to take on his mantle, and do something similar with Finnegan’s Wake.