Flann O’Brien’s The Dalkey Archive is a delightful book. O’Brien himself wrote to his editor that “the book is not meant to be a novel or anything of the kind but a study in derision, various writers with their styles, and sundry modes, attitudes and cults being the rats in the cage.”
The “study in derision” of the most interest to me was how James Joyce and Ulysses were mockingly depicted. The book’s protagonist, Mickey Shaughnessy, discovers Joyce working as a barman in the Irish coastal town of Skerries. The author had posted an obituary of himself, as he fled France before the Nazi occupation. The whereabouts of his family are unknown.
The dialogue between Shaughnessy and Joyce that ensues is purely wild literary phantasmagoria. Here are some tidbits of this madcap dialogue:
MS- “Mr Joyce, tell me about the writing of Ulysses.”
JJ- “I have heard more than enough about that dirty book, that collection of smut, but do not be heard saying that I had anything to do with it.”
MS- “But Ulysses?”
JJ- “I don’t want to talk about that exploit. I took the idea to be a sort of practical joke but didn’t know enough about it to suspect it might seriously injure my name. It began with an American lady in Paris by the name of Sylvia Beach…..the truth is that she fell in love with me. Fancy that!”
MS- “How did Miss Beach express her love for you?”
JJ- “She swore to me that she’d make me famous….But her plot was to have this thing named Ulysses concocted, secretly circulated and have the authorship ascribed to me. Of course at first didn’t take the mad scheme seriously.”
MS- “But how did the thing progress?”
JJ- “I was shown bits of it in typescript. Artificial and laborious stuff, I thought….Of course it wasn’t Sylvia Beach who showed me those extracts.”
MS- “Who was it?”
JJ- “Various low, dirty-minded ruffians who had been paid to put this material together. Muck-rakers, obscene poets, carnal pimps, sodomous sycophants, pedlars of the coloured lusts of fallen humanity. Please don’t ask me for names.”
MS- “Tell me more about Ulysses.”
JJ-“ I paid very little attention to it until one day I was given a piece from it about some woman in bed thinking the dirtiest thoughts that ever came into the human head. Pornography and filth and literary vomit, enough to make a blackguard of a Dublin cabman blush. I blessed myself and put the thing in the fire.”
MS- “Well was the complete Ulysses do you think ever published?”
JJ- “I certainly hope not.”
MS- “ Mr. Joyce….I can tell you that you have been out of touch with things for a long time. The book Ulysses was published in Paris in 1922, with your name on the title page. And it was considered a great book.”
JJ- “God forgive you. Are you fooling me? I am getting on in years. Remember that.”
Mad stuff, isn’t it? Joyce then tells Shaughnessy that he wants to join the Jesuit order. Perhaps even teach at his alma mater, Clongowes Wood College. Joyce is intent on ridding the Holy Ghost from Catholic dogma.
The reader now wonders what’s up with Joyce. Has he gone mad like his daughter Lucia? Is he perhaps escaping the bonds of family for life with the Jesuits? If so, is this why he is brutally disparaging Ulysses.
The parody and satire of it all is brilliant. The Dalkey Archive is a gem of a book.