One of the great literary anniversaries last year was the death of Dante in 1321, while this year marks the centenary of the appearance of James Joyce’s Ulysses. At first glance it would be hard to find two more ill-assorted authors. Dante is the poetic voice of medieval Christendom, exalted and sublime; Joyce is a modern rebel and blasphemer, sordid and salacious, a man described by Virginia Woolf as “a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples”.

Dante speaks of such grand affairs as heaven and hell, church and state, while Joyce loftily dismisses the lot of them. One panic-stricken English critic compared Ulysses to an Irish Republican bombing. A former Provost of Trinity College, Dublin remarked that the novel showed what a blunder it had been to establish University College, Dublin, where Joyce was a student, “for the aborigines of this island, for the corner-boys who spit in the Liffey”.

Yet the two writers have a good deal in common. It’s true that the language of Dante’s Divine Comedy can be a touch too mellifluous for some modern ears, but it can also be the idiom of the street, rough and abrasive, crammed with insult and abuse. Dante chose to write in the vernacular (and thus for the common reader) rather than in Latin, and in doing so played a major role in establishing everyday Italian as the literary language of his people. It was a choice which helped to revolutionise the writing of other European cultures as well.

For his part, Joyce has an uncannily well-tuned ear for the speech of working-class Dubliners, and Ulysses, which is awash with pub talk, gossip, political polemic and satirical invective, is one of the first novels in English to portray what we might now call mass culture. It includes tabloid journalism, scientific jargon, a pastiche of women’s romantic fiction, a mini-Expressionist jargon, the language of the unconscious and a good deal more. There is really no answer to the question “What is Joyce’s style?” even though he could spend days on end sculpting a sentence.

Like his compatriot Samuel Beckett, Joyce has an intense fascination with the ordinary. Both men hailed from a small, impoverished island, “an afterthought of Europe” as Joyce scornfully called it, and both kept faith with the modest and inconspicuous. This most fastidious of artists once compared his mind to that of a grocer’s assistant. There are shopkeepers and taxi drivers in Ireland today who have a go at reading some of his work, just as they may have a stab at reading some Yeats or Seamus Heaney. In small nations, writers can be less private individuals than public institutions. And there may be few other public figures to be proud of. Yet Joyce’s great novel is also notoriously difficult and abstruse, so that everyday life and high-modernist experiment sit cheek by jowl. Hardly any other modernist writer is at once so esoteric and down to earth. One finds a similar combination in Dante, whose poem ranges from celestial beings to fraudsters and bent Cardinals.

If Dante turned from Latin to the vernacular, Joyce was also caught between two languages. Like Yeats and Oscar Wilde, he didn’t speak Irish himself, but in all these authors you can feel the way it bends standard English slightly out of shape. Unlike the playwright J.M. Synge, who was said to write in English and Irish simultaneously, Joyce isn’t exactly writing in his native tongue. Instead, he is using the language of what part of him saw as the imperial invader. Yet it was precisely his freedom from English social and artistic conventions which lay at the source of his talent, as he himself once remarked. Unconstrained by such orthodoxies, he was free to improve and experiment. So, indeed, was his native country, Britain’s oldest colony, which in the year of Ulysses’s publication became the Irish Free State. As the first post-colonial nation of the 20th century, it had few models to rely on, and thus had to make itself up as it went along.

It was not an experiment which Joyce stuck around to witness. Despising both clerics and nationalists, he had recourse to one of the oldest customs in Ireland, namely getting out of the place. Nothing is more native to the country than exile. Since the Great Famine of the 1840s, which killed one million people and forced millions of others to flee, there had been far more Irish men and women living outside the country than living in it. Joyce’s own self-exile to Paris, Zurich and Trieste was a more privileged affair, but it reflected in its own way the fate of his compatriots. Just as they couldn’t survive materially in one of Europe’s most economically stagnant countries, neither could a whole lineage of artists like Joyce and Beckett survive spiritually. Homeless, displaced and bereft of any stable identity, they exemplified the rootless condition of modern humanity. As cosmopolitans adrift between different cultures, they rejected their own national traditions and set up home instead in the lingua franca of art. So it was that in a myriad polyglot cafes from Paris to St Petersburg, the artistic movement we know as modernism was born.

Dante, too, was an exile. Like Joyce, he denounced what he saw as corruption in both church and empire (in his case the Holy Roman rather than British variety), and paid a steep price for it. Expelled from his native Florence on trumped-up political charges, and threatened with being burnt alive if he returned, he spent the rest of his days on the hoof, straying in his own words “through nearly all the regions to which the Italian tongue belongs, a wanderer, almost a beggar, truly a ship without sail or rudder, driven to many ports and straits and shores by the parching wind of grievous poverty”. Joyce, who eked out a precarious living by teaching English in one corner of Europe after another, could identify with this easily enough; but what really drew him to Dante was his scholasticism.

It’s hard for the modern English reader to share this enthusiasm for medieval philosophy, but Joyce was Irish, not English. He was brought up in a Catholic culture which placed a high value on systematic thought, and had no admiration for endless open-mindedness. He once remarked that he was a scholastic in everything but the premises, meaning that he approved of the rigorous reasoning of scholastics like Thomas Aquinas even though he didn’t believe in the God they reasoned about. He was much closer to the world of Dante and Aquinas, writers he deeply respected, than he was to the world of English middle-class liberalism. A character in his early novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man remarks to the Joyce-like hero on “how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve”. There are many ways of being religious in Ireland, and atheism is one of the most familiar. As one of Graham Greene’s characters cries out to God, “I hate you as though I believed in you.”

When Joyce said that he had a mind like a grocer’s assistant, he meant not only that he had a passion for the mundane but that he dealt with it in an orderly, row-stacking way. Like Beckett, he is an obsessional classifier, conjuring the most ingenious combinations out of a few sparse bits of reality. He was intrigued by the way the 26 letters of the alphabet could yield you such a prodigal wealth of words. The world could be seen as an endless play of permutations, continually changing but never getting anywhere. The ideology of progress, so central to modern English thought, never had many takers in Ireland. The literary equivalent of progress is the realist novel, which, as with George Eliot, tells stories about a steadily improving world. It is not a form likely to impress those colonial subjects whose history is a function of someone else’s, which is one reason why all the finest Irish novels — Gulliver’s Travels, Tristram Shandy, Castle Rackrent, Dracula, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, Malone Dies, At Swim-Two-Birds — are resolutely anti-realist.

What follows from a view of the world as both constantly different and constantly identical?  For Joyce, one might claim, it is the idea of comedy. Not comedy in the rib-tickling sense, though Joyce can be funnier than most other modern writers. It is rather comedy in the deep sense of the word to be found in Dante’s title The Divine Comedy, which is a matter of vision rather than laughter. Comedy of this kind means the faith that despite appearances to the contrary, all is ultimately well. This is naturally true for a devout Christian like Dante, for whom love has already won out in principle over violence and hatred; but it is also the creed of the atheistic Joyce, for whom nothing in the great cycle of things can be ultimately lost but will return in a different guise. His novels, which go round in circles, are microcosms of this universe.

In this sense, Joyce is that most unusual of modernist writers, a non-tragic one. Comedy in his view is a kind of realism: if it were possible for us shuck off our fantasises and delusions and see the world as it really is, we would come to accept it in a kind of cosmic joy. Tragedy does not necessarily disagree. It simply draws attention to the painful self-transformation involved in seeing things as they are, and asks whether the pain is worth it.

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