Today marks the 130th birthday of James Joyce, one of the most lauded and influential writers of the 20th century. Joyce is one of those guilt-producing authors — you know you’re supposed to have read at least one of his important works, but things — life, contemporary novelists, the difficulty of his prose — keep getting in the way. So you put it off, and whenever his name comes up you must either admit you’ve never read him or just nod along with a glazed look in your eye and hope no one questions you. We understand how you feel, and to help you out on a day sure to be filled with Joyce-centric coffee shop conversations (we imagine), we’ve put together a handy guide to pretending you’ve read the author’s major works. After all, who ever said Cliffs Notes were just for college students? Click through to get schooled, and prepare to dazzle at your next literary event.
What You Need to Know: Joyce’s first published book of prose, this collection of 15 short stories depicts the life of the Irish middle class in Dublin at the start of the 20th century. The stories are all quite naturalistic, the scenes expertly described, with much attention paid to the geography of the city. The stories are arranged in a loose trajectory from tales about youth to tales about age, culminating in Joyce’s most famous story, The Dead.
What to Talk About: You can talk forever about Joyce’s love of the epiphany as literary device — in each of these stories, the characters build towards a supreme but often painful moment of understanding or awareness that changes the way they see themselves or their world. For example, in The Dead, when Gretta hears the song that sends her into a nostalgic longing for her childhood sweetheart Michael Furey, her minor epiphany sets off her husband Gabriel’s major one, and he basically sits and thinks about his wife, love, death, himself, isolation, and all manner of things for the rest of the story. Then, you can transition into sharing some of your own personal epiphanies with your impressed conversation partners, who will likely do the same in return.
What You Need to Know: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a semi-autobiographical novel that exemplifies the Künstlerroman — that is, the artist’s coming-of-age story. It features Stephen Dedalus, who will later appear in Ulysses, as a stand-in for both Joyce and the most cunning craftsman of Greek mythology, Daedalus, as he begins to rebel against the country and religion he has always known and finally sets off to pursue his life as an artist. By far the “easiest” of Joyce’s novels, the complexity of the language increases as Dedalus grows up, but never becomes as wild as Joyce will get in future works.
What to Talk About: This novel is famous for its use of stream of consciousness, which lets the reader experience the maturation of Dedalus’s mind along with the character, which is something you can talk about while nodding appreciatively. You could also use the text as a jumping off point to talk about whether artists are more likely to be solitary or community figures — in the end of the book, Dedalus goes into seclusion to work on his art, turning his back on all he knows, but in some ways does so in order to promote the very voice and consciousness of the world he is leaving. Discuss!
What You Need to Know: This is the biggie — after all, no one really expects you to have read Finnegans Wake. Based on Homer’s Odyssey, this novel is the figurehead of the modernist movement and an ever-changing meditation on human consciousness. In it, Joyce uses almost every literary technique in his arsenal — stream of consciousness, experimental prose, groan-worthy puns — to relate a relatively simple narrative: two men, the Jewish adman Leopold Bloom and aspiring writer Stephen Dedalus (whom we’ve met before), wander around Dublin for a day (June 16th, 1904, to be precise), taking part in various mundane activities. The novel has 18 chapters, each relating about an hour of the day, beginning around 8am and ending after 2am the next morning, and each chapter is a different literary style.
What to Talk About: Joyce once said of the novel that it would achieve immortality because he had “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant,” so if you’re quick on your feet you can drop that line and see what the others come up with. If not, well, everyone loves a good masturbation joke, and the masturbation scene in Ulysses is an eloquent doozy — Bloom watches Gerty McDowell strike sexy poses on the beach (this may or may not be partially in his imagination) and his climax is echoed back to him in literal fireworks. There is much “O!”ing. You also may want to express your excitement for the upcoming Bloomsday (if only because it takes the attention off the actual novel). It takes place on June 16th. Like the novel, get it?
Finnegans Wake (1939)
What You Need to Know: This notoriously obscure and difficult text is a dreamlike mess, the nighttime counterpart to the day of Ulysses. Joyce called the work, his last before his death, an “experiment in interpreting ‘the dark night of the soul,'” and it is filled with highly experimental language and structure, including words that just sound like the words he means to say, nonsense, and multilingual puns.
What to Talk About: This book is hard to talk about even for the people who’ve actually read it. That being said, you don’t have to have read very much of it to be able to say something — since the book is cyclical, starting in the middle of a sentence and ending in the middle of that same sentence, you can dip in and out without really missing much. There’s no real agreed-on plot, and things go by in dreamlike half-understanding, so we suggest just opening the book at random and picking out a favorite line to memorize and repeat back — we like this one: “But all they are all there scraping along to sneeze out a likelihood that will solve and salve life’s robulous rebus…” Trust us, everyone will be impressed.