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Archive Photo

Archive Photo

October is the month the Nobel Prize Committee in Sweden announce the winner of the annual prize for Literature. Fellow wordpress blogger and poet, Lorem Ipsum recently asked me how I felt about Seamus Heaney winning when James Joyce never did. I said I thought Joyce’s Modernist, ‘stream of consciousness’ style was probably too much too soon for the 1920s. Ulysses was published in 1922 in Paris but the works which brought Joyce to public attention were Dubliners, a collection of short stories published in 1914, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, his first full-length work, published in America in 1916. There were other publications – a play and poems, but the next major work after Ulysses took 17 years in the making. Finnegans Wake (which I’ve never read), described as ‘a treasure of curious scholarship, a philological divertissement, and a work for the studious minority’* appeared in 1939.

These details set me thinking again about Lorem Ipsum’s question. Firstly, is Joyce’s body of work ‘enough’ volume-wise to merit consideration for the Nobel Prize for Literature? If compared to Heaney’s output in the three decades leading up to his award in 1995, Joyce does seem something of a ‘slacker’ in literary production terms. The counter argument should of course be, never mind the width, feel the quality.

I've a lot more Seamus Heaney on my shelves!

I’ve a lot more Seamus Heaney on my shelves!

Secondly, and perhaps more saliently, did Joyce simply have very bad timing? Ulysses was published in 1922 by Sylvia Beach, proprietor of Shakespeare and Company, an Indy Publisher in today’s jargon. The Nobel went to fellow Irishman, W. B. Yeats in 1923, whose view of Irish Nationalism was poles apart from Joyce’s. As I said to Lorem Ipsum, there is always some element of politics in these awards too. By the time Finnegans Wake appeared, the awarding of the prize was suspended, ie, during the years of the Second World War (1939-1945), as it had been during the First World War (1914-18). James Joyce died in 1941. It’s interesting to speculate on this and I thank Lorem Ipsum for getting me cogitating and seeking out some interesting Nobel facts here.

Irish Recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature

1995 Seamus Heaney – “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past

1969 Samuel Beckett– “for his writing, which – in new forms for the novel and drama – in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation

1925 George Bernard Shaw– “for his work which is marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty

1923 William Butler Yeats– “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation

* A Dictionary of Irish Biography, Edited by Henry Boylan (Dublin: Gill & MacMillan, 1998, p.198)