It’s as if James Joyce was writing for radio, as if he understood the potential of the new audio technology long before the BBC had begun to broadcast plays and poetry. All that freakish literary invention in his 1922 novel Ulysses suddenly begins to make sense when heard on air, spoken out loud, with sound effects to tell us where we are.
If you’ve never read it, but are too embarrassed to admit this (like the academic guests at David Lodge’s dinner party who get caught out in a game of literary humiliation), you could have tuned in to Radio 4 on Saturday and become an instant expert on Joyce’s quarter-of-a-million-word blockbuster (at least three times the length of anything by Ian McEwan or Julian Barnes). I’ve never been able to get past the first few pages because of the way the novel looks on the page. The reader has to do so much of the work, and slow down to a snail’s pace in order to figure out what’s going on. Those dense, non-paragraphed, non-punctuated reams of text. Joyce surrenders no compromises. Who is speaking now? Is this a bit of narration? Or are these Leopold Bloom’s inner thoughts? Where are we? On Sandymount Strand, in the pub, walking down Prince’s Street? And what’s the point of all this stuff about Hamlet?
Saturday happened to be Bloomsday, 16 June, the single day in June 1904 on which we follow the adventures of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus as they wander round Dublin chasing thoughts of Molly Bloom, and much else. If you’d had the stamina, you could have tuned in to five-and-a-half-hours’ worth of Joyce’s fantastic, frustrating wordgames as they were played out between Saturday Live, The Now Show and Cerys Matthews’s Blue Horizon, just like Bloom’s day. If you didn’t, hurry up and catch it on iPlayer (it’ll be on there for a fortnight). You need never be humiliated again.
Robin Brooks’s adaptation of Ulysses for radio (produced by Claire Grove and Jeremy Mortimer, with Jonquil Panting) gave us a taster of Joyce’s extraordinary willingness to explore the crazy, dangerous ways our minds work, flitting through everything from kidneys for breakfast to coffin nails, via inconvenient toilet breaks and a lot (far too much) of sexual innuendo. The cast, including Stephen Rea as the narrator, Henry Goodman as Bloom, Andrew Scott as Dedalus and Niamh Cusack as Molly, sounded as if they were having a great time, relishing every richly braided sentence. It was all so vivid, so immediate, so compulsive, and, perhaps as Joyce intended, for the next 24 hours it made me so self-conscious of every thought, every tiny action.
Is it overblown stuff, fit only for lit-crit classes? Or the greatest novel ever written? Melvyn Bragg’s team of scholars on In Our Time last week, Steven Connor, Jeri Johnson and Richard Brown, tried to persuade us of the latter. Bragg has been accused of butting in too often, just as his discussion panel are warming to their theme. But his hassling, like a shepherd rushing his sheep into the fold, actually keeps the academics in order, making sure they don’t wander off the point, losing all connection with us, the listeners. ‘Can you give us something more specific?’ he demands after a discussion of the way Joyce links character with style. There were only 45 minutes to get through the entire novel. ‘We’ve got to get Molly on the map as soon as we can.’
Last week on Radio 4 I just happened to catch a portrait of Alan Turing. If you’d told me about The Turing Solution, presented by Matt Parker, I’d have thought, sounds interesting but probably not my cup of tea. Too much maths. But I was hooked from the start (a bracing clip from an old 1950 news bulletin announcing the arrival of Turing’s ACE, the Automatic Computing Engine). I had to break off from what I was doing to keep on listening beyond the time it takes to make a cup of coffee. As Parker and his guests explained, Turing was not just the mathematician behind the cracking of the Enigma code, he also created the possibility of a machine that we ourselves could manipulate to get rid of the red-eye in photos, tart up fancy presentations and publish our own words. Yet Turing committed suicide, aged only 42, after being prosecuted because he was homosexual.
Turing’s genius was to imagine a machine that could be programmed to do any computation, any action, and then to set about building one at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington. The list of instructions, he realised, might be very long but those instructions would be very simple and not of great variety. The genius lies not in inventing and writing those instructions (although you need to have the patience of a saint to do it, and the obsessive attention to detail of a perfectionist) but in seeing the idea behind them, in realising what’s possible.