People now talk about big drama serials the way they used to talk about classic novels. If there’s one you haven’t caught up with you feel embarrassed, and you might ask yourself, when the conversation swells and you chase your salad round and round, what you’ve been doing with your life. ‘Oh, I missed that’ is no longer an option, as box-sets and catch-up services stare at you day and night, much like that copy of Ulysses that stands on the second shelf. Luckily for you, the Department of Overlaps at the LRB never sleeps, and I can bring news of an unquestionable link between Joyce’s great, many-peopled novel and the recent ten-part TV series on the fall of O.J. Simpson.
I can’t remember if it was Joyce or the O.J. trial’s Judge Ito who referred to ‘the ineluctable modality of the visible’, but that’s the kind of thing we’re talking about: the tendency of reality to give way to the fiction-maker’s abuse. Joyce’s many additions, subtractions, multiplications, and divisions are detailed in a wonderful new book by Vivien Igoe, The Real People of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (University College Dublin Press, £32), but let’s first pay a visit to The People v. O.J. Simpson, a show that reminded me – as if I needed reminding – that real life is the poor, lost cousin of pretence. Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor in the Simpson case, is a shy person in life, studious, you might say. She did, it’s true, make some mistakes in presenting the case. But the main issue seems to be her hair. (The series producer, Ryan Murphy, is the magician who brought us the hard-hitting high-school documentary series, Glee.) The onscreen Clark comes to be fully known in episode five, when, regardless of what actually happened to her real-world equivalent, she comes home exhausted on a Friday night, and before she has even put down her handbag there’s a programme on TV about what she is wearing. ‘She’s frump incarnate,’ the presenter says. On a radio station, the topic of discussion is whether she is ‘a bitch or a babe’. Later, her boss thinks she should have a couple of ‘media consultants’ to help with the project of fixing her hair. ‘Marcia Hair Verdict: Guilty,’ blares the headline in a supermarket tabloid the day after she visits the salon. ‘I’m not a public personality,’ faux-Marcia says to a colleague. ‘This is not what I do.’ She might take heart from Hillary Clinton’s example. Before her run for the presidency, Mrs Clinton changed her hair about four times a day, often with the direct encouragement of the Washington Post in collusion with Womenswear Daily. But now, it seems, Hillary has ditched the up-do, the bouncing bob, the scrape-back and the Arkanfro, and has settled for a traditional, rock-solid, Oval Office quiff, the kind of hairstyle that looks like it might survive a nuclear winter.
Is this what Joyce meant by metempsychosis – the transmigration of souls? Some, it turns out, have a further distance to migrate than others. One of Simpson’s lawyers, Robert Kardashian (you knew it was only a matter of time before the Kardashians came into it), played by David Schwimmer in the TV series, was perfectly certain in life of his friend’s innocence, yet, in TV-land, certainty is just a crease to be ironed out by the ‘journey’. In the first episode, we see Kardashian talking to his shy young children at the breakfast table, the same children who would not go on to enjoy world-famous careers as Trappist monks. ‘Fame is fleeting,’ he tells them, with a straight face, looking at Kim. ‘It’s hollow. It means nothing at all without a virtuous heart.’ This is what we fathers like to think of as a negative contribution to future prosperity. The real-life girls knew better and their reality show is now watched by millions around the world who are looking for ways to flee the hell of being real for something more lasting.
‘Joyce rarely invented anything,’ Igoe tells us in an author’s note. ‘Most of the things he wrote were factual, which he adapted for the book … [He] did not feel in any way curtailed in including members of his own family or friends of the family for fear of offending them: he used them all.’ There is only one shop in the whole book, Moses Dlugacz’s butcher’s shop, that was not a real place. The cliché is that people hate being written about, that they plume on their privacy, but in fact most people run towards a notepad, given a chance, and the Dubliners lining up at Sylvia Beach’s shop in Paris in 1922 were desperate to see if they’d been included, or, Holy Mother of God, left out.
My favourite inclusion in Igoe’s book relates, as Kim Kardashian might say, to the non-civilian beat, to the world of the glory-seekers, the titchy but famous: the world of English jockeys. In the Lestrygonians episode, Bloom wanders down Grafton Street, sees a woman’s fat ankles, prices a pair of field glasses, wonders if he was happier in the past, feels hungry, goes into the wrong eating place, finds it disgusting, enters Davy Byrne’s pub (a ‘moral pub’) and orders a cheese sandwich and a glass of burgundy, before getting into a conversation with Nosey Flynn about the Epsom Gold Cup. ‘Zinfandel’s the favourite,’ Flynn says. ‘Lord Howard de Walden’s, won at Epsom. Morny Cannon is riding him.’ I paused over that one – Morny Cannon. It turns out he was born in Hampshire, Herbert Mornington Cannon, and came from a long line of jockeys, and has been succeeded by a long line, up to his great-nephew Lester Piggott. In this galloping account of the real and the made up, Joyce also managed to settle a few scores. He lifted Mary Fleming, a family friend whom he didn’t like, out of obscurity into being the Blooms’ cleaner; he took down a pompous ex-friend from his plinth as assistant director of the National Library to being a nosey menace who passes in a second.
To some artists, the world is quite absent until imagined, and Joyce thought it silly that a writer wouldn’t use what was there. In a way, his book is like the greatest ever newspaper – all that was fit and unfit to print in one day – and its abundance depends on the idea that nobody is nothing. Some of the lives he used could also be seen as having been, in some way, rescued by Joyce’s mind. I’m thinking of Haines, the English friend of Buck Mulligan’s whom we meet in the Martello Tower at the novel’s opening, and who was based on Samuel Chenevix Trench, whom Oliver St John Gogarty (the model for Mulligan) met in Oxford. Chenevix Trench, Gogarty and young Joyce had lived in the Martello Tower at Sandycove in September 1904. Haines will always be the ‘ponderous Saxon … bursting with money and indigestion’, the tennis-shirt-wearing Englishman who thinks the Irish should speak Irish and who thinks Hamlet is a wonderful tale and who tells Buck Mulligan to ‘pay up and look pleasant’. In real life, as we say, Chenevix Trench died in a small Buckinghamshire village aged 27, by his own hand. His father died the same way. We will never know why and we will never see him alive like we see Haines.