David Blake Knox is a writer and producer based in Dublin. Anjelica Huston on James Joyce – A Shout in the Street is his second documentary about James Joyce, after 2004’s Imagining Ulysses. In A Shout in the Street, Joyce’s story is presented by Oscar-winning actress Anjelica Huston, who grew up in Ireland and has a close connection with Joyce’s work.
How does the first documentary that you made about Joyce differ from A Shout in the Street?
The first film I made was just about Ulysses, whereas this film tries to situate Joyce’s life and work in the context both of Ireland and Europe as it was developing at the time. Both films have quite different approaches, but in my mind, at least, the two approaches complement each other. We made Imagining Ulysses in quite a freestyle manner, whereas this film is more structured and slightly more conventional.
What is it about Joyce that you find so fascinating?
That’s a hard question. It’s one I ask myself, to be honest. I first read Ulysses when I was at school, in Ireland. At that time, the book was almost unobtainable in this country, because it was a so-called ‘dirty’ book. Which, to be honest, is probably the principal reason why I sought out the only copy in the school library. Obviously, I was bitterly disappointed by what I read inside… Because although Joyce writes explicitly about sexual matters, it’s not really that type of book. Something about the book did stick with me though – I was curious and perplexed by it, I wondered what it was, what it meant. So I kind of returned to it and eventually read it when I was still at school, and then again when I was at university. And it has stayed with me since then. His work has quite a gravitational pull for me.
Is Ulysses your favourite book by Joyce?
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man actually had a more direct effect on me. I think it’s a more accessible book in many respects, and it connected more directly with my own experiences. I actually stopped reading Ulysses to read A Portrait instead, and after enjoying that I was inspired to go back to Ulysses – to read it again and to try and understand it.
Which Joyce book would you recommend people read first? Should we stay away from Ulysses?
Well I would recommend that you start with A Portrait, because I think it is the most accessible. The other thing is, I think some people get demoralised when they’re not able to finish Ulysses. The way it’s structured is that the first few episodes are relatively straightforward, and then you come into more demanding and difficult parts. It’s structured so that the more demanding episodes are followed by less demanding episodes. It’s a bit like a horse race where some of the jumps are fairly easy but some are quite brutal, and readers are sometimes thrown at episode 3 or 4 and become discouraged. But, you know, Joyce published the book in episodic form – so although it makes sense as a whole, he did intend people to read individual episodes. I often have frustrated people say to me ‘I couldn’t get past episode 3’ – and I say to them ‘Well, you read episodes 1 and 2, and that’s not a failure’.
On the other hand, though, people who finish the book seldom say it wasn’t worth finishing. I’ve never met anyone who completed the book and said ‘Oh, I should have given that up earlier’. If you get through it, it’s almost like a rite of passage. You’ve become a member of the Joycean cult… You’re now an intellectual [laughs].
Was it interesting witnessing the public perception of Joyce change from ‘dirty pornographer’ to highly acclaimed and celebrated author?
It was. These days, Joyce has become a cultural icon in Ireland. And to an extent, the reason for that lies outside Ireland. In the 1950s, ‘60s and early ‘70s, the principal champions of Joyce’s work were not found in Ireland – they were in continental Europe, America and elsewhere. And it was really the dedication of ‘Joycean’ scholars and enthusiasts outside of Ireland that eventually built up momentum within Ireland. The country was changing quite rapidly. Although Joyce had been dismissed as a pornographer, concepts and understandings of pornography began to change quite rapidly in this country, particularly since the 1970s. This was evidenced recently, with the referendum that made several forms of abortion legal. So, in a way, Ireland has finally caught up with Joyce – a bit late in some respects but with great enthusiasm.
There was a time when Joyce’s family denied that he was a member of their family. He was treated pretty dreadfully in Ireland for a long period of time. But it has to be said that, to an extent, reparations have been made. When he died, his widow Norah – who had also been a muse for him – offered manuscripts to the Irish government for free, and they turned them down because of his reputation – not just as a pornographer, but as a kind of Catholic renegade or an apostate. Then in 2004, the Irish government paid millions of euros to obtain the same documents that they’d turned down 60 years earlier. So, there’s been a radical change. In a way, the whole world has finally caught up with Joyce.
Was Anjelica Huston an obvious choice for the presenter?
Once I thought of her, it seemed impossible that anyone else would do the role with the same authority, verve and panache. Firstly, Anjelica is a very intelligent woman as well as an intelligent actor. Secondly, she grew up in Ireland. Thirdly, she has a direct connection with Joyce. Anjelica has performed [Ulysses’] Molly Bloom’s soliloquy onstage and she had acted in what is, in my opinion, the best adaptation of Joyce’s work – the film The Dead. This film was the last film ever made by her father, John Huston, and she played the main role. Then you add to all this that she has a wonderful, expressive voice. Since a lot of her role in this film involved narration, I thought the part was just perfect for her on all grounds.
What was it like to work with Anjelica?
It was great. She’s really professional – her comments and suggestions were always relevant, to the point and helpful. She was an absolute delight to work with. There’s nothing at all ‘diva-ish’ or Hollywood about her – she was just a joy.
How did you decide upon the other guests featured in the documentary? (Including David Simon, Colm Toibin, Eimear McBride, Fintan O’Toole, Frank McGuiness, Ruth Gilligan, Edna O’Brien, John Banville, Anne Enright, Jeffrey Eugenides, Dominic West).
Well, I wanted to avoid using academics, basically. Academics are usually the people who are interviewed about Joyce. And while they obviously have a very detailed knowledge of him and his work, they can be a little abstract at times and also the perspective they offer tends to come from academia. So, what I wanted was basically to get a range of writers to talk about Joyce as a writer – I didn’t think that there was any other profession that is better-suited to talk about him. But I also wanted it to be a range of writers, so that on one hand you have literary heavyweights like John Banville, and on the other hand you have people who principally write for television, like David Simon, who are heavyweights in their own right. So, that was my motive really. I wanted to concentrate on creative fiction writers and have that sort of insight.
Is there anything in particular that you hope people will take away from watching the documentary?
There are a few things that I’d like people to take away. First of all, that Joyce’s life had a kind of heroic dimension in which he devoted himself and sacrificed himself – and at times other people, it has to be said – to his artistic goals. And I think there’s something almost humbling about the extraordinary degree of self-belief, dedication and commitment that he followed throughout his life.
Secondly, that Joyce’s influence is so widespread and has been so profound and pervasive that it influences all sorts people, even those who haven’t even read – or heard – of James Joyce. I mean, Joyce had a central role in changing censorship laws throughout the world. Sometimes I think Ulysses, in particular, is like a test of democratic credentials. When Ireland was a repressive, theocratic state, the book was almost unobtainable. Thankfully Ireland grew up, so to speak, and we came to value it. The book was banned in the Soviet Union for many years, it was banned in China until quite recently and, during the cultural revolution, translators of Ulysses were sent to prison camps. It’s still unobtainable in certain Islamic countries because the central character is Jewish, and because of its frank discussions of female sexuality. For me, Ulysses had been a kind of banner that has addressed issues like racism, antisemitism, female sexuality, nationalism – in a way that is at least as relevant now as it was when he wrote it. His artistic insights and innovations are remarkable, but his sense of the pulse of Europe and the pulse of the future of the world in general have come to be. He was proven right, and I think that’s why his work is still so relevant to people nowadays.
Anjelica Huston on James Joyce – A Shout in the Street is playing at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival on the 6th of July, at 7pm. Get Tickets Here