Not Quite Ulysses
By Ben Brooker
One of our recent Writers in Residence, Ben Brooker, discusses his residency.
In the first two decades of the 20th century, James Joyce used one of the upstairs rooms at the now legendary Shakespeare and Company bookshop on Paris’s Left Bank as his personal office. There, he wrote Ulysses, universally regarded as one of the most original and influential works of literature in the English language. The play I have been working on during my residency at the Writers’ Centre, Dark Moon, is in all probability not as good. On the other hand, it almost certainly has fewer mistakes. (It has been alleged that, in its first edition, Joyce’s novel contained over two thousand errors). My office at the Writers’ Centre is also upstairs, though sadly Notre Dame is not visible. In fact, none of the outside world is visible – my office contains no windows, and as such is closer in spirit to Orwell’s dystopia 1984 than to Joyce’s modernist masterpiece. If I sound ungrateful, this is because Orwell is one of my literary heroes and I just can’t seem to help dropping him in – not because the people at the South Australian Writers’ Centre are bad people. On the contrary, the Centre seems to be staffed exclusively by enviably lovely and helpful people, which has made my time there as enjoyable as writing can possibly be. [Ed’s note: nawwwww, we didn’t even pay him to say this!] How enjoyable can writing possibly be? In my estimation, not very much, and for this I have only myself to blame. Like Dorothy Parker, I’m really only happy to have written. Writing is infinitely worse. I’ve committed about ten thousand words to my USB during my residency, which is a much more pleasing thing to be able to say than it is taking me simply ages to nut out this short blog post. When I am done, I will be happy. In the interim: pain, of a kind every writer knows intimately. It is, of course, almost monstrously crass to describe the act of sitting in a climate controlled room on a padded chair while moving your fingers around an ergonomically designed piece of high technology as torture. Albert Camus knew what torture was, not because he had to occasionally dash off anti-fascist missives for Combat, but because he knew people whom the Gestapo had mutilated and murdered. For writers in the West in the 21st century, there exists virtually no possibility that something similar will happen to them. This is why the ‘writing as torture’ routine is baloney, and why I bristle every time I hear it. (Most recently, playwright Bryony Lavery embarrassingly employed it in her program notes for Thursday – a play about an act of Islamic terrorism!) What I am trying to say is that to be a writer in Australia in 2013 is not to be hard done by – but it is hard. James Joyce began Ulysses in 1914, the year that the Central Powers took a match to the world. We, too, live in troubled times, but in almost all respects I am more fortunate to be a writer now than Joyce was then. I am grateful. Ulysses was banned in America and the United Kingdom for years on account of its alleged obscenity. There is a good chance a lot of people won’t like Dark Moon, but somehow I doubt Australia Post will ever intentionally set fire to copies of it.
Ben has a Bachelor of Arts with a major in drama from Flinders University and completed his honours in 2010. The following year, he graduated from the Adelaide Centre for the Arts’ Advanced Diploma of Professional Writing. He has both written and performed for much of his life. As well as being an actor, he is the author of many published short stories, poems and reviews, was a facilitator of the SA Writers Centre’s inaugural ‘Write Club’ event for young writers and has appeared at numerous spoken word events including the SA Writers Centre’s ‘live literary journal’ Animate Quarterly. Ben has contributed theatre reviews to dB Magazine and RealTime. He was the Writer in Residence for February – April in 2013.