The James Joyce camel


My daughter has a Picasso on the sitting room wall. You’re wondering if it’s original? Why, every bit as original as the Cézanne I have at home. But that’s beside the point. The point is that I haven’t really looked at it till now.

You’re sitting in an armchair with a three week old baby in your arms. The baby has just gone to sleep. You could put her in the cot, but you really don’t want to wake her up by doing so. Instead, you keep her in your arms and stare at the opposite wall, where, fortunately, there is a Picasso.

I find it hard to say I prefer one painter more than another. Yes, I prefer the ones I get lost in to the ones I don’t. But I’d find it hard to rank the ones I get lost in. They’re so different. If push comes to shove, I’d say I prefer Cézanne over Picasso, the criterion being that usually, when I splash out $100m on a painting, it tends to go on Cézanne. But Cézanne was no genius – he was painting’s equivalent of a miner, digging away at the rock face till he emerged, sweaty but triumphant, with a diamond. Picasso tossed out gems without even trying.

The one on my daughter’s wall is a single line, which he must have drawn in less than 30 seconds. Did he do a sketch before the sketch? Or did it leap out of his mind fully formed? I wouldn’t be surprised if it leapt. After all, when he was in full swing, he averaged three paintings a day.

Look at it. A single line, but one that contains so much, that leaves out so much too, to be filled in by us, the spectator. What do you see in it? A camel, yes, but also, to me, James Joyce. How weird is that? Yet it’s every bit as profound as it is weird.

The baby’s breathing still isn’t quite regular – the occasional sniffle or snort. I start to wonder, what if that drawing was a story? Can that be done? Suggest so much with so much economy and yet such sureness?

Hills Like White Elephants comes to mind. For Esme With Love And Squalor. It can be done. It’s been done lots of times. There are stories that do it in Cat Tales. And now that I’ve started editing this year’s anthology, I’m finding more. Few of us are Picassos though – we’re mostly the Cézanne sort – drilling, digging, sweating, toiling. But hey, I’ll settle for that.

Her breathing is regular now. Gently, you put her in the cot.

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  1. Yes, I can definitely see Joyce in there, Curtis. Perhaps it’s power of suggestion, but I like to think not. As you know, as humans we strive to see patterns (often faces) wherever we go or look. I particularly wanted to say I love how you’ve blended, seamlessly I might add, so many themes and topics, from (grand)parenthood to art to literature. It was very touching and poignant, too. Finally, yes, alas, most of us are Cezannes or wannabe Cezannes; as you said so well, we chip away at some kind of plot (or none!) to unearth a truth, a moral, or simply to entertain a reader (if we’re lucky). But, as Robert Frost wrote, one can do worse than be a swinger of birches; thus, one could do much worse than be a Cezanne in writing.

    • Thanks, Leigh – glad to see I’m not the only one who sees Joyce. As for Cézanne, yes, he’s a great inspiration – so dogged and determined, and his early stuff was frankly rubbish, yet he got there in the end. Magnificent.

  2. The camel seems to have a water balloon tucked under the left foreleg. It being a JJ camel, I presume that the balloon is filled with turf-colored water and Stephen Daedalus should be wary.

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