That we live in a culture of stupidity is of immense artistic interest and is the subject of most great contemporary fiction. Were they alive now Joyce and Proust would have to change their tune - in our time, both have become more old fashioned than Austen. But of course they wouldn’t be able to change their tune because both as artists are mummified inside their respective personality. Joyce and Proust are inferior entertainers because they both obsessively look inward – which is not, in itself, an entertaining trait. They both have an element of the mechanic, fitting back all the parts they’ve taken apart. They lack what Shakespeare had in abundance – self-deprecation, the joyful mischief that predates mature adulthood. They were both too grown up for us to love them without reservation. On one level Joyce’s last two books are absurdly complex crossword puzzles, written with all the smugness of someone who has all the answers. Proust when he’s on is a wonder but heavens what a tiresome trail of self-indulgent fluff one has to wade through to get to the visionary bits.
For more than a hundred years, during the romantic period, Raphael was universally lauded as the greatest painter of all time; now he’d be lucky to make it into the hot one hundred. The aesthetic ideal of classical Greece was the naked pre-pubescent boy – an image one can now be arrested for gloating over. I would therefore argue that Proust and Joyce haven’t yet stood the test of time. Not saying they won’t but what irritates me is the snobbishness they give rise to. They’re like some designer badge people wear to vaunt their superiority. They’re used like a detergent to kill all the known germs of anyone attempting to write a novel now. The artist most similar to Joyce is probably Damien Hirst – the self-aggrandising trickster sending up all notions of form. At the end of Finnegan’s wake Joyce with a rueful snigger sends us back to the beginning; isn’t that what Hirst does with his smirking conceptualisations of death? Hirst tries to kill off visual art the same way Joyce tried to kill off the novel. But what a barren tawdry world it would be without visual art and the novel.