Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Review of James Joyce's Ulysses

James Joyce's novel Ulysses has quite the reputation, being deemed obscene, unreadable, brilliant, and considered by some to be the greatest novel of the 20th century. For years, the novel stood on my bookshelf, untouched, imposing as a brick from an ancient citadel. Having taken a course on Irish writers years ago at university, I was more than a little put off by the sense of proprietorship professors felt about Joyce. Ulysses was like a conquest they sought not to share, frightening off simple readers with endless blather about classical and religious allusions; building the novel into some mythic literary mountain that they, alone, had conquered, and only fellow worthy would conquer. I have no interest in hearing how Joyce mimicks or mirrors Homer's The Odyssey with Ulysses. I have never read Homer, nor do I ever intend to. I care nothing for the religious subtext of Ulysses either. James Joyce was educated by Jesuits, so it stands to reason he was filled up to his eyeballs with Roman Catholicism. I actually find Joyce's frequent interjections of Latin from the Catholic mass into the more mundane sections of the novel to be lightweight pretention.

I don't seek to conquer novels, only to read them. The scholarly smokescreen kept me from Ulysses long enough, so on Bloom's Day 2006 I took the novel down from my shelf and tried once again to read it.

I don't know what the breakthrough was this time around, but after five days and more than 300 pages of the novel under my belt, I found Joyce's masterpiece to be a vertible page-turner.

Call me a literary Phillistine, but I am interested only in the primary text of Ulysses. I'm interested in its story, characters, the language of its narrative, Joyce's continually brilliant and entertaining turns of phrase, his use of dialogue, and his experiments with stream-of-consciousness prose. On all of these counts, Ulysses is a marvel. Its rendering of Dublin, Ireland is three-dimensional. My favorite episode in the novel was Episode 12, "Cyclops," and its ill-tempered narrator; a wonderful and engrossing evocation of Irish vernacular:
The figure seated on a large boulder at the foot of a round tower was that of a broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed frankeyed redhaired freely freckled shaggybearded wide-mouthed largenosed longheaded deepvoiced barekneed brawnyhanded hairylegged ruddyfaced sinewyarmed hero. From shoulder to shoulder he measured several ells and his rocklike mountainous knees were covered, as was likewise the rest of his body wherever visible, with a strong growth of tawny prickly hair in hue and toughness similar to the mountain gorse (Ulex Europeus). The widewinged nostrils, from which bristles of the same tawny hue projected, were of such capaciousness that within their cavernous obscurity the field-lark might easily have lodged her nest. The eyes in which a tear and a smile strove ever for the mastery were of the dimensions of a goodsized cauliflower. A powerful current of warm breath issued at regular intervals from the profound cavity of his mouth while in rhythmic resonance the loud strong hale reverberations of his formidable heart thundered rumblingly causing the ground, the summit of the lofty tower and the still loftier walls of the cave to vibrate and tremble.
To start at the start, and to air my own prejudices, I must confess that I hate Stephen Dedalus, main character of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and who shares central character status in Ulysses with the much more interesting Leopold Bloom. Straight off, I dislike Joyce giving Stephen such a heavy-handed name: Dedalus. I don't even know who Dedalus was in classical mythology, though it would be easy enough to search the Internet for an answer. I'm just going to state my ignorance flat out. And if the boring, self-absorbed, unpleasant, morose Stephen Dedalus is an "artist" of any sort, let us all mourn art. Stephen is just the dull, pedantic, self-congratulatory academic who drove me to distraction when I was at university, for whom an education is more a means by which to prove the ignorance of everyone around him, rather than a search for his own enlightenment. The continual mocking strings of Latin Stephen mutters throughout the novel, blessing people and situations readers of the day would believe ought not be blessed is a tiresome device whose shock-value dissipated long ago. As mentioned above, yes, I understand James Joyce was educated by Jesuits and took his revenge upon them in his fiction everafter. I get it. This once radical mocking of the Church is but a minor ripple in the story to today's reader.

That out of the way, I will now profess my love for Leopold Bloom. Maybe it's because he's an amiable, educated bumbler married to the minx, Mrs. Marion Tweedy (Molly Bloom), professional vocalist and not-so-covert adulteress. Bloom enters the novel making breakfast for his wife, Molly, who is still in bed, while thinking about the funeral he is to attend later in the morning for an old friend, one Patrick Dignam. The approach of the funeral does not dampen Bloom's mood, however. After serving Molly her breakfast and enjoying a sauteed kidney, himself, Bloom heads out to the "jakes" in the backyard -- an outhouse -- where he sits reading a newspaper, thinking:
Might manage a sketch. By Mr and Mrs L. M. Bloom. Invent a story for some proverb which? Time I used to try jotting down on my cuff what she said dressing. Dislike dressing together. Nicked myself shaving. Biting her nether Hip, hooking the placket of her skirt. Timing her. 9.15. Did Roberts pay you yet? 9.20. What had Gretta Conroy on? 9.23. What possessed me to buy this comb? 9.24. I'm swelled after that cabbage. A speck of dust on the patent leather of her boot.
On the way to Paddy Dignam's funeral, Bloom shares a carriage with Simon Dedalus -- Stephen's father -- along with a Martin Cunningham and a Mr. Power. During the ride to the cemetery, Blooms spots Stephen Dedalus, saying to Stephen's father, "There's a friend of yours gone by, Dedalus..." Simon Dedalus asks "Was that Mulligan cad with him?" before going on to say:
"He's in with a lowdown crowd," Mr Dedalus snarled. "That Mulligan is a contaminated bloody doubledyed ruffian by all accounts. His name stinks all over Dublin. But with the help of God and His blessed mother I'll make it my business to write a letter one of these days to his mother or his aunt or whatever she is that will open her eyes as wide as a gate. I'll tickle his catastrophe, believe you me.... I won't have her bastard of a nephew ruin my son."
At the cemetery, following the burial, Bloom spots a man wearing a brown macintosh, whom he does not recognize: "Now who is that lankylooking galoot over there in the macintosh? Now who is he I'd like to know? Now, I'd give a trifle to know who he is. Always someone turns up you never dreamt of. A fellow could live on his lonesome all his life. Yes, he could. Still he'd have to get someone to sod him after he died though he could dig his own grave. We all do. Only man buries. No ants too. First thing strikes anybody. Bury the dead. Say Robinson Crusoe was true to life. Well then Friday buried him. Every Friday buries a Thursday if you come to look at it." This mysterious figure is never identified, but recurs throughout to very interesting effect.

Much as I personally dislike the character of Stephen Dedalus, I must concede that Joyce attributes some wonderful, mocking lines to him. This, for instance, satirizing the Catholic Church's "Apostles' Creed": "They believe in rod, the scourger almighty, creator of hell upon earth, and in Jacky Tar, the son of a gun, who was conceived of an unholy boast, born of the fighting navy, suffered under rump and dozen, was scarified, flayed and curried, yelled like bloody hell, the third day he arose again from the bed, steered into haven, sitteth on the beamend till further orders whence he shall come to drudge for a living and be paid." This, however, does not redeem Stephen from his dull, pedantic arrogance. In fact, he lectures friends laboriously about Shakespeare's Hamlet in the middle of the book; a most tiresome, windy monologue. I skimmed most of it and skipped the last of it.

It seems to me that James Joyce sought to to write an Andy-Warhol-esque movie in Ulysses. This is not as farfetched as it might seem. James Joyce was an admirer of cinema and even opened the first movie theatre in Ireland. His prose in Ulysses is unmistakably cinematic and the rolling stream-of-consciousness of his characters is its voice-over. As Andy Warhol sought to document every aspect of his characters' lives -- the mundane, scatalogical, sexual, narcotic, etc. -- so, too, does Joyce document every moment of his Stephen Dedalus' and Leopold Bloom's lives in this one day in Dublin City, Ireland.

What about the naughty bits that had censors so up-in-arms when the novel was first published? They abound, to be sure. There is Leopold Bloom in the jakes in Episode 4 wiping himself with an advertisement he rips from the newspaper he reads while moving his bowels. There is Episode 14 in which Leopold Bloom stands by the seaside watching lovely teenaged Gerty MacDowell as she leans back on the rock she sits upon, giving him peaks at her crotch. Bloom masturbates to climax ogling her. And of course there is Molly Bloom's mesmerizing soliloquy in Episode 18 through which she speaks very frankly about sex, adultery, and womanhood. Episode 18 is among the most poetic, erotic prose I've ever read.

What about the difficult bits that have put off casual readers and aroused academics? For me, one of the most difficult sections of the novel was the opening episode with "[s]tately Buck Mulligan" mocking the Catholic eucharist as he prepared to shave. Between Mulligan's buffoonery and Stephen Dedalus' sullen introspection, I found the prose at the novel's opening particularly hardgoing. Episode 11 begins with some very odd prose:
BRONZE BY GOLD HEARD THE HOOFIRONS, STEELYRINING IMPERthnthn thnthnthn.

Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips. Horrid! And gold flushed more.

A husky fifenote blew.

Blew. Blue bloom is on the

Gold pinnacled hair.

A jumping rose on satiny breasts of satin, rose of Castille.

Trilling, trilling: I dolores.

Peep! Who's in the... peepofgold?

Tink cried to bronze in pity.

And a call, pure, long and throbbing. Longindying call.

Decoy. Soft word. But look! The bright stars fade. O rose! Notes chirruping answer. Castille. The morn is breaking.

Jingle jingle jaunted jingling.

Coin rang. Clock clacked.
This is where I find Joyce at his most cinematic, interspersing narrative, dialogue with setting down on the page the actual phonetic sounds of things. In this case, the sounds of music being played. Episode 14 is written in varying modes of old English, starting with Chaucer-esque prose moving into a Carlysle-esque style. This is was among the most difficult episodes to get through, with such prose as:
Universally that person's acumen is esteemed very little perceptive concerning whatsoever matters are being held as most profitable by mortals with sapience endowed to be studied who is ignorant of that which the most in doctrine erudite and certainly by reason of that in them high mind's ornament deserving of veneration constantly maintain when by general consent they affirm that other circumstances being equal by no exterior splendour is the prosperity of a nation more efficaciously asserted than by the measure of how far forward may have progressed the tribute of its solicitude for that proliferent continuance which of evils the original if it be absent when fortunately present constitutes the certain sign of omnipollent nature's incorrupted benefaction.
It's not near as fearsome as anything in Finnegan's Wake -- a truly, uncontestably unreadable novel -- but it's dense enough to cause the reader some real pain.

Episode 15 is composed as a play, taking the reader into "Nighttown" with a drunken Stephen and his guardian, Bloom. This episode veers into the fantastical as Bloom jousts with his guilty conscience over his own daliances or near-daliances with servant girls, prostitutes, former girlfriends and friends' wives. Seeing the 1967 film Ulysses was quite helpful to me in visualizing all that happened in this episode. Once the readers gets the gist of what is happening in Episode 15, it's surprisingly comic.

For help getting through the difficult episodes, I turned to Stuart Gilbert's James Joyce's Ulysses: A Study, consulting it as a quick reference, rather than reading it through cover to cover. This, along with the film Ulysses went a long way toward making the novel much more accessible to me.

In one of the more enjoyable moments, the reader is treated to one of Stephen's better paraphrasings of catechism: "He Who Himself begot middler the Holy Ghost and Himself sent Himself, Agenbuyer, between Himself and others, Who, put upon by His friends, stripped and whipped, was nailed like bat to barndoor, starved on crosstree, Who let Him bury, stood up, harrowed hell, fared into heaven and there these nineteen hundred years sitteth on the right hand side of His Own Self but yet shall come in the latter day to doom the quick and the dead when all of the quick shall be dead already."

And Bloom at his most amiable and interesting:
Devil of a job it was collecting accounts of those convents. Tranquilla convent. That was a nice nun there, really sweet face. Wimple suited her small head. Sister? Sister? I am sure she was crossed in love by her eyes. Very hard to bargain with that sort of woman. I disturbed her at her devotions that morning. But glad to communicate with the outside world. Our great day, she said. Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Sweet name too: caramel. She knew, I think she knew by the way she. If she had married she would have changed. I suppose they really were short of money. Fried everything in the best butter all the same. No lard for them. My heart's broke eating dripping. They like buttering themselves in and out. Molly tasting it, her veil up. Sister? Pat Claffey, the pawnbroker's daughter. It was a nun they say invented barbed wire.
And Joyce is never better than when he evokes the true voice of Dublin, as he does in Episode 12 when Bloom enters a pub hoping to find Martin Cunningham. When he sees Cunningham is not there, Bloom goes out looking for him. The patrons, however, believe Bloom has actually gone to collect winnings on a 20-1 horse named Throwaway, leading the one patron known as "Citizen" to observe about Bloom: "Courthouse my eye and your pockets hanging down with gold and silver. Mean bloody scut. Stand us a drink itself. Devil a sweet fear! There's a jew for you! All for number one. Cute as a shithouse rat. Hundred to five."

Or, in Episode 13 when Bloom observes -- while masturbating to the sight of Gerty MacDowell -- "Still there's destiny in it, falling in love. Have their own secrets between them. Chaps that would go to the dogs if some woman didn't take them in hand. Then little chits of girls, height of a shilling in coppers, with little hubbies. As God made them he matched them. Sometimes children turn out well enough. Twice nought makes one."

There is no question that Ulysses is a tremendous challenge to read and understand. I don't how pleased or repulsed Joyce would be to learn of how many academics have made whole careers out of his novel of the everyday. But if this review does nothing else, it should emphasize the point that Ulysses is not the inaccessible, rarified work that academics would have us believe. Yes, it is complex. Yes, it can be obscure in places. But there are more entertaining, readable, hilarious passage in the novel than I ever imagined until I read the book. One that I found particularly funny occurs in Episode 6 in which Bloom ponders how people could truly preserve physical memories of the dead: "Besides how could you remember everybody? Eyes, walk, voice. Well, the voice, yes: gramophone. Have a gramophone in every grave or keep it in the house. After dinner on a Sunday. Put on poor old greatgrandfather Kraahraark! Hellohellohello amawfullyglad kraark awfullygladaseeragain hellohello amarawf kopthsth. Remind you of the voice like the photograph reminds you of the face. Otherwise you couldn't remember the face after fifteen years, say."

If for no other reason, Ulysses is a must-read because James Joyce so perfectly captures the Irish -- the great speakers of English in the world -- in their natural environs, making the language sing like a musical instrument.

Very highly recommended.

2 comments:

Natalia said...

One of my professors early in my Ph.D. classes had done his dissertation on Joyce. So, I had the pleasure of hearing him ramble about it. Maybe one day I will pick it up. I have been too consumed with theory books to read for pleasure. Well, no, that's not entirely true. I read some chick lit. And that's because I read such heavy stuff that my pleasure reading begs to be light. But thanks for the report...the book has gone up in my must-read list.

-N

Whetam Knauckweirst said...

I had one prof in school say -- with a straight face -- that he had written the greatest article on Joyce's story "The Dead" that had ever been written... in the entire world. With such humility guiding my education, I came away despising Joyce, which I think was the point of his course -- Philistines need not apply, I think was this prof's motto.

Apparently James Joyce's grandson, Stephen, guardian of the Joyce estate is an absolute monster to deal with, denying any and all access or permission to use Joycean material. I don't think that's right, but I have to admit a certain sinister part of me enjoyed quoted letters Stephen Joyce sent to academics, taunting them. It's not nice, but it was funny.