Sunday, October 28, 2007

James Joyce, Ulysses (II)

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing-gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

- Introibo ad altare Dei.

Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called up coarsely:

- Come up, Kinch. Come up, you fearful jesuit.

Solemnly he came forward and mounted the round gunrest. He faced about and blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding country and the awakening mountains. Then, catching sight of Stephen Dedalus, he bent towards him and made rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in his throat, and shaking his head. Stephen Dedalus, displeased and sleepy, leaned his arms on the top of the staircase and looked coldly at the shaking gurgling face that blessed him, equine in its length, and at the light untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak…”

(Ch. 1 - Telemachus)



And so begins one of the most unfairly denigrated books of the twentieth century. Denigrated unfairly, in fact, for both obscenity and inaccessibility. Scholars of the future may well term this the ‘Joycean paradox’ – how a book was banned for its explicitness in the first half of the twentieth century, and how in the second half it was derided as meaningless nonsense. Hopefully, in the twenty-first century we should be able to come up with some kind of cohesive response.

To be kind to the unreconstructed bigots and the revisionists, who may or may not be all the same people, there is plenty that is difficult about this book. And furthermore, I’m not the kind of person to advocate any kind of Great Books - books that are not only must-reads, but must-likes. I just enjoy reading great books, and admit that it may be entirely possible to dislike Ulysses while retaining a full intellectual faculty.

So, to any remaining philistines who are reading this, I shall now endeavour to show you why Ulysses is a book well worth reading. (Rest assured, as well, that I often write with my tongue so far in my cheek that it pokes out the other side)



Ulysses is not really just a book, it’s a whole cultural experience. It is, after all, an epic description of a day in the life of Ireland’s capital city in the early years of the twentieth centuries, and with all the political, social and cultural baggage that comes with, transformed into an immense work of art. It’s not the greatest story ever told, but it is a good attempt at capturing everything about character and situation into the one book.

Even just as a book, it still works very well. I’ve never read Homer, so most of the whole Greek analogies are over my head, but Ulysses does have a certain structure to it. Originally, there were title chapters in the manuscript, corresponding to episodes of the Homeric poem – Sirens, Nausikaa, Telemachus etc – but at least in my Penguin edition, these aren’t included in the body of the text. I think that it is good to at least be aware of the extra level of meaning, but it is not really necessary to the appreciation of Ulysses as a modern novel. Sure, if you’re an English scholar, then maybe you should know…

The chapters do help structure the book, however, because what Joyce is all about here is switching between styles of writing – generally becoming increasingly impenetrable. The extract above reads pretty much as an ordinary novel, although there is hinted at that extra freedom of description, that lyrical touch which makes even comparatively normal Joyce (selections of Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist) so enjoyable to read. In the other extracts I have produced (here and here) the effect is ratcheted up to a much heavier degree. A lot of the writing in Ulysses is pretty detached from meaning and any kind of real communication with the reader.

There. I said it – euphemistically, of course – that Ulysses is a load of nonsense at times, and that no right-thinking individual who isn’t an idiot savant or a crazed poet should really worry about understanding Joyce’s alleged masterpiece.

That’s true – if only for, as Terry Pratchett would say, a given value of ‘truth’ – but I hardly think it should stop you from enjoying the book. Common sense would seem to give you two options with regarding to reading the unreadable: either you keep hold of the idea that there is a meaning in there, to be decoded with sufficient attention and knowledge; or you just ride on over the passage, absorbing the language and the sounds, and the seemingly incidental ideas. Of course, the real answer has to be a synthesis of the two: just keep on going, and see what you pick up – you might be surprised!


(Yes, that is Marilyn Monroe, and that is apparently Ulysses that she is reading. She said she liked the sounds of the book, but more importantly she read it the way one is meant to - not all at once, but randomly, from chapter to chapter)



As I say, Ulysses is a lot more than just a book. It’s a whole idea about approaching literature, about giving words meaning and power they might not have had already. It is an attempt to apply literature to as many facets of life as possible, to describe the whole sum of human experience, thought and communication and not just the rarified strand which makes up ordinary narrative.

In this sense, Ulysses is all about the legacy. For me, that legacy is chiefly the beat literature of Kerouac. Of course, Kerouac had plenty of other influences, and thankfully so, because otherwise he wouldn’t be half as interesting a writer. I wasn’t even consciously aware of the connection for a while, other than a few abstract references, and despite the fact that I began reading them within a few years of each other.

It was, though, when I broke with a pretty much continuous stretch of reading Kerouac’s novels and even some of his poetry, and picked up Ulysses again, that I realised that, in fact, I had been reading Joyce all along. Filtered through the Beat consciousness, the craziness of American popular culture and the haze of literary and psychochemical experimentation, it was all pretty much the same thing; the wholesale deconstruction and explosion of language. It’s all about, as well, the expression of thought and feeling in that wonderfully direct, expansive and lyrically beautiful fashion, although Kerouac comes across as a much more likeable and personable writer than Joyce.

Ulysses is built up so much as a classic of literature that it’s easy to forget sometimes what it’s meant to be; a document of communication, distorted for effect. It’s a statement, too, which is why it’s big and heavy. It’s a masterpiece, a virtuoso performance, which makes it so grand – but at heart, it’s simple really.

There must be hundreds of other difficult-to-read modernist authors who have come after Joyce, all of them owing a debt to the master and producing their own progressive, exciting pieces which join in the high miasma of modern literature. I haven’t had the chance to read many of them, but I’m sure they exist. Of course, it’s all post-modern now; Joyce is consigned to history, and the ideas have changed – but there will always be great books that attempt to describe life like Ulysses did.

Probably the best living American author, Don De Lillo, did something of the kind with his massive Underworld. It’s a globe-spanning, era-jumping description of New York in the second half of the twentieth century, just as Ulysses was a single-day, perambulatory account of Edwardian Dublin one warm summer’s day – both of them a view of life across classes, personalities, ideologies and histories. De Lillo’s prose is hardly to be called Joycean – in fact it’s qualitatively very different – but he does have some of the same kind of ambition that Joyce did.


Today, Ulysses perseveres. Better still, it pervades. The cultural experience which is a novel of some 700-odd pages and lot of made-up words, is clung to tightly by a certain few in my native city – not to mention its global, and significantly, American, following.

It pops up in the strangest of situations: once, in the course of an amicable conversation with a police sergeant – in fact, the exact equivalent and real-life successor of Flann O’Brien’s Sergeant Fottrell – the values of marine bathing were discussed, and he quoted with great mirth Joyce’s “snotgreen scrotumtightening sea”.

In Dublin, Bloomsday is a significant annual celebration, with the centennial in 2004 drawing huge crowds of Joyceans, and other cultural tourists. Amongst other events, there was a massive open-air breakfast of lambs’ kidneys, numerous Gorgonzola lunches, as well as public readings from the book – invariably including a reading by Ireland’s first openly homosexual senator – and throngs of enthusiasts dressed in Edwardian clothing.

There may be a streak of fandom in the celebration of Ulysses which makes me uncomfortable. But it’s probably because I don’t want to see the greatest novel ever written being regarded with any more suspicion than it already is. Ulysses is, I suppose, just another book: but it is one which very much pushes at the boundaries of that concept.


J Bubblegum said...

ive only touched on joyce; the commitment of an undertaking like ulysses or dubliners has always somewhat scared me. when i have the chance to read for pleasure again joyce will be my first foray.

gabbagabbahey said...

"read for pleasure" ha, that's why I never wanted to do English at college!

seriously though, it makes for a good foray

Pindu said...

ok so this is a very well written review, and you obviously have not taken english in college - i say that as a compliment. it's because English majors rarely think outside the box, or even read the books they're supposed to. i could go on with that subject but i just have one question. where did you learn that you're supposed to read ulysses randomly? i *am* an English major and if I state that in class there will be gasps of horror. it makes sense to me, but i need you to name names. thanks.

gabbagabbahey said...

thanks for the compliment! I'm a history major myself so referencing is important for me too, at least in a formal context (which isn't of course what this blog is, really). Anyway, I'll try and clarify what I said...

When I said that's the way you're 'meant' to read it, that was kinda tongue-in-cheek. It has been something I have heard generally, though. Any book, particularly one as controversial and as difficult as Ulysses, merits an unconventional approach to reading it. Specifically I was reminded of it from an art book of 'Women Reading' or something along those lines... famous paintings from medieval times right up to the modern day, one of which was that photograph of Marilyn Monroe. I'm afraid I can't remember the name of the photographer offhand, but the accompanying text definitely discussed the 'random' method of reading. Okay, so it's not an authoritative source, but I would hazard a guess that it's a fairly common idea, if perhaps in non-academic circles.

As I say, that wasn't intended in an entirely serious way, and I'm not saying there is an particular method you are 'supposed' to use in reading Joyce. I myself have read Ulysses the usual way, right through, but I recently went back to it and just started reading in the middle. (Ironically, the plot is quite strong so that I didn't want to jump off to a different chapter, so I actually did keep on straight again). But there are definitely advantages in immersing yourself directly in the prose, instead of struggling one's way through the whole sequence of the book.

Hope that helps clear up any problems!

Pindu said...

Apparently there are people recommending this way of reading Ulysses to their students:

Anyway, it will be my first time reading Ulysses and I want to have a non-biased start.

I was discussing this with one of my instructors and she was saying that modern literature has that style where you can skip a few pages but still get the whole picture.

The point is, I know people who pride themselves in reading a whole book, but can't make sense of what they've 'read', and others who read barely a few selected pages and filter what the author is saying. There is no right and wrong, as opposed to say, Victorian literature (except Tristram Shandy). Modern literature is more flexible that way, I think. It can screw with your head in the most ingenious ways. A book isn't just cover - linear story - end - back cover.

Lesa said...

Good for people to know.