Friday, 2 June 2017

Book Report Part 5: "Ulysses" by James Joyce

Brief recap: I've given myself a year to read 25 novels a fairly well-read man in his mid-60s really should have read. The list is here. James Joyce's Ulysses wasn't actually on the list. I had made a few efforts to get into it, but, like almost every non-academic who starts "the greatest novel of the 20th Century" (according to Anthony Burgess and many others), my interest wained after an initial burst enthusiasm - the lack of plot; the lengthy stream-of-consciousness passages, with frequent lapses into incomprehensibility; bouts of wilful obscurity; the sheer, deliberate everydayness of much of the rest of the subject matter (Joyce has a fondness for seemingly pointless lists of stuff one is not in the least bit interested in, and which seemingly add little to the story); the constant shifts between styles - sometimes in mid-paragraph; the endless experimentation with literary and non-literary forms; Joyce's rather adolescent railing against religion (which was much better handled in the earlier A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) and his often intertwined cloacal and sexual obsessions (I don't feel particularly enriched by having read a detailed account of Leopold Bloom taking a shit in an outhouse, or of him indulging in a furtive J. Arthur during a fireworks display on a beach)...

What made me change my mind about giving it another go was reading - and being hugely impressed by - the aforementioned A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a few weeks ago.

There's little point in my adding my two penn'orth of literary criticism, so I'll concentrate on logistics, especially as I approached the reading process like a military campaign. Armed with a new pair of reading glasses, I gave myself three weeks to get through it. As the Penguin edition is 934 pages long, and as the print is fairly large, that would mean I only had to read 47 or so pages a day. I'm a slow reader (30 pages an hour for those "difficult" books where you're always roughly aware of which page you're on, 40 for less knotty literature, and 45-50 if it's pure entertainment and you just want to find out what happens next, rather than admire the scenery - or the writer's technique - along the way). That would have meant a maximum 90 minutes a day wandering the streets of Dublin on a warm June day in 1904. As it turned out, it only took me 10 days (or nights - I rarely read during daylight hours), including a day off in the middle for good behaviour.

Did I read every page with full attention? I did until the 500 page mark. The next 100 pages involved quite a bit of skipping (or speed-reading, to be more accurate), because I felt as if I was drowning in a sort of literary quicksand, and knew that if I didn't take precipitate action I'd never get to the end. (Feeling guilty, when I'd finished the book I went back and read with greater care the passages I'd initially allowed my eyes to race over.) When I'd done that - i.e. read it all with due care - I'll admit to feeling as if I'd completed a cultural marathon. (Not that I've ever run a marathon, but you know what I mean.)

Some observations:

All in all (at all), it is, indeed, a great novel, whose length and self-indulgence are justified  by the portraits of Leopold Bloom (Ulysses), Molly Bloom (Penelope), and Stephen Dedalus (Telemachus, apparently, although he isn't actually their son).

The stream-of-consciousness passages - Joyce's attempts to capture what, after all, goes on inside our heads every minute of every day when we're not actually concentrating fiercely on some task (like reading Ulysses, for instance) - are surprisingly readable and absorbing. Even the incoherence mainly works, because that's what our thoughts are like. The final 60 or so pages of the book, which consist entirely of the thoughts running through the head of Molly Bloom - dirty, cynical, vain, tender, romantic, mundane - are a tour de force. She's a blousy, unfaithful, sex-obsessed, moderately-talented singer - but she ends up seeming terribly real and oddly likeable: you understand what Leopold ("Poldy") sees in her, and - even though their marriage has seen better days - what she sees in him.

There's a scene in the first section of the book - "Telemachus" - featuring Stephen Dedalus ruminating on a beach, involving a splendidly doggy dog and some cockle-pickers, that, apparently, halts many readers in their tracks (understandably - it starts: "Ineluctable modality of the visible..."). But get past that, and it contains some of the finest writing in the novel: if anything, it was this section which made me determined not to give up.

I found Leopold Bloom likeable, believable, and reassuringly familiar: a bustling, cautious, unambitious, quizzical, randy middlebrow with some poetry in his soul, good-natured, kindly, bit of a leftie, an internationalist - and, partly because he's a Jew, something of an outsider, accepted by his peers, but not entirely (there's an excellent scene where he suffers anti-Semitic abuse in a bar from a character known only as "the citizen"). Leopold - who makes a moderate living out of advertising - would have fitted quite happily into modern-day, metropolitan London.

Reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before tackling Ulysses worked well. The first section of the latter centres on Stephen Dedalus, the focus of the former. Being introduced to the world of Ulysses by a familiar character made it much more graspable, less bewildering, as did several appearances by Stephen's father, another major figure in the earlier book.

I'm not in the least surprised Ulysses was so widely banned for so long (although never, apparently, in Ireland, presumably because nobody even thought of trying to publish it there.) In 1922, when it was first published, reading many of the passages must have felt like staring into a chaotic, demonic abyss reeking of shit, piss, semen, blood, vomit, sweat, gorgonzola, booze and animal guts (i.e. what Britain will be like if Corbyn wins the election next week, with heavily-rationed, state-produced "Workers Cheese" instead of gorgonzola). I'm sure I would have reacted with horror if I'd read it when it was first published in its entirety in 1922: to be honest, I was expecting to find the "shocking" bits almost laughably tame 90 years on - but the book still seems startlingly bold and modern.

The aim of the novel was to banish the ancient gods from Olympus - and to remove the Christian God from His throne. We are all that exists, and this is what we're really like, and we're not so bad seems to be the underlying theme. Well, I prefer it to the idea that humanity is a mistake - a virus - which either needs to be wiped from the face of the earth or "improved" by social engineers. At the same time, I think we need our ideals, our heroes, something to aim for - and I'll keep my God, if it's all the same to you, Jimmy.

About a third of the way through, it struck me that the novel displays many of the characteristics of modern jazz - only a lot more enjoyable. There are passages of writing which bear some relation to those you might find in a traditional novel - there's a definite rhythm and distinct melodies - interleaved with lengthy sections of wild improvisation where the melody is so radically deconstructed that it all but disappears and the rhythm becomes jagged and confusing. Some of it feels like a take on New Orleans Trad, there are passages which are a bit Dave Brubeck - vaguely experimental, but enjoyable - and then there are sections of ear-assaulting experimental bebop, which becomes almost unbearable and you're reaching out to switch if off when a steadier rhythm and a vaguely hummable tune emerge out of the nerve-jangling cacophony.

I was disconcerted to discover that Leopold is only 38 years old, and Molly 33. For much of the book I was imagining him to be in his early-to-mid 50s, with Molly roughly ten years younger. I'm not sure why I got the wrong impression.

I had always assumed that the word "hardon" (or "hard on") dated from mid-'50s America, but here it is, bold as brass and twice as ugly. Similarly, I was mildly surprised to learn that the phrase "stage Irishman" was in use nearly 100 years ago: oddly, it had just popped into my head two pages before Joyce used it.

For a writer who suffered the most appalling trouble with his eyes - dreadful pain, endless operations - the visual descriptions in the book are astonishingly vivid and often achingly beautiful.

Did I enjoy reading Ulysses? Well, yes, I did. There were longueurs - many - but they were more than balanced by just as many genuinely compelling passages. Undoubtedly one of the great - if not the greatest - novels of the 20th Century. At least I now understand what all the fuss was about.


  1. Slightly changing the subject and no it's not about Don Quixote, it would be interesting to hear Mr.Gronmark's views on another "Greatest... Of The 20th Century."
    Picasso along with Joyce leave me feeling a tad underwhelmed and I've a sneaking feeling it's me.

    1. No, it's not just you, southern man. I've always been somewhat embarrassed by the fact that Picasso's work - from whichever period - has left me emotionally and aesthetically unmoved. I've tried hard- especially in recent years - to see what so many others evidently respond to in his paintings, but I have to admit to having given up the struggle. Blind spot or emperor's new clothes? Not sure.

  2. If you are an Evelyn Waugh fan you would have been comforted by the fact that any mention of Picasso sent the great man into uncontrollable rages.

    1. To be fair, SDG, quite a lot of things sent Evelyn Waugh into an uncontrollable rage - including every single aspect of the modern world.

  3. Great review. I agree, Joyce is both hypnotic and irritating but undoubtedly a force. As a Joyce fan who has bought lemon soap in Sweny's and, even more cheesily, had a Gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of burgundy in Davy Byrne's, may I recommend The Dead, the final story from the brilliant and accessible Dubliners. It is a fascinating and moving trial-run for the story of Leopold and Molly, as well of course as yet another working out of James and Nora, with a truly breathtaking ending. And John Huston's swan song, starring Angelica, as I expect you know.

    1. I'm not allowed a glass of burgundy, MartinD - but I've been hankering for a Gorgonzola sandwich ever since reading the description of Bloom getting stuck into one, which so brilliantly captured the delicious disgustingness - the "feety savour" - of the cheese'. (I thought the previous bit, where he backs out of the Burton restaurant in disgust at the sight of piggish diners cramming their maws, was one of the most memorable - certainly one of the most repulsive - in the book.) I've never read "Dubliners" and never seen "The Dead" - based on your recommendations, I will certainly do both. Thank you.

  4. Rev. Gary Davis5 June 2017 at 14:43

    Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo.

    Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo.