It’s been a quiet couple of weeks of mainly doing stuff in the garden, and I’ve taken the opportunity to finally tackle James Joyce’s second-most-daunting book, Ulysses. I’ve owned a copy for roughly half of my life now, and hadn’t even opened it, not exactly through feeling intimidated, more that it seemed like a huge project and there was a concern that I would find it disappointing.
If you don’t know about Ulysses, and am expecting me to give some sort of digested summary, then I’m afraid that’s probably beyond me. Here instead is the opening from Wikipedia
Ulysses is a modernist novel by Irish writer James Joyce. It was first serialised in parts in the American journal The Little Review from March 1918 to December 1920 and then published in its entirety in Paris by Sylvia Beach on 2 February 1922, Joyce’s 40th birthday. It is considered one of the most important works of modernist literature and has been called “a demonstration and summation of the entire movement.” According to Declan Kiberd, “Before Joyce, no writer of fiction had so foregrounded the process of thinking”.
Ulysses chronicles the peripatetic appointments and encounters of Leopold Bloom in Dublin in the course of an ordinary day, 16 June 1904. Ulysses is the Latinised name of Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, and the novel establishes a series of parallels between the poem and the novel, with structural correspondences between the characters and experiences of Leopold Bloom and Odysseus, Molly Bloom and Penelope, and Stephen Dedalus and Telemachus, in addition to events and themes of the early 20th-century context of modernism, Dublin, and Ireland’s relationship to Britain. The novel is highly allusive and also imitates the styles of different periods of English literature.
Since its publication, the book has attracted controversy and scrutiny, ranging from an obscenity trial in the United States in 1921, to protracted textual “Joyce Wars”. The novel’s stream-of-consciousness technique, careful structuring, and experimental prose—replete with puns, parodies, and allusions—as well as its rich characterisation and broad humour, have led it to be regarded as one of the greatest literary works in history; Joyce fans worldwide now celebrate 16 June as Bloomsday.
Or, as Stephen King put it the other day.
Here I should say that I cheated, sort of. The book was given a full dramatised reading from RTÉ Radio on Bloomsday 1982, and happily the whole thing is now available for download from archive.org here
It’s an excellent dramatisation, and much like the book itself it’s the kind of quality of work which you struggle to believe was actually put together by real humans with a limited amount of time in their day, and in their life.
And that’s my main takeaway from the book. Each of the 18 “episodes” contained within is an work on its own, each with what seems like an entirely different style, worth digging deeply into, if only there were time! It would be an ideal book to take to a desert island, less ideal to write a thesis about, and a brief blog post seems like an impossibility. So here instead are a few of my favourite episodes.
Episode 14, Oxen of the Sun
“the episode starts with latinate prose, Anglo-Saxon alliteration, and moves on through parodies of, among others, Malory, the King James Bible, Bunyan, Pepys, Defoe, Sterne, Walpole, Gibbon, Dickens, and Carlyle, before concluding in a haze of nearly incomprehensible slang. The development of the English language in the episode is believed to be aligned with the nine-month gestation period of the foetus in the womb” – the alliterative passages in this chapter are a complete joy to listen to and make me think I may actually give Finnegan’s Wake a go one day. The audio version, I am not a complete lunatic.
Episode 15, Circe
“written as a play script, complete with stage directions. The plot is frequently interrupted by “hallucinations” experienced by Stephen and Bloom—fantastic manifestations of the fears and passions of the two characters” – this has a dream logic to it, shifting in and out of the concrete world in spectacular fashion. For a chapter in which most of the action takes place in a brothel, it is also surprisingly lacking in anything off-putting.
Episode 18, Penelope
“The final episode consists of Molly Bloom’s thoughts as she lies in bed next to her husband. The episode uses a stream-of-consciousness technique in eight paragraphs and lacks punctuation. Molly thinks about Boylan and Bloom, her past admirers, including Lieutenant Stanley G. Gardner, the events of the day, her childhood in Gibraltar, and her curtailed singing career.” Despite (due to?) this being a stream-of-consciousness it’s one of the most lucid and realistic of the episodes. Throughout the book, the female characters oddly enough seem to be better drawn and more lucid than the male characters, and this is the ultimate example of this.
The only part which was a real struggle to get through was episode 17, Ithaca, which is “written in the form of a rigidly organised and “mathematical” catechism of 309 questions and answers” and was apparently Joyce’s favourite. It felt like an accurate imitation of something I have no desire to read in the first place, though I have no doubt I would get something out of it given time.
To sum up, this was a good book and you should, uh, listen to it.