Every June 16, as the literary world stops to celebrate (or not) Bloomsday, discussions abound on the merits of Joyce’s masterwork. Generally the feelings are rather opposed. In one camp are those who think it is a greatly overrated heap of ramblings by a drunk Irishman who is altogether rather too pleased with himself and his word play abilities and rather too neglectful of small matters such as plot. What the hell happens? they cry. A Jewish bloke called Bloom wanders around Dublin, gets pissed, ends up in a brothel and takes this other bloke called Dedalus home for a cup of tea while his wife is upstairs thinking about the fact she’s been cheating on him. Nothing happens! There aren't any plot twists, the are no reasons for moving from one chapter to the next. And what’s with all the Catholic and religious imagery and metaphors; the talk of sex and organs and bodily functions? One chapter is set in a library with a bunch of uni students talking about Hamlet ferfuckssake ! Who gives a toss?
And then there are those who think it is the greatest novel ever written.
I am certainly in the later camp. It is not my favourite novel, but begob there is scare a sentence on any page that I don’t wish with all my might that I had penned. To me it is to novels like sitcoms are to Seinfeld. After watching Seinfeld, you wonder how could anyone do another sitcom about single people. And yes in some ways How I Met You Mother is more fun and easy to watch, but it doesn’t have the genius. Though at least they’re trying; when you see something like Two and Half Men, you realise the writers have just pretended a show like Seinfeld never existed.
I came to Ulysses through Bloomsday. In 1992 I was a third year Economic student who had a passion for literature that well exceeded my having actually read anything. I had heard about Ulysses, but had never got close to opening a page of it. I knew the aura in which it was held and thus it intrigued me. I felt I needed to know this book – in much the same way as I felt I needed to know more about history. And so when my best mate told me our local pub – the Wellington Hotel in North Adelaide – was having a Bloomsday dinner complete with an Irish Stew cooked in Guinness for about 8 hours, well how could I turn that down?
The night was a wonderful affair, we were by far the youngest in the place, but that mattered little –we felt good being there; the vibe was jovial and the Guinness was plentiful (the stew, amazing). There were some readings of the novel as there must be at such occasions. The one I recall was from the ‘Cyclops’ chapter – a marvellous passage where an observer at Barney Kiernan’s pub lists off all the great Irish heroes – including Christopher Columbus, Charlemagne, the Last of the Mohicans, and (my favourite) The Man that Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo. Hearing this long list of absurd names in an out of context reading opened Ulysses for me. For you see, I had no idea the book was funny.
A favourite passage from the same chapter involves a group of men talking about the funeral of an acquaintance of theirs, Paddy Dignam. One of them (Alf) hadn’t heard the news, and can’t believe it, because he is sure he saw him a few minutes ago:
- Don’t you know he’s dead? says Joe.The conversations are real and wonderfully convey the hubbub and half heard sentences amidst the noise of a pub after work. Without description Joyce conveys the entry of someone into a group at a bar – you can imagine quite easily Bob Doran coming into the circle with a pint in hand, asking “Who’s dead” without Joyce actually describing that is what has happened. And the “whatdoyoucallhim’s” is a type of writing not seen in the 19th Century, but which is now everywhere. It’s writing that is real – yeah with an Irish accent, but it is full of conversations and chit chat as much as description.
- Paddy Dignam dead? says Alf.
- Ay, says Joe.
- Sure I’m after seeing him not five minutes ago, says Alf, as plain as a pikestaff.
-Who’s dead? says Bob Doran.
-You saw his ghost then, says Joe, God between us and harm.
- What? says Alf. Good Christ, only five… What?… and Willie Murray with him, the two of them there near whatdoyoucallhim’s… What? Dignam dead?
- What about Dignam? says Bob Doran. Who’s talking about…?
-Dead! says Alf. He is no more dead than you are.
- Maybe so, says Joe. They took the liberty of burying him this morning anyhow.
Ulysses is a novel for those who adore character above all else. If Dan Brown is your ideal, then avoid this at all costs. And I don’t mean that in a snobby way. If you were to meet someone who said they love film and that their favourite movie of all time was Die Hard you would hardly suggest they check out some of the early films of Truffaut. There’s nothing wrong with Die Hard (it’s a great action film in fact) but it has as little in common with, say, Jules et Jim, as The Da Vinci Code has with Ulysses.
If you like to disappear into other worlds to escape reality, then perhaps this isn’t for you either. For while Ulysses does construct a world, it is hardly nice in a way that for example is the Highbury of Emma. Ulysses reveals the thoughts we think but wouldn’t say out loud; the things we hear but quickly forget; the things we see that trigger memories we wish we could forget. Ulysses reveals a world full of humour, bitterness, sadness, loss, pain, cruelty, love, loneliness, futility and death. Orwell said it was Joyce showing us the world without God. Which, while I might not agree with, certainly gives a decent enough impression of the novel’s tone.
Joyce asks a lot of his readers. The problem with Joyce is that he writes assuming you will read all the words. Dan Brown and Bryce Courtney can be read quickly – you can skip a sentence, a paragraph and not lose track. Even Dickens or Austen allow you to skip the odd sentence. But reading Joyce is as demanding as reading poetry – skip a line in a poem and you might as well have not read any of it. Much is the same with Joyce (though saying that I must admit to having skimmed a lot of the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ chapter – it is rather a bit of a bore for me – but in skimming the pages, I know I am missing out; I’m just prepared to accept it). Joyce stretches the limits of the language and of what a novel can be to breaking point (in his next novel, Finnegans Wake, he would break it – and it is poorer for it) – so pay attention, son.
He asks a lot, but (for me) the rewards are plentiful. The first half of the novel is as close to perfection as I could ask. The ‘Wandering Rocks’ chapter with its labyrinthine structure is perhaps my favourite – though the humour and spite of ‘Cyclops’ always gets a re-read; and then there is the beautifully rendered sadness of ‘Hades’ featuring Bloom in a carriage with some men on the way to Paddy Dignam’s funeral, and we read of Bloom’s thoughts as he recalls his father’s suicide and his only son’s young death, all the while the anti-Semitism of the men softly simmers around Bloom.
The novel also ends with the truly great soliloquy of Molly Bloom. The infamous last chapter of 60 odd pages and 8 unpunctuated sentences.
The stream of consciousness Joyce employs always reminds me of a Jackson Pollock painting. To the sceptical it seems gibberish; simple; almost childish. And truly like doing drip paintings, nothing is easier to write than stream of consciousness. All you need do is spew out random thoughts. But just try it yourself, and you will find that while nothing is easier than to write stream of consciousness, nothing is harder than to write it well. Far too many young wannabe authors have filled their pages with excruciating rubbish, not realising that you can only discard the rules once you have mastered them.
Joyce was a master of rhythm and meter. His writing is lyrical and worth savouring. I hate books with long chapters, and yet Molly’s words flow so smoothly that the pages pass without reference to time.
When I was at uni, I was part of a Literary Club that used to put on a reading every Bloomsday. I played the role of Joyce – providing a narration in between the readings to give some context to each excerpt to be read out. It always finished with me reading the last 4 or so pages of Molly’s soliloquy. It’s almost impossible to read out loud phrases where Molly is remembering her life and not feel a deep sense that Joyce has truly got inside the head of this woman, and has created a real being:
… and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
It is a weird book. Parts frustrate me; parts dazzle. It is perhaps the only novel where I can recall individual chapters. It’s the only novel where I really don’t like two chapters - ‘Oxen in the Sun’ and the long, absurd ‘Circe’ which account for about 200 pages, and yet still think the whole is better than anything else written. I can forgive those two chapters because of the brilliance of the others.
But as I have said, it is not my favourite novel – it is perhaps not even my favourite Joyce novel - I prefer to read his earlier A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (and I recommend you read that book before this one, as Ulysses is in many ways a sequel). I don’t like the characters here as much as I do those in say David Copperfield, or Emma. And yes, it is true it lacks a plot that keeps you turning the page. And yet…. and yet…and yet… none of this takes away from its greatness. You might as well criticise Picasso’s “Guernica” because it’s not as bright and sunny as Van Gough's “Sunflowers”.
I probably haven’t converted anyone to Joyce, or even touched on his greatness. Those who think it unreadable will no doubt continue to think so; those who could think of nothing worse than reading a book that asks that you concentrate will no doubt not feel any great desire to pick up and start the journey with Bloom as he walks around Dublin on 16 June 1904. But if you are to pick it up, don’t be reverential or scared. Heck feel free to hate the thing. Feel free to shake your head and put it back on the shelf with a “not for me” shrug. But don’t be overawed by it – get the student’s version so you can go to the footnotes and find out what the heck “Ineluctable modality of the visible” means. Don’t worry that you haven’t read The Odyssey, and so you won’t get that when Buck Mulligan refers to the ocean as “the snotgreen sea. The scotumtightening sea” it is a parody on Homer’s reference of the Aegean as “the wine-dark sea”.
Ignore the stories of Joyce spending two days reworking one sentence – you don’t have to spend two days reading it – a chef takes a lot more time making the meal than you do eating it. Just remember - it’s only a book; I think it’s the best ever written, but I could be wrong.
Though of course, I’m not.
Like Orwell, Ulysses makes me feel like a eunuch. I spend half of the time marvelling at the passages, and the other half sighing and wishing and thinking and wondering, “if only I could have written that”.