READING: James Joyce’s Ulysses

We are universes within ourselves, I think he meant to say.  We are a constant interplay between the world inside our head and one beyond it.  Life as we experience it is an alchemy of the two.  Our mind flits from one thing to another drawing unique connections between our senses and our memories.  The lilt of a song can morph into a memory, even if it be a misheard song or a misremembered memory, and can carry us far from where we are now.  It’s extraordinary what we do inside our heads. I wonder if we are not all half-mad and I have James Joyce to thank for pointing this out.

In his novel, Ulysses, Joyce takes us on a jaunt through Dublin on June 16, 1904 to the beat of Homer’s Odyssey.  It is clever of him, of course, to commandeer the grand adventure of Odysseus and weave it into a tale of a singular Thursday.  Joyce was a famous smarty pants and while he played inside the minds of his two major characters, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, he was also painstaking in his depiction of Dublin at that time.  So much so, those in the know say one could reconstruct Dublin at the turn of the twentieth century from the pages of Ulysses.

Of course, there is a lot said about this novel.  People study it their entire lives.  For example, Frank Delaney’s podcast, RE:Joyce, is densely annotated reading of the novel which commenced in 2010 and will not reach the end, in Delany’s estimate, until 2032.  It’s a dense book and a daunting one filled with religious symbolism and Irish political history.  Joyce, a most well-read author, further confounds us with his allusions to the work of the  greats.  Among them are Shakespeare, Swinburne, George Russell, Fredrich Nietzsche, Robert Burns, Oscar Wilde, John Locke, Sir Issac Newton, Aristotle and yes, Homer.

It’s not all about serious scholarship, though.  Joyce is a funny, funny man.  Take this example below, and watch how he uses Stephen Dedalus’s interior monologue (his list of debts) when Mr Deasy asks him:

“‘Do you know what is the proudest word you will ever hear from an Englshman’s mouth?’
……..That on his empire’, Stephen said, ‘the sun never sets.’
‘Ba! Mr Deasy cried.  ‘That’s not English.  A French Celt said that……’I will tell you,’ he said solemnly.  ……..’I paid my way.  I never borrowed a shilling in my life.  Can you feel that? I owe nothing.  Can you?”
Mulligan, nine pounds, three pairs of socks, one pair brogues, ties.  Curran, ten guineas. McCann, one guinea, Fred Ryan, two shillings.  Temple, two lunches.  Russell, one guinea, Cousins, ten shillings, Bob Reynolds, half a guinea, Koehler, three guineas, Mrs MacKernan, five weeks’ board.  The lump I have is useless.
‘For the moment, no,’ Stephen answered.”

It’s great stuff.  We do think like this.  Joyce has it exactly right.  It is also a great way to characterise Stephen, who is a serious young man with a tendency toward depression particularly, after the recent death of his mother.  Stephen could have made little of Mr Deasy’s stern English advice in his head, but he doesn’t.  He sets about constructing a mental list of what he owes and who he owes it to and then decides the money Mr Deasy has just paid him in wages doesn’t come close to expunging the debt.

And Joyce, while tipping his hat to the illustrious, is quick to get down to street level.  He is said to pride himself on the fact that none for his characters in Ulysses have more than ten pounds to rub together.  As we walk around Dublin in the minds of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, the city and voices come alive.  There’s this:

“O, the night in the Camden hall when the daughters of Erin had to lift their skirts to step over you as you lay in your mulberrycoloured, multicolored, multitudinous vomit.”
Joyce is as happy in the literary clouds as he is on the streets with his characters:
“Ben Dollard’s famous.  Night he ran round to us to borrow a dress suit for that concert.  Trousers tight as a drum on him.  Musical porkers.  Molly did laugh when he went out.  Threw herself back across the bed, screaming, kicking.  ‘With all his belongings on show.  O saints above, I’m drenched! O, the women in the front row!'”

I’d like to tell you about how Stephen Dedalous is the fictional Joyce and how the character of Buck Mulligan was based on a real life ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, who Joyce revenged himself upon in the writing of Ulysses.  I’m sure people can talk for hours about the son in search for a father-figure (Stephen) and the father in search of the son he didn’t have (Bloom).  You may already be aware of Blooms Day, celebrated on June 16 every year by fans of the novel, but  maybe these things, and many more, you might want to find out for yourself.  A word of warning, though.  It can be addictive.

There is a lot advice out there on how to tackle Ulysses because going in cold, so to speak, is like reading in another language altogether.  You know its English or whatever you happen to be reading it in, but sooner or later, it doesn’t seem like it.  This is where you might stop, but can I add a couple of things to the tower of advice out there.

In the initial sittings, read Ulysses for an hour or more at a time.  It helps to sink into the rhythms of the characters as you journey along with them and allows you to keep track of where the characters are physically in the city.  Too short a reading can maroon you in an extended piece of stream of consciousness from which you might not return.  If you keep going, things start to drop into place.   If they don’t, do some pre-reading or find a study guide to give you some context until it does.  Tickle it around the edges.  It doesn’t matter how you do it, just do.

In looking through the above passages for some of my favourite bits to share, I found myself reading again more thoroughly, more deeply and more contentedly than I could the first time and I needed to stop myself or this piece of writing might never be done.  I think that’s how it goes. Getting to Molly Bloom’s interior monologue at the end is worth it to see how far we’ve come in Joyce’s single day.  Like Oydsseus, we end at home with Molly, Bloom’s wife (our Penelope), and we see her as she is.   We are inside her mind to watch her love, distain, consider, reject, admire, admit and finally decide.  Joyce has done something as close to real as possible.  He has bought life to fiction in a way not done before and perhaps not since.  And just in case, you are still unsure, there’s stuff like this:

“A young man clinging to a spur of rock near him, moved slowly frogwise his green legs in the deep jelly of the water.”

It’s lovely.  It’s as if we were there.

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