Major Work: Ulysses
Publication date: 1922
Length (time to read): 30hrs
Influences: Shakespeare, Dante, Plato, Aristotle, Ibsen, Flaubert, Ben Jonson
Themes: Faith, Language, The City, Nationalism, History, Love
Quotes (a selection from Ulysses): “The sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea” / “History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake” / “Can’t bring back time. Like holding water in your hands” / “If Socrates leaves his house today he will find the sage seated on his doorstep. If Judas go forth tonight it is to Judas his steps will tend. Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-law. But always meeting ourselves” / “”For the troubles of childhood are as fleeting summer showers” / “The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit”
Literary Echoes: Umberto Eco, David Foster Wallace, Anthony Burgess, Thomas Pynchon, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Samuel Beckett, Salman Rushdie, Tom Stoppard
Album accompaniment: Wordsmiths like Leonard Cohen, Joanna Newsom and Kate Bush have all shown their admiration for Joyce; in 1989, Bush requested permission from the James Joyce Estate to use Molly Bloom’s soliloquy (the final passage in Ulysses) on the title track of her album The Sensual World (she had to wait until 2011 to get it!). Instead, I’d say Bush’s Hounds of Love LP is the best accompaniment, especially the second half called the Ninth Wave, which is reminiscent of the passage in Chapter 3 of Ulysses: “They serpented towards his feet, curling, unfurling many crests, every ninth, breaking, plashing, from far, from farther out, waves and waves”
Rating (out of 100): 97
More than any other book covered so far in this blog, it feels futile for me to even attempt a review of Ulysses, given the book’s density and how much there is to unpack in his “chaffering and allincluding most farraginous chronicle”. Instead, it’s tempting instead to just go with Joyce’s own review in the Circe episode of the book:
“BIDDY THE CLAP: He expresses himself with much marked refinement of phraseology.
CUNTY KATE: Indeed, yes. And at the same time with such apposite trenchancy.”
Like nearly all first-time readers of Ulysses (including Virginia Woolf) my overriding impression of reading the book was a sense of being befogged, with occasional clearings when the sun shone in. On Twitter, while midway through the book, I likened it to listening to long-wave radio with little islands of sense or signal in a vast sea of noise. There were some chapters where I nearly gave up (namely Proteus, Scylla & Charybdis and Circe) but others where I was in complete awe of Joyce’s wordplay, learning and lyricism, notably the Hades, Oxen of the Sun and Ithaca chapters. This is not the sort of journey to embark upon alone, so I had the excellent Goodreads discussions in the Classics & The Western Canon group, and the freely available RTE audiobook (which helps distinguish between different voices in some chapters), to thank for guiding me on my way. Close reading of Joyce seems to bear a lot of fruit, so I’m looking forward to keeping up with Frank Delaney’s Re Joyce podcast as he slowly makes his way through the book.
Part of the difficulty with Ulysses is that any sense of plot or meaning behind the events described in the book is always hard to discern. Anthony Burgess explains this better than I ever could, saying: “Joyce’s pleasure in the fracting of language and the notation of noise is an aspect of his fascination with what seems to him to be the magic of the whole semiological process. He considers the act of signalling rather more important than the message it attempts to convey.” Even awareness of the book’s structure, and its loose mapping on to episodes in Homer’s Odyssey, doesn’t particularly aid comprehension. That said, Joyce’s schema for the book that he sent in 1921 to his friend, Stuart Gilbert, is worth consulting before and during any attempt at tackling the novel:
I’m not going to try and provide any commentary on the overall novel or individual chapters here – there are plenty online, including these from Yale’s Modernism Lab – but instead I’m just going to pick out some passages that struck me. One aspect of Joyce’s style that I really enjoyed was his “streaky bacon” approach to writing, mixing high and low registers and styles, reminiscent of reading Chaucer or Rabelais. In fact, when I think of the way Joyce 1) parodies literary styles, 2) innovates linguistically, 3) resorts to bawdy humour, 4) transgresses against authority, and 5) has an encyclopaedic knowledge, he reminds me a lot of Rabelais. There’s also the fact that Joyce’s lead character Bloom is also like Rabelais’ Panurge, in that he relies on his craftiness and wiles to make it through life.
There are the jokes:
- A pier is described as a “disappointed bridge”
- “Come forth, Lazarus! He came fifth and lost his job!”
- “Who made those allegations? says Alf. I, says Joe, I’m the alligator”
- And the passage I found funniest in Oxen of the Sun, when Buck Mulligan talks of his “omphalos” farm of fertility, for which he had drafted business cards.
There is also the crudeness and frankness – especially in Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, and in the passages when Bloom is on the loo or masturbating on the beach – which no doubt caused the book to be banned. I haven’t read Kevin Birmingham’s highly rated book about why Ulysses was considered so “dangerous”, but this link gives some decent context on its chequered history, especially in the UK and US.
One powerful reason for the humour and subversiveness of Ulysses is that it helps to undermine the rigid, hierarchical structures of catholicism and colonialism. In other words, Joyce’s sense of the carnavalesque and the power of his laughter (or “rire”, as Bakhtin would say) is an expression of the humanity of the people of Dublin. You can see this subversiveness in both the book’s main characters, Bloom and Stephen, who are both oppressed by, and obsessed with, a history they can’t escape. Stephen can’t get over the death of his mother, his broken relationship with the Church (not to mention God), and the sorry state of his country under British rule. Bloom can’t get over the confused state of his heritage, his religion, the suicide of his father, and the death of his son.
Both of them, one a poet and the other a Jew, are outsiders of a sort in Irish society, and Joyce’s characterisation of Stephen and Bloom is one of the book’s crowning glories. We are equal parts appalled and moved by them both because they’re so human. For example, our sympathy for Bloom grows in the Oxen of the Sun chapter as he remembers his son Rudy, buried in a lamb’s wool vest (“linsey-woolsey”), a sympathy that follows the disgust we might have felt at his onanism in the previous chapter. Stephen, for example, is abandoned by his friends and betrayed by Lynch (who Stephen specifically calls Judas), and his general state of depression also engenders sympathy, but at the same time it’s hard to feel much compassion for someone who’s so self-obsessed that he couldn’t pray with his mother at her deathbed. Near the end of the book, in the Ithaca chapter, there’s a wonderful moment when the two characters come together, and a sense that Bloom (the scientific one, immersed in life) has things to teach Stephen (who’s artistic and aloof).
So well-rounded are the characters that it’s difficult to draw definite conclusions about them; in fact, they even confuse themselves. Bloom is always getting little details wrong, and sometimes doesn’t even know his own mind. For instance, in the Lestrygonians chapter, Bloom stops in at Davy Byrne’s watering hole for a Gorgonzola cheese sandwich and a glass of burgundy (consumption of which is now an essential part of the annual Bloomsday celebrations). Before going in, he talks about the cruelty to animals killed for meat, sounding like a vegetarian, but then after listing all the gruesome ways that cows and sheep are treated by butchers, Bloom then says, “Ah, I’m hungry”.
As well as great characters, there are also wonderful explorations of themes in various chapters, like the city itself in Wandering Rocks (see map above), one-eyed nationalism in Cyclops, the development of the English language in Oxen of the Sun, and political philosophy (among other things) in Circe, notably Bloom’s own ideals of social utopianism: “All parks open to the public day and night. Electric dishscrubbers. Tuberculosis, lunacy, war and mendicancy must now cease … Free money, free rent, free love”. In Scylla & Charybdis, arguably one of the toughest chapters to understand in the book, we see Joyce’s indebtedness to Shakespeare, especially in Stephen’s attraction to his “myriadmindedness”. There are also quotes like, “After God, Shakespeare has created most” and a description of the Bard as the “playwright who wrote the folio of the world”. However, it seems the main point Joyce is making in this chapter is that spiritual fatherhood is more important than biological fatherhood.
My favourite chapter, Oxen of the Sun, is also about fertility, especially as it relates to the evolution of human language, science (Darwin is mentioned) and medicine. Joyce asks whether works of art spring forth in an original and fully formed way from the minds of artists, or whether they’re a refined composite of existing art works? Nowadays, we seem to favour the “everything’s a remix” idea, though copyright still doesn’t, of course. The question is, when will Stephen bring forth his work of art? Is Ulysses his great epic work?
It’s tempting to see Stephen as Joyce’s alter ego. In writing Ulysses, Joyce also wanted to create his own national epic for Ireland, while also hoping to write the first “epic of the human body”, and in the book we see everything the body can do – digest, defecate, urinate, fart, belch, vomit, ejaculate, menstruate and give birth. Yet, in this incredibly physical book, the “pay-off” is that, after all, it isn’t the physical that matters – it is the spirit that transcends the physical, as in these words from Bloom in Cyclops:
“– But it’s no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.
– What? says Alf.
– Love, says Bloom.”
P.S. A few quotes from learned commentators:
Joyce uses Scripture in the same way that he uses other cultural references, to sound a bell in the mind. As Umberto Eco said: “[Joyce] takes old ideas, sanctioned by a cultural tradition, and derives new linguistic connections and narrative structures from them.”
Or as Samuel Beckett wrote: “His writing is not about something, it is that something itself … When the sense is sleep, the words go to sleep … When the sense is dancing, the words dance.
P.P.S. One minor flaw that could be levelled at Ulysses is that there are so few women in it. Some might say, “There are very few women in Homer’s Odyssey, too, so isn’t that reasonable?” But, given that Joyce plays so loosely with the Odyssey, it’s not a compelling excuse. More often that not, women in Ulysses are props for the male characters, with the exception of Molly, who really does exert her own presence in the book – but not until the very end, and almost as an epilogue.