This month my self-imposed task of reading a Great Book each month brought me to the work that would present me with my greatest challenge. It was time to take down that copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses sitting on my shelves for the last twenty-seven years and actually read it. I knew only that it was about one day in the life of Dublin and some of its citizens and that its structure was loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey. I also knew that it is considered one of the greatest works of Modernist fiction and that its author is considered a genius by many. Hence my trepidation.
Joyce himself said about Ulysses that he had ‘put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I mean.’ And he has proved to be right about that; many are the lives, books and Ph.D’s devoted to Ulysses, and it has been controversial for a range of reasons. It was censored for obscenity and sacrilege, there were arguments over which text was the Ur-text (there never was an agreed one) and copyright. There were many different opinions; T S Eliot and Vladimir regarded it as a work of genius, Carl Jung and Virginia Woolf were not so keen.
So what is it about? And furthermore, can the general reader gain anything out of dealing with its oftentimes deliberate obscurity? I will give a brief outline of the structure and a few impressions I gained along the way. Bear in mind this is just a first acquaintance and therefore a small overview.
The events of Ulysses take place on June 16th 1904 in Dublin (Joyce celebrates here the first day he walked out with Nora Barnacle, the mother of his children). The book is divided into 18 sections which loosely follow the path of the Odyssey in spirit. The main characters are Stephen Dedalus, the young student, the Joyce character racked with guilt over his mother’s death and tormented by inner yearnings and doubts, and Leopold Bloom the Everyman character, child of a Hungarian Jew who committed suicide and grieving for his dead baby son still after 11 years, who encounters sneers and jibes from the bigoted men who cross his path during the day. All through the day the paths of Stephen and Bloom just pass each other until, in Chapter 15, Circe, Bloom rescues him from the brothel and takes him to his home for a cup of cocoa. There is a huge cast of men, mostly quite opinionated and engaged in drunken conversation. The two women whose inner thoughts we are privy to are Gertie McDowell and, of course, Molly Bloom.
That all sounds quite straightforward, I hear you say, but the other aspect of Ulysses is that Joyce uses many discourses and linguistic structures to tell his tale. The language of Irish myth, Latin and Greek, Italian opera, French, drama, stream of consciousness, references to Dickens, Gilbert and Sullivan, Lewis Carroll, in fact section 14, The Oxen of the Sun, uses more than 20 different styles of English prose. Not easy reading. So why read it if you are not a graduate looking for a research topic?
Well, probably first for the character Bloom. He is a humanist, a pacifist, a compassionate man. He is vulnerable to women (quite lecherous in fact) but loves them deeply. Here he is considering the plight of women in labour; a friend Mrs Purefoy has been in labour for 3 days
Three days imagine groaning on a bed with a vinegared handkerchief round her forehead, her belly swollen out. Phew! Dreadful simply! Child’s head too big: forceps. Doubled up inside her trying to butt its way out blindly, groping for the way out. Kill me that would Lucky Molly got over hers lightly. They ought to invent something to stop that. Life with hard labour. Twilight sleep idea: queen Victoria was given that.
And while Mrs Purefoy labours, Stephen and his mates are carousing loudly in the kitchen of the maternity hospital.
Just a few more lines from Bloom, for he gets all the best lines. Stephen is more concerned with quoting Latin and spouting obscure theories about Shakespeare, he is not the most likeable character. He is described as Artistic in temperament whereas Bloom is described as Scientific.
Alone, what did Bloom hear?
The double reverberation of retreating feet on the heavenborn earth, the double vibration of a jew’s harp in the resonant lane.
Alone, what did Bloom feel?
The cold of interstellar space, thousands of degrees below freezing point or the absolute zero of Fahrenheit, Centigrade or Reamur: the incipient intimations of proximate dawn.
This is only the tiniest glimpse into Ulysses. It is a magnificent and challenging book.
I leave the last comment to Anthony Burgess who was an extraordinary Joyce scholar
The difficulties of Ulysses…are not so many tricks and puzzles and deliberate obscurities to be hacked at like jungle lianas: they represent those elements which surround the immediate simplicities of human society; they stand for history, myth, and the cosmos. Thus we have not merely to accept them but to regard them as integral, just as the stars overhead are integral to the life of the man who, micturating in the open air, happens to look up at them.
Anthony Burgess Here Comes Everybody
And if you want to see him commenting on Ulysses in a BBC doco with David Suchet (pre Poirot) playing the part of Bloom, go here