Monthly Archives: February 2011

James Joyce; for a reluctant reader

I’m currently on a Joyce bender, and since I’m starting this blog while in the middle of said bender, I’m calling it ‘Soft morning, city!’, a typically arresting Joycean statement from Finnegan’s Wake.

In the last couple of months I’ve gotten through Ulysses, Edna O’Brien’s biography of Joyce, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, none of which I had read before. Although I should confess, I bought Ulysses about ten months ago, and started it not long after that, and not much longer after that it ended up languishing on my book shelf, the introduction and only the first hundred and fifty pages having been read. It’s a daunting book, and maybe more so than most of its other ‘intimidating read’ rivals, although in terms of monumental mindfucks it’s not even on the same planet as Joyce’s later and far more monumental mindfuck, Finnegan’s Wake. But, if you are thinking of reading it and still a little worried, this picture should put you at ease.

And she’s nearly at the end. And even more impressively, according to the photographer, it wasn’t posed and Ms Monroe was genuinely kicking back with a quiet dose of Ulysses.

Ulysses deserves its reputation, it is a very tough book. But, if you read it properly and, though at points you may not know just what the fuck is going on, the wealth of vocabulary and knowledge on the page will astound you. Granted, unless you’re a massive general knowledge crazy with a particular love of the Old Testament and very obscure 19th century poets, you probably won’t recognise a lot of the references that make up the average page of Ulysses, but, (and make sure you get yourself an edition with plenty of additional material for this*), not quite sure what Joyce means when he writes ‘Isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a great sweet mother’? Flick to the explanatory notes at the back, which could easily make up a book themselves, and Joyce’s meaning will reveal, you will see that Algy refers to Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), who was a poet and author of ‘The Triumph of Time’ (1866), which includes the line, ‘The great sweet mother…the sea’. And here is Algy;

Ulysses is littered with references like this; ‘Epi oinopa ponton (Homeric epiphet, ‘over the winedark sea’), Thalatta! Thalatta! (Attic Greek, The sea! The sea! From the Greek historian Xenophon’s (428 – 354 BC) Anabasis, chronicle of the expedition of the Ten Thousand Greek mercenaries in siege against the Persians. This was the cry of the Ten Thousand on reaching the sea), Kingstown (former English name for Dun Laoghaire, town on the south shore of Dublin Bay, and, hyperborean (Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), uses the term to describe those who, like the Ubermensch (Superman) were ‘above the crowd’(Der Wille zur Macht, The Will to Dominate) (1896).’ And these make up the footnotes that join Algy on page 5 alone.

The depth of learning and the massive effort of will it took Joyce to undertake this work is monumentally clear on each page. There is a double reason to buy a decent edition of Ulysses however, as well as for the explanatory notes, it is near essential to also be able to reference the schema, mainly so you can follow the at times entirely impenetrable plot. Ulysses is written as a series of episodes taking place over a single day, June 16 1904, during which we follow the actions of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus (Joyce’s alter-ego protagonist in A Portrait of the Artist).

Each episode represents either an hour or two of the day, and corresponds to events in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, each episode is also designated an organ of the human body, an art of learning, a colour, a symbol, and a ‘technic’. So for example, the first episode of the second part of the book, named Calypso, takes place at the Bloom household between 8-10am, with the corresponding objects of the kidney, economics, the colour orange, the symbol of the nymph, and a narrative technic.

While this is all very helpful, it may not sound meaningful to the reader. It is. For each episode, a more thorough explanation of what is going on in the scene is given, as well as a decent paragraph referring to the corresponding scene in The Odyssey at the same time.  During my first bout with Ulysses, I failed to reference the explanatory notes at all, and eventually succumbed to an exasperated surrender. You don’t need to look at the notes on some obscure 19th century poet every eight lines or so (sorry Algy), but definitely read the chapter notes at the beginning of each episode, or you may well find yourself at a complete loss as to what is happening and contemplating a good old-fashioned book burning. Ulysses uses each episode to experiment with various English narrative styles, and this can be very confusing, especially as he often goes through several in one episode. In the episode Oxen of the Sun, (probably the most famous and difficult of the book), Joyce begins in mock latinate prose, moving through parodies of Anglo-Saxon prose, Thomas Malory, the King James Bible, John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe, Laurence Stern, Edward Gibbon, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Carlyle and then finishing up with a weird concoction of pidgin English and unreadable slang. That’s every major English prose style up to 1900, in about forty pages.

It may not sound like it after all that, but Ulysses is a very enjoyable read once you make your peace with it and accept everything that it throws at you. William Faulkner’s advice is very true, ‘Approach Ulysses as an illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament. With faith’. Usefully, this can also be applied to Faulkner’s work, not exactly written with popular appeal in mind either.

Strangely enough, for a book so notoriously difficult, the subject matter and experiences of the two protagonists are very simple and day-to-day, consisting mostly of eating, drinking, defecating, talking, sex, daydreaming, sleeping and nose picking. Written at a time when there was a much greater emphasis on self-education and intellectual improvement for the common man, Joyce intended Ulysses to be educational, and not a book that allows the reader to switch off their brain after the first chapter.

If you don’t rush it, and read attentively, hopefully you will take a lot out of it, and maybe gain some understanding of its ‘important work’ status. If not, and you give up after a few chapters, maybe you’ll pick it up off the bookshelf ten months later, blow the dust off and give it another go.

*The edition I’m using and referencing notes from is Ulysses – The 1922 Text, published by Oxford World’s Classics, first published in 1993, edited and with notes by Jeri Johnson.

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