Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ulysses, by James Joyce

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air.

History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

In the vast sea of books that are critically-acclaimed but shunned by your average reader, Ulysses floats near the top. More words have been written about the interlocking narratives of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus than there are in Joyce's entire bibliography, and, as a result, Ulysses has been described as everything imaginable: complex but rewarding, overly difficult and dull, completely unreadable, intentionally difficult and pretentious. Weirdly, at points, all the above descriptors apply, and then some, but reading Ulysses was and is worthwhile, whether you're a professional like Harold Bloom or just a reader like myself.

James Joyce himself once famously said that if Ulysses is not worth reading, life is not worth living. It's easy to see why he'd make such a statement, since Ulysses tries, through the course of a single day, to capture every part of life. Leopold Bloom and the people he meets on his journey eat, drink, swear, pray, witness a birth, attend a funeral, have sex, and even go to the bathroom (a trend which Joyce seems to have started that shows up in pretty much every post-modern novel nowdays). Ulysses is Joyce's conception of life in all its ugly, mixed-up, confused glory.

The narrative itself is fairly simple. The story opens with Stephen Dedalus, Joyce's pretentious, over-educated alter-ego from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as he rises in the morning and heads off to his teaching job. Simultaneously, Leopold Bloom, an advertising executive who's wife is sleeping with theater star Blazes Boylan, begins another day in his dreary, somewhat depressing life. As their days progress, they move inexorably toward each other, their fates entwined, although not to the extent that we'd expect.

Outlining Ulysses, however, doesn't get to the heart of the novel at all. Yes, Ulysses is about life, but it's also about art, about words, and about stretching the boundaries of what a novel can do. Joyce's semantic tricks aren't quite as groundbreaking now as they were back in the 20's, but it's still a little surprising (and confusing) when he switches from third-person narration to interior monologue without warning (as he often does in Stephen's sections) or when the novel change from prose into a screenplay when Bloom rescues Stephen from a brothel. In the section recounting the birth of a child, Joyce condenses the entirety of popular writing into 30 pages, moving from a pre-Latinate form of English (think directly-translated Greek) through Chaucer-esque Middle Englsh to mimicking the stylings of Dickens and Poe. It's a pretty exciting thing to see on the page, and the writing itself serves as a metaphor for the events, the birth of a language paralleling the birth of a child. Elsewhere, there's the aforementioned screenplay format (used, I suspect, to indicate the distance the characters themselves from their actions, or possibly to draw attention to the fact that, like players in a play, the characters in Ulysses can do only what the director tells them to); the section formatted like a Catholic Catechism, in the form of question and answer, ironically juxtaposing Bloom's crisis of self with the confidence of faith; or Bloom's day at work, where each section of his banal workday is punctuated with OVERWROUGHT HEADLINES IN CAPITAL LETTERS.

I could go on at length about Ulysses--after all, everyone else does--but to really understand it, you simply have to read it. Because so much of the story is communicated and amplified through the writing itself, simply describing a few standout scenes barely scratches the surface. Sometimes Ulysses is difficult, sometimes borderline unreadable, occasionally very difficult to understand without a guide (I used SparksNotes), but overall, well worth the read.

Two additional notes: 1) Ulysses wasn't as difficult as The Confidence-Man, and 2) the final chapter, Molly Bloom's famous stream-of-consciousness monologue, works both as some of the most beautiful, evocative writing I've ever read and as sort of a twist ending, reframing Bloom's entire story.


Rebecca Reid said...

"James Joyce himself once famously said that if Ulysses is not worth reading, life is not worth living. It's easy to see why he'd make such a statement, since Ulysses tries, through the course of a single day, to capture every part of life."

I'm still intimidated but comments like the one above really make me more interested in reading it all the same! Thanks for a great review.

Nihil Novum said...

It's not as bad as its reputation suggests, Rebecca. There are some tough parts, but I read it in about two weeks.

Christopher said...

I'm changing my name to Blazes Boylan

evilredcaboose said...

I'm going to attempt to read this. In fact,
You might want to check out some of the books on -my- reading list