25 – ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce

“La, la, la, la, la, Ulysses,
I’ve found a new way, I’ve found a new way”

Thank you Franz Ferdinand for releasing this song, in Australia at least, while I was struggling through this book. Very, very annoying to have that line stuck in my head all the time.

However, whether they were writing about Joyce’s epic work or not, the Scottish popsters have a point; ‘Ulysses’ is unlike anything you’ve read before (or that anyone has written since). In eighteen chapters spread over 933 pages, the writer tells the tale of an ordinary man’s meanderings through Dublin on the 16th of June, 1904. While this may sound fairly straightforward, it is, in fact, one of the most complex and tightly designed pieces of writing ever published.

The eighteen chapters are not random; the whole novel is underpinned by the classic myth of Ulysses, or Odysseus, and each of the sections corresponds to a stage in the wanderings of the legendary Greek hero. Joyce wanted to contrast the idea of the hero with his everyman, Leopold Bloom, to protest against the dominance of violence and aggression, both in life generally and during the First World War. Bloom, a rather effeminate (or perhaps not overly masculine) Jew, wanders the streets of Dublin from house to funeral, from pub to beach, from brothel to deserted streets and back home again. On his travels, he meets up with Stephen Dedalus, the central character of Joyce’s earlier, semi-autobiographical, novel, ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, and the meeting of the two minds drives much of the later part of the book.

This meeting is also part of the original Odyssean myth: Bloom (Ulysses) is on a spiritual search for a son after his own died in childhood while Stephen (Telemachus) wishes for the parental guidance he does not find with his present, but absent, father. The theme of absent fathers is further discussed when Stephen elaborates on his ideas on ‘Hamlet’ (a vivid discussion ensues as to who Hamlet and his father are based on – is Hamlet Shakespeare himself or his son?). At the end of the book, the two have met and talked and seem to have made plans for future dealings; it is doubtful though whether either has really found what he is looking for.

Bloom is a very different type of person to the one you would expect to be roaming the streets of Dublin, and this is exactly what Joyce was trying to create, an ordinary man who is slightly out of the ordinary. His lack of understanding with many of the other men populating the pages of the book can be put down to his background (or the fact that he doesn’t get blind drunk before noon…), but it is also something to do with his personality and his preference for the company of women. He abhors violence and is eager to live and let live (to the extent of not being overly concerned about his wife’s infidelity). So, unlike the real Ulysses? Well, yes: he doesn’t slaughter all of his wife’s suitors. On the other hand, Ulysses, as can be forgotten, was also a man of peace and did his utmost to avoid being dragged off to Troy to fight in a war over a woman (just like Bloom!).

I usually write about themes in the novel at this point, but I’m not really going to here, simply because there are just too many ideas criss-crossing to get them all down in one post (I do not intend to make this a lecture series). One I found interesting though was the topic of colonialism, and the attitude of the oppressed to the oppressors. In my previous read, ‘A Passage to India’, E.M. Forster sketched the attitude of the Indians to the rule of the English, and there are many similarities in the natives’ rather passive dislike of the invaders in Joyce’s Dublin. The writer found the traditional Irish mythology of the famed Celtic defender Cuchulainn to be a bad basis on which to found a plea for independence and preferred the more cerebral Greek legend to form the skeleton of his story. Like the Indians, the Irish (well, most of them..) had very little time to wait for freedom from the Union Jack.

So much for symbolism and myth. As a linguist, the main interest for me in ‘Ulysses’ is the use of the language itself, which is, of course, the thing which makes it so hard to read. Having recently discovered Lawrence, Woolf and Boell, this seems to be my time for stream-of-conciousness writers; ‘Ulysses’ contains the mother of all stream-of-conciousness sections with Molly Bloom’s 62-page, eight-sentence rambling monologue rounding off the book. However, it is Stephen’s shorter, but seemingly more incoherent, talk early in the book which I found almost impossible to read. Joyce creates these patches of interior speech by starting and stopping thoughts and interrupting them with new ones and cutting the sentences short and not really stopping the flow because as you know that’s how we think and speak not in standard sentences yes if you think about it writing is but no I mean (OK, I’ll stop there; I think you get the point!).

Another inventive use of language is related to the use of different genres throughout the book, culminating in the scene at the midwife’s house where events are relayed in different writing genres, progressing from ancient sagas to modern (for the time) slang. Each genre adds a different slant to the proceedings and uses a different type of language, something which most native speakers are unconciously aware of but could not actively analyse. In my tertiary studies, I have had to work with genres, and the ability to decode and, eventually, reproduce different text types is one of the key aims of a non-native learner of English (in fact, it could be argued that all speakers of English require some education in the different accepted styles of writing required in different spheres of life).

A third area of language use is the coining of new words and manipulation of word order and sentence structure. Joyce plays with word order to disrupt the rhythm of the text (and, thus, the reader’s sense of comfort) and constantly introduces vocabulary which can be found nowhere else (or is so rare that it would be used nowhere else). As well as creating new adjectives and combining words to combine meanings, he has Bloom invent ways for animals and inanimate objects to communicate (apparently machines go ‘sllt’). Although Joycean coinages may not have caught on as Shakespeare’s did (he was another big maker-upper of words), it still shows a vast intellect – and courage…

Alright, yes, it’s a classic, brilliant, etc. etc., but is it any good? Should anyone in their right mind actually read this monstrosity of a house brick masquerading as literature?

Yes. But the case for the prosecution…

1) It is a bit long and unneccessary at times.

Having read the extensive introduction in my edition and several commentaries, I realise that the bulk of the book is tightly woven onto the stem of the original Homerian tale; but are you really sure that it couldn’t have been cut here and there?

2) It’s a bit crude, unnecessarily so at times.

I’m sure it was all necessary to drive home his point (no double-entendre intended or implied). However, the language did go over the top, and some of the characterisation bordered on the stereotypical (and would have been described as such if produced by, say, Dickens).

3) Clever word play, at times too clever for its own good.

No argument here.

4) The portrayal of women is not balanced.

True, few of the women come across as appealing and realistic. Then again, neither do most of the male characters either.

5) You need to do a lot of reading just to be qualified to open the book.

Yes. A good grounding in Greek mythology (especially Ulysses, naturally), a fair command of Latin, some experience in French and German and a strong interest in Philosophy seem to be pre-requisites for tackling this monster (reading ‘Dubliners’ and ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ first is also recommended, if not compulsory).

The introduction of my edition comments that you do not read ‘Ulysses’; it reads you. Very true. After reading it, you feel exhausted and a little confused. After reading what other people say about it, you’re even more confused. This is the type of book which you read again and again, if only to try to understand it more (or if you have serious masochistic tendencies). I’d like to finally get around to reading the original Ulysses legend, which may help me to understand the modern myth a bit more, but that will have to wait a bit. My head hurts now, and I’d like Franz Ferdinand to finally bloody shut up.

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