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June 16th is Bloomsday. As far as I know there were no Bloomsday celebrations going on in Ames today, but maybe someday I'll take part in one. In lieu of that, I will celebrate by writing about Ulysses.
Last week I finished reading Ulysses for my first time. I can't say it's my favorite book - that honor still goes to Gravity's Rainbow at the moment - but it's up there. I think you should read it, if you haven't (and otherwise, you should read it again). But the book is preceded by a fearsome reputation, so I feel like I should try to inure you to it. What are some of the things to like about this book?
Joyce's ear: the book is made up of beautiful sentences, and so many phrases that caused me to take pause that eventually I just stopped pausing because I can open the book almost anywhere and find something to marvel at. In liver gravy Bloom mashed mashed potatoes. O! Exhausted that female has me. Correct me but I always understood that the act so performed by skittish humans with glimpses of lingerie appealed to you in virtue of its exhibitionististicicity. Exuberant female. Enormously I desiderate your domination. Ireland, says Bloom. I was born here. Ireland. Maybe so, says Joe. They took the liberty of burying him this morning anyhow. So anyhow Terry brought the three pints Joe was standing and begob the sight nearly left my eyes when I saw him land out a quid. O, as true as I'm telling you. A goodlooking sovereign. His hand scrawled a dry pen signature beside his grog. Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.
His ear extends to dialogue as well, some of the best I've ever read. And almost any of it, or any of the writing really, automatically sounds better when read in an Irish accent.
--Bloom, he said, Madam Marion Tweedy that was, is, I mean, the soprano.
She's his wife.
Joyce's stylistic virtuosity: admittedly, some may not see this as a selling point. The bewildering range and application of styles probably contributes more than anything else to the difficulty in reading the book. One of the most widely used tricks, though it tends to disappear later in the book when more difficult styles are brought to bear on the story, is a holdover from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - narration which changes according to the consciousness of the character focused on. For that reason, and others, it helps to read Portrait before Ulysses. Stephen Dedalus appears in both books (he is the "Artist"), and besides the chance to become accustomed to Joyce's prose and narrative styles, it helps to pick up a few of the details of Stephen's life because they enrich a reading of the later novel.
This is one of the reasons the first three sections can be difficult - the narration focuses on Stephen, and Stephen's got a difficult mind. Once you get past those sections, you spend more time with Bloom, who's easier to follow. Also, after the sixth section (three sections with Stephen, three with Bloom first), the stylistic experiments start becoming more obvious, set in contrast to the style (not to say that it's monolithic) of the first six sections. So then, despite the difficulty they introduce, it becomes easier to appreciate them as something interesting in and of themselves. That sounds like a copout, I know, but we're talking about one of the master prose stylists of the English language here. Besides, when things do get tough, I think you'll find yourself glad to wonder at what Joyce can do with words.
Its readability: despite the difficulty of many parts of the book, it's surprisingly readable - moreso than you'd expect, I think, for a book with such a fearsome reputation. Most of the sections are short (save "Circe" which is written in play-format dialogue, and so takes up more space than the other sections), so it's easier to set short goals - I'm gonna just finish this section, then go on - to make the book seem less daunting. More importantly, the more difficult passages usually have something to offer even if you don't get them, and the writing is often quick to return to easier material. Will you encounter references to things which you don't know about? Sure, there are loads of references, you can't know everything. You'll encounter references that you don't notice are references, too. I didn't worry about it; I caught lots of the things, had rough ideas about some others, and even looked up a few things. I refreshed myself on Shakespeare's biography when it became obviously useful during "Scylla and Charybdis." I looked up some Latin. I did look at Don Gifford's book of annotations, which I checked out late in the book, just because I wanted to see what I was missing. Technically, I was missing a fair amount, though I was also picking up on a lot that it seemed silly to annotate. But I felt that I had an enjoyable reading of the book, understanding a good part of it fairly well, without recourse to the mass of references to Irish folksongs and Church practices and British literary styles parodies and Dublin miscellanea and everything else that populates Gifford. Don't let that stuff weigh you down. It's for rereading, lifetime rereading - and for scholars.
I had read quite a bit on the internet about Ulysses before starting the book - not all of it immediately before, as I've been wanting to read this book for years. But the basic stuff that I had in mind was just this: the correspondences between the Odyssey and the novel, on the level of Joyce's private names for the sections; and the basic, basic plot outline of the book. That's all.
The correspondences might I suppose be more helpful if you recalled the plot of the Odyssey. I read parts of it once for an English class, and I know factoids about it because of playing quizbowl, but I didn't bother to read up on it. I've seen it said that the correspondences were meant to provide a loose framework, anyway, not a close mapping that would generate all sorts of meaningful allusions. Not the view of some readers, surely, but that's good enough for me for a first reading. The best reason for a first reader to know the Odyssean names of the sections is that all the writing about the book uses them.
This might seem pretty simpleminded, but I found that it helped a lot, if only because all of the other stuff that happens (this isn't all!) hangs off these events pretty well. This might also seem pretty uneventful - but it's pretty interesting nonetheless once you get into it, and moreover part of the book's charm. Anyone used to reading literary fiction shouldn't be complaining about the plot, anyway. (That includes you, Richard Bernstein, who should be fired from your posh New York Times job forthwith.)
The psychological depth: there's a reason stream-of-consciousness became so popular in the twentieth century, of course. It lends itself well to presenting the illusion of psychological depth, without the intrusion of narratorial voice that often breaks the spell. And stream-of-consciousness was Joyce's bitch. That's not all, though; with his technique of presenting dialogue and action "objectively," actively, Joyce only reinforces the illusion. But those tricks wouldn't be enough, ultimately, if it wasn't for the fact that the characters are portrayed sensitively, richly, believably. Leopold Bloom is one of the best-realized characters of any novel I've ever read; and Molly Bloom is up there too, she only appearing in a few sections before the end, her famous chapter-long, non-punctuated "soliloquy".
The LAFFS: really, I did, I laughed, it's funny. Why are you looking at me like that? Some parts (Buck's plan to become a 'Fertiliser and Incubator', Bloom's sudden ascension in "Circe", the hyperbolic narrative distortions in "Cyclops") are just laugh-out-loud funny. Some parts (Bloom's potato, the results of the catechismal style in "Ithaca", Buck's needling goodhumored treatment of Stephen) just put a smile on my face. Some of the allusions scattered throughout the book gave me that little pleased a-ha of apprehension. There are, uh - this is a good thing - puns. (We're not talking Finnegans Wake levels - I think? - here, so don't get your panties all in a bunch.) Joyful sounding locutions. And this was all on my first reading - I can only think I will find things more humorous in all kinds of ways as I reread and pick up more of the details.
The joy it takes in just about everything: language, puttering around in the kitchen, the way women walk, music, conversation, Dublin, arguments, Shakespeare, death, water, freedom, sex, knowledge, jokes, taking a dump, drinking, pissing. Life. Which suits a book that I want to read for the rest of mine: two years ago I finally got through Gravity's Rainbow, and last year I read it again, deciding that it would be a fine thing to make a tradition of it and read it every year. Now I've got two books competing for that time. I guess I'll just have to read both, then. There's something comforting about that, to be sure. But it's even better than the comfort I can get from rereading something I love. This novel is so complex that the thought of rereading it every year is exciting - just think of what a rich relationship I'll have with it in ten years. Joyce gave us some of his life in Ulysses, so I'll return the favor and give Ulysses some of mine.
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