I began a chapter-by-chapter review of James Joyce's Ulysses
(which I have aborted - for now - at chapter 11: review here
), but it began to feel too much like a summary, and there is nothing more impotent than trying to summarize Ulysses
. Doing so is to very much miss the point.
The longest way round is the shortest way home
Joyce's novel epitomizes and parodizes this platitude. Bloom's longest way home (a roving roaming through the streets of Dublin, to avoid disturbing his wife's affair with Blazes Boylan) is Joyce's shortest way home (creating a fictional character so real and so complete, a nearly flawless portrait in fiction, and one of the most original uses of the English language). The novel is difficult, it is a challenge, it was a long month of reading, a long way round, but having arrived home it is hard to look back and say I'd change the journey. It feels impossible to deny that Ulysses
is a great novel, an important novel, an innovation of the novel, it is easy to admire but perhaps hard to love.
The story is rather simple: Bloom's wife Molly has an assignation at four-o-clock with Blazes Boylan, meanwhile Bloom runs a number of errands throughout town, from morning to the wee-hours of the next morning, he meets young Stephen Dedalus, a brilliant young man, who Bloom hopes to take under his wing. But it is never so simple as that, as much as the story is about the character-trifecta of Bloom, Stephen, and Molly, the spectral fourth man is the very man above the pages: the man in the brown mackintosh, James Joyce, the master of the English language. Ulysses
is wholly woven in the fabric of the English tradition: the fugue of two golden braids: the Homeric journey of The Odyssey
, and the family drama, the precocious prince, of Shakespeare's Hamlet
. Joyce does not shy away from what he borrows from these pillars in English literature, but owns them, parodies them, and makes them his own: Stephen, the caustic student, poorly-paid history teacher, who hasn't bathed in nine months inherits the aesthetic genius of the Prince of Denmark, while the plodding Poldy, ad-man and consciously-cuckolded husband and father, Ireland's middle-brow everyman, is cast in the mold of Odysseus, master of land ways and sea ways: both molds much too grande for themselves.
The triptych of Ulysses
: Stephen - Bloom - Molly, serves to expose the characters of Dublin and of the primo-trio of the novel from various angles and perspectives. Early in the novel, Bloom ponders the word "parallax" and wonders what it means, and parallax serves as an astute definition of the novel's structure. Parallax is the apparent displacement of an observed object as result of the change in perspective of the observer (in American middle schools, it is often taught as the "apparent bend in a straw" in a half-full glass of water). Ulysses
, like Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu
is a concave-complex of mirrors, focusing one locus of character (or in this case, three loci; in Proust: many). The character of Molly from Bloom's perspective is challenged by Molly's soliloquy in the capping chapter; Molly sees Stephen as a clean, friendly youth, though we know him not to be; Bloom is condemned as a Jew who has never suffered short funds, though we learn that not only is he a thrice baptized Christian, but that he has plenty of financial difficulties. The long litany of characters represents a multitude of mirrors which reflect the small world of Dublin, and particularly the middling man, Leopold Bloom. Modernist fiction is about reflecting the world as it is
, as it really is
. In the words of Proust: "genius consist[s] in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected." Ulysses
is certainly a mirror, more aptly a network of mirrors, but what is a reader to take of the quality
of those reflections?
—It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked looking-glass of a servant.
Thus is Stephen's witticism about Irish art, and despite the political overtones as they relate to Ireland's servitude to the English king, it also serves as an aesthetic metaphor for the larger novel of Ulysses
, which is not a true-to-life mirror, but rather one that is cracked, deliberately distorted. The funhouse mirror set in front of the "reality" of Joyce's Dublin, to Bloom et al, manages to reflect the truth of the human condition through comedy, confounded consciousness, and evasion. If each chapter appeals to a certain sense, a certain truth, the overall effect is a sort of Barthesian "infinite text" - one which is infinitely referential to all other ideas and fictions. The broken mirror which constitutes Ulysses
in fact serves us better than an undamaged mirror; in the skewed distortions, in the pier-glass parallax of the novel, we see, as much as Bloom and Stephen's reflections, our own reflections. As we read Bloom's thoughts on death, and family, women and sex, we ponder these things ourselves. What Joyce lacks in Proustian plenum of ideas, he makes up with his jocular skepticism and whimsy:
Only man buries. No, ants too. First thing strikes anybody. Bury the dead. Say Robinson Crusoe was true to life. Well then Friday buried him. Every Friday buries a Thursday if you come to look at it.
Every Friday buries a Thursday, indeed! I won't equivocate, though: much of Ulysses
is lost on me, much of it is deliberately obscure and perhaps dated too much. There are streams of text which seem to indicate almost nothing (I think particularly of the drunken banter at the tail-end of chapter fourteen). However, despite the occassional obliqueness Joyce also treats us to an endlesslesslesslessness of wordplay, particularly pleasant to the ear:
Bloom. Flood of warm jamjam lickitup secretness flowed to flow in music out, in desire, dark to lick flow invading. Tipping her tepping her tapping her topping her. Tup. Pores to dilate dilating. Tup. The joy the feel the warm the. Tup. To pour o’er the sluices pouring gushes. Flood, gush, flow, joygush, tupthrob. Now! Language of love!
The vitreous qualities of Proust and of Joyce are in many ways equal but different. While Proust's narrator observes the world from a number of perspectives: class, jealousy, grief, etc. He remains invisible to us, we do not see him, we only see through him. The mirror is intact, it is nearly perfect, but it is flat and faces only outwards. The mirrors of Ulysses
are shattered, broken, they face every which way, but in being broken, in giving us a distorted image of reality, they bring us closer to the complete image.
Love, family, death, Ireland, infidelity: all these things come to mind when reading (or thinking about, or pretending to have read, or pretending to have thought about reading) Ulysses
, but a significant feature which is not often discussed is the effect of Time, and particularly the characters' dispositions towards Time. Whether haunted by the past, the future, or the present, Bloom has a rather antagonistic view of Time: the deaths of his father and son largely mire his thoughts on the past, while he takes a fatalist view of his wife's imminent infidelity. Bloom's resignation to Molly's transgression is one of the strangest dynamics in literature. He has an uncommon knowledge of the impending cheat, but deliberately avoids interrupting it: 4-o-clock at 7 Eccles St. but he keeps himself away all day, he knows it is going to occur, and he senses it occur even prematurely when he sees Boylan leave the Ormond Hotel. Like his view on death (Thursdays buried by Fridays, etc. etc.) his view on the past and present is one of uncanny insouciance. On the other hand, his spouse Molly has a mind almost completely fixated on the past, one which is maybe too nostalgic for its own good, though she has perhaps the healthiest relationship with Time of the three central figures. Her amorous history totally suffuses her consciousness, and she is often reminded of her life in Gibraltar. We learn that her sexual history is much more abbreviated than her husband assumes, and in fact Boylan is her first affair. Though she looks forward to her next assignation with Boylan, her marital reverence for Bloom is prevalent throughout her soliloquy. Stephen, like Bloom, is stalked by death in his past, his mother's death, for which he feels a ponderous guilt; he is unhappy with his present life, where he feels he is mistreated and underappreciated in comparison to the boisterous medical student, Buck Mulligan, and seeks to escape his situation through drinking and carousing. Ulysses
is a strange novel, it is a fat book with fat ideas and a fat appreciation for language. I think that it is hard to deny the novel's importance, in terms of critical accomplishment, innovative design, and unfettered treatment of life as it is. But it is not a book which is easy to love, and it is not a book which is easy to read. Furthermore, the chapters, famously written in different styles, are uneven. I cannot recommend chapters to be read like short stories, for that would miss the point, miss the excellence of Bloom's creation; but yet the novel is a bit misshapen: where it hits, it hits hard, where it misses, it is laborious. While Ulysses
is a great novel, an important novel, it is not
novel. That accolade would demand a greater control of form and pacing, which I think was not at all Joyce's intent anyway: in Ulysses
, Joyce creates, not the perfect book, but the perfect character, the complete man, the bonafide outsider. Maybe the two things are mutually exclusive? The longest way home is an uneven trail, with dalliances and circuitous routes, and dead-ends: it is the shortest way home for Bloom, it is the only way home. Ulysses
would not be quite Ulysses
if Bloom did not wander and ponder about town, nor would The Odyssey
be what it is if not for the many stays and stalls and threats and opportunities which stand between Troy and Ithaka.Ulysses
should be read. I believe that. It should be read and enjoyed for what it has to offer, and I think it offers something different for all who read it. But for me it offered sublime beauty in a crass reality, it exposed that even the low-minded are capable of accidental beauty, an aesthetic of their own. While the aesthetic power of Stephen is undeniable, the middle-brow Bloom's is much more intermittent: his mind is very much distracted by his own lascivious imagination and languishing past-sorrow and past-guilt. Molly, who represents the lowest class of the three, has a certainly lewd stream of consciousness, but which has become famous for the final throbs of beauty which permeate her escalating affirmations: yes, yes, yes. Love, death, and most importantly beauty, are everywhere, they are eternal and universal: one need not be an aesthete or a genius to appreciate beauty and wonder, or likewise to appreciate and love Ulysses