[Titles in square brackets are those based on The Odyssey as conventionally allocated.]
28 June 2009
Part 1 [The Telemachiad]: Stephen’s morning
Gulp. It’s possible while reading the first two chapters to just about hold it together, with novelistic things happening in more or less conventional ways. We’re introduced to at least two main characters, where they live, how they get on. We find out Stephen’s a history teacher in a boys’ school, and isn’t very good. His boss is a bigoted, pompous Ulsterman who won’t give Stephen his monthly pay without a lecture – and a letter for Stephen to get printed wherever he can. Fine. Then along comes the third chapter. As Stephen walks on the cluttered beach in the late morning we’re whirled away into the rattle-bag of the inside of his head.
We’ve had plenty of glimpses of this already. In the first two chapters Joyce sprinkles Stephen’s thoughts, unannounced but not too tricky to follow, into the third-person narrative. But in Chapter 3 the sea-shore, the decaying carcase of a dog and the appearance of two people in the distance set up a series of what seem like random thoughts and memories. However. This is Joyce, and we can see the workings of a larger scheme: the chapter carries on with Big Themes he set running from the first line of the novel.
Themes. Catholicism and atheism. The British in Ireland. Existential angst. Anti-Semitism. Parents and children. Sex. Making a living. And, just as central, Joyce’s presentation of all of them in the context of a kind of compendium of literary antecedents. That sounds terrible. What I mean is, Joyce revels in the text, so Old English forms – kennings and chiming alliterative phrases – rub up against, well, language from literally all over the place, or invented on the spot. There are concordances for this novel, but if you can’t have a kind of working understanding of a novel without footnotes on every other line then it’s not working. So… I’m not looking outside. Where do you want to start?
Chapters 1 [Telemachus] and 2 [Nestor]. I wonder if there’s a kind of conventional Irishness about Buck Mulligan. He talks a lot, says things to shock, tolerates the Brits as a kind of nuisance who nevertheless have their uses. And he can’t work out Stephen at all, particularly the way he wouldn’t pay lip-service to the Catholic conventions when his mother was dying. This event is the key to Chapter 1: Mulligan’s reference to it, to Stephen’s ‘Jesuitical’ refusal to compromise – and to Stephen’s shock that Mulligan was tactless enough to say his mother was ‘beastly dead’ – set a lot of threads going. Not least of them is Stephen’s guilt: there’s nothing worse than somebody focusing on the one thing you haven’t come to terms with yourself.
Then there’s the token Brit, lodging in their tower that is itself a symbol of the Imperialist presence. He’s a kind of buffoon, a Gaelic scholar bemoaning the near-disappearance of the language the British sought to eradicate. But his nightmares keep Stephen awake, and he wants to get rid of him. There’s an old woman who brings the milk – you can imagine the ironic riffs on decay and drying up sparked off by that little event – and there’s some business with a key that I’m not quite sure about yet: Mulligan eventually gets it off Stephen through a kind of ruse in Chapter 2. Swimming in the sea (Mulligan in Chapter 2): another thread.
For good measure, the Brit blames Britain’s failures on the Jews. Stephen and Mulligan do not join in with this, and nor does Stephen respond to the comments of the Ulsterman boss whose idea of a joke is to explain Ireland’s lack of anti-Semitism on the fact that ‘Ireland never let them in.’
Otherwise, Chapter 2 confirms how lost Stephen is. He can only just keep the boys in order – but sees no more point in what he teaches them than they do. He seems to make a hasty grab for any passing fact as a kind of reassurance in a highly uncertain world. The same seems to go for the way that phrases from Shakespeare, or history, or heraldry – or anywhere – find themselves picked up and fitted into the narrative of his thoughts like masonry from old buildings. (Good this, innit?) And when a hockey match sets him free – or unmoored – for the rest of the morning, we start to see how uncertain his grip is on absolutely anything.
Chapter 3 [Proteus]. I wondered if Joyce was attempting a kind of literary Cubism, like those Picassos and Braques he’d probably seen, showing bits of reality mixed in with scraps of newspapers and other text. Descriptive detail of the feel of sand or shells underfoot, or the activities of an inquisitive dog pissing here and there, are collaged next to Stephen’s memories of bar-room scenes in Paris, thoughts about death – a constant theme, underlined in this chapter by the dead dog and Stephen’s musings on the drowned man whose body is expected to be swept to shore on the high tide later – thoughts of his family and where babies come from…. When he realises one of the distant figures is a woman, her bare legs and the rising tide lead to thoughts of the power of the moon including, inevitably, menstruation, childbirth and his own mother. He uses a part of the pompous pastiche of his boss’s letter to jot down some scraps of his own. They’re practically indecipherable, so no surprise there.
It’s hugely clever, but… but what? A text isn’t a picture, and collage doesn’t work when it’s strung along the one-dimensional line of a narrative. It’s less a collage (or a patchwork, or anything else two-dimensional) than a string of tied-together bits. It can’t be appreciated at a glance like a picture, and the juxtapositions are often impenetrable at a first reading. Even after re-readings we’re left with the knowledge that we’re only getting a limited proportion of the references. The contents of Stephen’s head seem to be a mass of confusion – which is ok if that’s exactly what Joyce wanted, but not ok if it simply stops us in our tracks.
Bring on the next chapter: you know where you are with Leopold Bloom. (Don’t you? If you go to a reading from the novel, you’re much more likely to hear about the earthy simplicities of his morning than the heady complications of Stephen’s. Ok, plenty of Stephen’s thoughts are earthy too – but simple? No.)
Part 2 [The Odyssey]
Chapters 4-6: Bloom’s morning
Did I say simple? Sure, Bloom’s morning gives us a celebration of the banal, and any conversation involving him or anybody else is based on the everyday traffic of pleasantries and (mainly) polite chat…. But Joyce makes Bloom’s interior monologue as rich as Stephen’s. Rich, but different. His morning is busy, and every single thing he does, or sees, or hears sets off a thread of thought. Sometimes it’s no more than a half-remembered line of song. But, as his morning goes on, different threads keep returning to the big idea of Mortality.
It’s becoming clear that Joyce doesn’t want us to make the mistake of thinking his novel is a rag-bag of jumbled trivia, however accidental some things might appear. Sometimes it’s the reappearance of the big ideas that keeps us on our toes: Bloom’s casual atheism compared to Stephen’s tortured doubts, the insistent presence of death. But there are what seems like dozens of small-scale echoes or links: however private the consciousness of each of these two men might be, well, there’s enough common ground for us to try guessing why Joyce is focusing on just them, and not on the other seven or eight characters we’ve met by the time the funeral’s over.
Joyce turns a few hours of an ordinary life into something else. But from the start of the novel it’s been clear that he wants to do things differently. Rule 1 is that absolutely nothing is off-limits. So in the breakfast chapter [Calypso] all physical life is there from the smell of kidneys (like urine) to the satisfactions of a problem-fee bowel movement. And the button-like anus of the Blooms’ cat, the routine thoughts of sex raised by absolutely any young woman Bloom encounters on his shopping trip. And eating, and drinking – Bloom even imagines the way a cat’s tongue laps milk – and all the other sensory stimulations the morning brings.
Rule 2 is… what? In Joyce-land the big questions are always as present as the feel of sweat around a hatband in warm weather. Death we know about, through the funeral and Bloom’s son who died in childhood. Which leads to thoughts of parenthood and inherited characteristics – their daughter takes after her mother. And so on…. But Bloom is steeped in commerce, so money and quick bits of mental arithmetic – of the sort the milk-woman demonstrated in the Martello tower chapter – are a much bigger thread.
Rule 3. (How long do you reckon I can keep this up? I hope I’ll stop it soon.) Rule 3 is to think about sex, particularly – but not only – when young women (or old women, or girls) are about. There’s the letter Bloom picks up from the post office box, another to Molly that probably isn’t from their daughter. And thoughts of castration: the gelding of horses (confirmed by the mutilated genitals ‘like gutta percha’) and the life of the castrato. Oh dear.
I could go on, obviously, but that’s enough. What about the plot? After breakfast, in the next chapter [The Lotus Eaters] Bloom starts his wanderings. They seem pretty aimless at first. Bloom is an outsider – I can’t remember if Joyce ever spells out his Jewishness which, as thoughts of pork kidneys demonstrate, he wears lightly – and during a visit to a church a string begins that carries on throughout Chapters 5 and 6: the weirdness of Catholicism. Is Bloom looking for something, as Stephen is? Is it another link between them? Whatever, he seeks out a service in Chapter 5 and muses on the rituals, the host, the wine, the language….
Chapter 6 [Hades]: the funeral. Each chapter seems to have Joyce adjusting the focus, and this one is as much about men’s talk as anything else following the previous chapter’s interior monologue. No, I’ve changed my mind. This one’s an interior monologue as well, but the context is different and so the thoughts are different. We get Catholicism again – Bloom like a Martian trying to guess at the meaning of the priest‘s activities – and the uncompromising physical actuality of the burial leading to thoughts of death. The context is the men’s talk. We don’t know these people – although one of those linking moments, as they spot Stephen from the carriage, confirms that Dedalus is his father. Bloom does, or does not fit in with the chat. Near the end of the chapter one of the men wonders aloud who he is, and why a woman like Molly should ever marry a ‘coon’ like him. Outsider.
And all the time, language. It’s different from what we’ve had in the Stephen chapters, obviously, not educated (or over-educated). Joyce has carefully chosen for Bloom a job in which language is king: advertising. So straplines and jingles are as ever-present as shillings and pence in Bloom’s head, like the small ads in Titbits as he sits on the jacks or bits of posters he sees on his walk to the butcher’s. And we’re back with those early Cubist paintings again, with Joyce chucking bits of random linguistic richness at us. Or linguistic poverty: it’s all just as interesting to him, because it’s what is there.
I keep coming back to what was happening in art in the decades before Ulysses was written. In Paris the Impressionists had been celebrating the ordinary for half a century – and those artists were not in the business of hiding their technique behind an illusionistic surface of ‘reality’. Ok. But they still ended up with recognisable versions of the visible world…. Things had moved a long way by the early 1920s. Whilst, literally, 99% of artists would still be working in traditional illusionistic styles, the ones who now get into books on the history of art were making marks on canvas that nobody had seen before. I keep coming back to those artists who were looking for a different way of presenting a world with recognisable things in it.
However. Six chapters in, I’m not convinced that a writer can do what a painter can do and get away with it. Is it because Picasso and other non-realist artists won the day, whereas writers attempting something new, well, didn’t win the day? A Cubist picture from a century ago with, say, its table and guitar and snippet of newspaper, is completely unthreatening. We’ve had a hundred years to get used to that kind of mark-making and what came afterwards; we’ve seen thousands of non-realist art-works, and the arrangement of forms in an early Cubist still life strikes us as charming. Not so its literary equivalent. And we can’t get the gist of a chapter in Ulysses in five seconds like we can a Picasso (or Kandinsky or Jackson Pollock). It’s hard work.
There’s the rub. You can’t just wander round a novel like you can wander round a gallery. Any of the usual strategies we might have for gliding over the tricky bits or the boring bits just don’t work here…. Which is why most people who start reading it don’t get very far. Shit, just making the attempt makes you feel like a nerd. (Certainly, it’s begun to make me wonder what sort of a nerd Joyce was for writing it.) But hey. I’ve started it now, as I have twice before, and I’m already further on than I was on one of the previous attempts.
Chapter 7 [Aeolus] Bloom and Stephen at the newspaper
Of all the chapters so far, this is the one that focuses most completely on language. After Bloom’s small ad with its obvious play on the name ‘Keyes’ – that one again; Bloom’s left his key in his other trousers, one of the newspapermen frets about a key… and we know about Stephen with the tower key from Chapter 2 – we’re in the office with the wordsmiths. Joyce is keen to put both high- and lowbrow on display: we get riddles and puzzles, celebrations of oratory, pastiches of purple prose…. We even get a reported debate about (I think) the merits of Mosaic as opposed to Roman law. Gulp. And all through the chapter we get parodies of tabloid headlines – a trick used by Annie Proulx for Quoyle the rookie reporter in The Shipping News 70 years later. (To say nothing of the writing game I used to play with students when I was teaching about newspapers: GIRL DROPS RULER or whatever. Happy days.)
And Joyce plays a game with the narrative. Bloom and Stephen have had three chapters each, but it’s Bloom who starts this one. Then, as it turns out, he loses the ball: when Stephen arrives in the office with his boss’s letter, we‘re back inside his head. Ok… but what with one thing and another there‘s so much background noise it‘s hard to remember what actually happens. Er….
… Stephen appears to welcomed into the writers’ circle just as Bloom, who isn’t really entitled to the press-card he uses, and has never been fully in it (just as he was never quite inside the circle at the funeral), leaves to do sort out Dignam‘s funeral notice. Stephen, after all, is Dedalus’s son, and the journalists seem happy to take him on board despite the lameness of the story he tells. (Unless I’m missing something, which wouldn’t surprise me.) And he’s offered a job. Gulp. What’s a Hartist to do when the wolf‘s always at the door (he’s only got £3 12 in his pocket for a month’s grind at the school) and all he achieved with his efforts on the beach was to mutilate his boss‘s letter? Ok, the ripped paper has the merit of making the Ulster bigot look stupid, but it’s not exactly art.
Watch this space – and follow the hacks, I suppose, into the pub. (What’s this? Plot? Narrative tension? Blimey.)
Chapter 8 [Lestrygonians]: Bloom wandering a bit more
So, we don’t follow Stephen after all. Bloom makes his way around named Dublin streets, meeting named people and spotting various named celebrities. So much for plot and narrative tension: most of it is thin stuff. Or, to be more truthful, most of it is pretty thick stuff like the rest of the novel, but it means that making any headway at all is not easy.
Memorable things. There’s a long riff about childbirth, based on the news an old acquaintance of his has about the three-day labour of a mutual friend. There are memories of early days with Molly – before, presumably, it all went stale. And he’s always thinking about treats for her, things he can buy. Poor sod, we think, as we do when she takes his little morning services for her completely for granted. He finds a restaurant – and comes straight out, revolted by the – what? – carnality of the consumption of meat products. (Does this refer to the scene in the Odyssey in which Ulysses’ crew are changed into pigs? Dunno.) Then he goes into a friendlier bar where he can get a civilised gorgonzola sandwich and glass of burgundy. He’s on safe ground here, seems to know everyone – but, inevitably, they don’t really know him: after he goes out via the gents one of them is sure he’s a Mason, another gets his job wrong….
…and, outside, he meets a blind youth. Cue thoughts on the sensual life of the blind during which, somehow, Joyce manages to remind us that Bloom’s is a life of the senses. In the breakfast chapter we witnessed it from the inside of his head and various other parts; here he speculates on the vividness of blind people’s perceptions. How did he know that van was there? Can he sense volume? (I’m misquoting, but you remember the bit.)
And then we’re right inside his head as he spots the straw hat of the man who is ‘getting up’ Molly’s imminent concert, the one who is meeting her later. Bloom panics, does everything he can to avoid him, feels his heart beating fast… and, yes, reaches the gate. But hasn’t he forgotten his key? (Or is he at a different gate?) How do I know this is Blazes Boylan, and that, yes, he is having an affair with Molly? Did I pick it up from the text? Or is it just one of the things you pick up along the way with this novel? If I only knew five things about this novel before I started re-reading it, this was one of them. And I know that Bloom’s is the panic of the cuckold.
Chapter 9 [Scylla and Charybdis]: Stephen’s Shakespeare gig
We’re not in the pub, we’re in the library – for more dispatches from language-land. The surface of the narrative glitters like a sequinned jacket (I’m writing this a few days after Michael Jackson’s death, so allow me that): there’s hardly a sentence goes by without a chime or a rhyme or a jingling bit of alliteration. The subject is another big one, or two more big ones: Shakespeare and fatherhood. Joyce presents us with a kind of pastiche battle of the wits as Stephen holds forth and the writers run with what he throws up or kick it back at him. To me it seems as though Joyce wants us to be entertained by the cleverness and amused at the absurdity of the positions people take up: witty discourse as freak-show, complete with Joyce the MC hustling characters into and out of the narrative limelight with ridiculous bits of wordplay….
If it all sounds a bit exhausting, it is – and I haven’t even mentioned the tortuous Shakespeare-related things going on. The debate is strewn with recognisable literary or psychological or historical factoids, and we marvel at the ingenuity whilst taking none of it seriously. Some time after having asserted that Shakespeare can be shown to have been his own metaphorical grandfather, Stephen himself claims he doesn’t believe what he’s saying – as though the whole performance can be dismissed as exactly that: an act, a routine.
Except… he’s touching some important notions that Joyce wants to keep in mind, about fathers, sons and the uncertainty of the paternal bond, husbands, wives and the uncertainty that wives are always faithful. In other words, the key family themes of the novel as we’ve had them so far: Joyce tightens up the narrative links with these constant echoes as meticulously as he tightens phrases and sentences with chiming sound-play. And lurking behind all of it, there are mothers in there too, Shakespearean mothers obviously – but we know all about a real mother, and about how a certain character has something to face up to in that regard. Gulp.
And that’s not all that‘s going on. Even while Stephen wants to use this chance to make a big impression on the literati – we witness his self-consciousness as he tells himself off for overdoing a point, or eggs himself on to giving an idea a bit more glitter – he’s also non-committal about where he wants to go with it. Will he write something for them? Well, no, they’ll have to publish what he’s said as an interview. What? The lowly schoolteacher has scored a palpable hit and… and nothing much. Well. Is it about the artist wanting to find something he really believes in, rather than appearing as some kind of performing spectacle?
And what’s Buck Mulligan doing in this chapter, apart from being his usual smart-arse self? His job seems to be to remind Stephen of what’s really going on. It’s obviously no accident at all in a novel like this one that the opening lines are spoken by Mulligan, telling Stephen who he is: Kinch the fearful Jesuit. Well, yes. And Stephen really did refuse his mother’s final request, and she really is beastly dead. Is Mulligan some sort of chorus? Not the still, calm voice but the mocking, troubling one that keeps reminding Stephen of the things he’d prefer to bury? Seems that way.
Chapter 10 [Wandering Rocks]: Dubliners in Dublin
Even if I originally wanted to remain chastely unsullied by what I called concordances – other people’s versions of what happens in the novel – it‘s not practically possible. The Ulysses industry makes sure it’s a long way from existing in a vacuum. Besides, not only is my own head no blank page with regard to this novel – which I first started reading after seeing Joseph Strick’s 1967 film 30-odd years ago – there’s a lot of other critical flotsam in there.
For instance. I know all the chapters have been given names relating to episodes in The Odyssey, and that these were part of Joyce’s scheme. (Do I really know this?) This one is called ‘The Wandering Rocks’. Fine. Joyce presents us with several interlocking paths, and at first the easy-going style reminded me of Dickens. Father Donmee makes his way around the city, on foot and by public transport. He’s a busybody, and we can snigger at his self-importance as we can snigger at a Dickens character. And the sociable way he bumps into people we recognise is another reminder: London is a village in Dickens’ novels, and Dublin seems to be a village in this one. Except, as he always does, Joyce quickly takes it somewhere else, reminding us that what we have is an artefact. The point of view begins to flit from one character to another: for half a page, or just a few lines, we’re inside the head of someone the priest noticed earlier (or didn’t particularly notice), and we look again at what we’ve just seen from a different angle. The omniscient narrator is having a stroll, rewinding events, holding them up for a closer look….
No, he‘s not having a stroll. He starts at the edge of a wide circle with a new character, but it‘s nothing like as random as it looks. As the chapter goes on we recognise more people as Joyce focuses the viewpoint on to characters we know. So the trader hawking books leads us inside the head of Bloom, looking for the next racy novel he might buy for Molly. (My, doesn’t he look after her? Doesn‘t he just?) And through Stephen’s sister, who I don’t think we’ve met before, Joyce leads us bit by bit to Simon Dedalus and Stephen himself. And, running parallel, we get characters like Corney Kelleher the coffin-maker and Dignam’s young son giving us their own slants on the visual and aural and sensory world Joyce is always reminding us of. I really did find myself thinking of the old News of the World tagline: all human life.
So. Joyce has come at the next big thing as indirectly as you could imagine: Stephen and his father. Simon Dedalus has been in and out of the novel a few times but he hasn’t made much of an impression before this chapter. And before we see him properly here we see the effects of his Typical Irish Father behaviour: two of his daughters scrabble around trying to keep body and soul together despite his best attempts to keep them apart. Then, at different times (I can’t remember the order) we get the conversation in which one of them wheedles a bob or two out of him, knowing full well that he’s keeping most of what he has to spend on drink… and we get Stephen talking to her about life at home. How bad is it? Bad. You can see why he got out when he could, but it’s another thing to add to the agenbite of inwit that drip-drips through his thoughts.
(I’ve just had a thought about agenbite of inwit. The Middle English compound form of that phrase, which we first heard early on, has a knock-on effect on a lot of the other language in the novel. Sometimes, as in the library scene, Joyce seems to wallow in its possibilities: a show-off trope to put with the others to keep reminding us that wherever we are, it’s not Kansas.)
What else in this chapter? Blokes thinking about women, blokes in bars. Blazes Boylan is here, complete with red rose in his teeth, filched from the vase of an uncomplaining office girl. They talk about events we know nothing of: like the Dignam boy looking at the boxing poster – this chapter is full of posters – we find out about things after they’ve happened…. Bloom is either there or, often, he’s in the men’s conversation: we get a lot of sketchy versions of him, just as we get glimpses of the cavalcade of the British dignitary making his way through the city. (Is the paternalistic, pre-Troubles government figure another take on that problematic relationship? Dunno.) All these multifaceted views… it’s as if – as if what? I got another one of those French art moments: type Delaunay Eiffel Tower into Google Image search and you’ll get similarly fractured views. He started painting those pictures a few years before Joyce started Ulysses. Case not proven, obviously, but it keeps me off the streets.
And, all the time in the company of blokes, Molly is never far from the conversation. It’s 4 o’clock and I know (from the novel or because it’s one of those things that you just know) that Blazes’ appointment to see her is at 4. Gulp.
Chapter 11 [Sirens]: Music and sex
It’s taken days to read (and re-read) this chapter. In the audio book I’ve got Jim Norton sings the snatches of music printed in italics in the novel… but almost all this chapter is musical and you could sing almost any line in it. And meanwhile, the everyday flirtations and smutty talk of the early part of the chapter slowly mutate into Bloom’s ever more obsessive contemplation of what Blazes and Molly are undoubtedly (he is certain) about to do. As with any chapter in the book, the events could be summarised in a sentence or two. But what’s the point of that? Picasso paints a table with things on it, Da Vinci paints a woman who looks at the viewer. It ain’t what you do, as nobody sings in this chapter, it’s the way that you do it. So, what on earth does Joyce think he’s doing?
It starts with over a page (or nearly three minutes) of – what? – short, mostly incomprehensible snippets and snatches. We’ve seen earlier how Joyce is happy to break up the narrative, the sentence, the word into ever smaller bits, and these lines seem a culmination of that tendency. By coincidence, a magazine article I saw about futurism in art was illustrated with Elasticita by Boccioni (1912): a man on horseback and the townscape they move through become a scintillating surface of facets in which the everything is almost indistinguishable from everything else. It seemed familiar: the experiments that Boccione and Joyce are conducting seem almost identical.
Experiments. Trying things out to see what happens. And what’s the writer’s relationship with the reader while this is going on? There isn’t the usual contract, as I’ve said before: Joyce doesn’t take us for a pleasant stroll, or let us glide down the gentle slope of his narrative where we know where we’re going and we know we’re safe. We’re somewhere strange, and we have to invest a lot of time and energy – which we’re only going to want to carry on doing if the rewards match the effort. I had a thought as I was reading: George Eliot, say, could have got inside the head of a crushingly jealous man worrying about his wife’s behaviour, and it would be brilliant. And you wouldn’t need to keep backtracking and checking to see what was going on beyond the fractured surface. Yes. But it wouldn’t be the same.
It might be my favourite chapter so far – even though I’ve slowed down almost to a standstill while reading it. I’ve read somewhere (you can’t help it sometimes) that it’s designed to be musical, like a fugue with variations or something similar. Fine. But I’m not interested in that, I’m interested in Joyce’s games with narrative and language, fracturing and layering and collaging them both so that we only just know where we are. But we do know, however uncertainly, and Joyce manages to make the experience intense.
I’ve mentioned threads in earlier chapters, but that word doesn’t do it justice. There’s something almost visceral in the sexual theme that starts with the barmaids’ banter and never stops until Bloom contemplates a sad old prostitute 40-odd pages later. It isn’t a 21st Century novel, so we don’t get anatomical verisimilitude. But a barmaid’s fingers forming a sensuous ring around a beer pump, Bloom’s thoughts skidding towards the three holes that every woman has, Si Dedalus’ fingers pushing into the maidenhair of his tobacco…. Joyce manages to make the sexual imagery as feverishly obscene as a drawing scrawled on a toilet wall. And my little description doesn’t even begin to take you to Bloom’s pit of distress. Which, this being Joyce, doesn’t begin with Bloom at all: his grinding thoughts are in the context of a bar where almost everybody is thinking about sex, making suggestive or faux naif comments, or singing viscerally yearning songs in the bel canto style…. My god.
What else is going on? We find out that Simon Dedalus, the waster we met properly a chapter ago, could have been a great singer. We learn about the wise child that knows its own father – and as Bloom obsesses about Molly’s past lovers, he wonders why his daughter has inherited neither of her parents’ musical taste. There’s more eating, more drinking (there’s something almost obscenely sensual about the passage of sloe gin past Blaze Boylan’s lips before he jingles off to his tryst), a lot of singing….
Meanwhile Joyce takes language to places it’s never been before, even in this novel. From the first chapter, one of my favourite things has been the way he blurs the narrative voice and the internal voices of his characters. In this chapter the way Bloom’s thought patterns slide and break up finds a direct parallel in the crumbing of words and sentences into not-quite meaningless fragments. There are endless repetitions of a jingling sound that turns out to be of brasses on Boylan‘s cab, of a tap-tap-tap which turns out to be the blind youth’s stick as he comes back for the tuning-fork he left. There’s childish word-play, particularly connected with the deaf old waiter who serves Bloom. There are self-corrections (‘already said’ or something equivalent) as, I suppose, a consciousness tries to hold itself together against – against what? Against a lifetime of feeling second-rate, of being talked about, of knowing that other people are more successful, more popular, more a part of some brotherhood that manages to be both universal and exclusive at the same time. Humiliation goes through this chapter like a message through seaside rock.
I’ve never read anything like it.
Chapter 12 [Cyclops]: Different bar, different bores
Sometimes you just don’t know what Joyce is playing at. The style on the card, at first, is Anecdote. Somebody, we don’t know who, gives us the next bit of Bloom’s story as though telling it to his mates over a pint. It’s cleverly done, and through the medium of this particular voice we get more insights: Bloom’s outsider status, Irishmen’s concerns about the drink problem (discussed, ho ho, over round after round in a bar) and the vicious forms anti-Semitism can take. Among about twenty other bits and pieces of what blokes talk about in Joyce-land over a pint. This is ok.
The Citizen, a die-hard veteran of decades-old struggles against the Brits, seems to represent everything bad about Irish Nationalism. It doesn’t matter that some of his grievances are valid, because everything he says comes out as tearful sentimentality at best and, at its frequent worst, mindless bigotry. Bloom, who acknowledges his own Jewishness, does so at his peril: everything he says and does is grist to the Citizen’s mill. Not everybody agrees with the bigot, but nobody stops him either: it’s another piece of Joyce’s warts-and-all portrait of the city he’d left years before….
But this story has to fight for space with what feels like dozens of interjections of other pastiche voices. I think the first is the mock-epic description of an Irish giant, a portrait that begins as heroic but mutates into cartoony caricature. And this is the pattern: superbly mimicked voices – pompous hagiographer, jingoistic broadsheet journalist, pretentious sports writer, earnest gospel-writer – begin their pieces at an inflated level and, well, inflate them beyond bursting point. It’s good, but it doesn’t so much slow the narrative down as knock it to bits. As I wrote at the start, what does Joyce think he’s playing at? The way the epic tone stands out against the mundane reality works well, at first… but the bathos wears thin long before we’ve had 50 pages of it, with about 30 pages of this heavy parody.
Anyway. The Irish/British dichotomy is in there – the hagiography is as often slimily pro-Brit as it is pro-Golden Age Erin – and so is a lot of other more (or less) interesting stuff. Like endless lists of comedy names and other hilarious things. I bet it’s one of the chapters people will read from to show how this is one of the funniest novels ever written. Are we nearly there yet?
The anecdotal thread, when you can find it amongst the shrubbery, is the best bit. Bloom is looking for somebody when he stumbles on the company of blokes and their prejudices. He comes out rather well, even modulated through the storytelling of someone who‘s happy for him to be the butt of all these proud Irishmen’s prejudices. The chapter is known as Cyclops, famously blinded by Odysseus, and we’re to understand this as a reference to the prejudice of the great freedom fighter. What hope for Ireland, a dozen years before the Easter Rising?
But why does Joyce hide his disgust behind all that clowning? Isn’t righteous disgust cool enough?
Chapter 13 [Nausicaa]: On the beach again
In this novel, when men see women on the beach it makes them think about sex. We’ve had Bloom shitting, pissing and farting, and this time he has a crafty wank. I would imagine that feminists have said hateful things about this chapter, because of the way Gerty, the fit-looking woman Bloom ogles, is so blatantly asking for it. But never mind that – and I’m jumping the gun anyway.
I’m beginning to wonder if there is any style at all that Joyce doesn’t pastiche in this novel. This chapter begins with pages of second-rate romantic fiction: everyone and everything is idealised to the point of satire, so toddlers become little gentlemen, cheap alterations to clothes become haute couture, and any thoughts about sex become the stuff of high-flown romance. We’re inside the head of Gertie, who has obviously read a lot of this stuff – and sometimes Joyce lets the tone slip into her real grumbles about the girls she has to spend time with, or with the man who hasn’t lived up to her hopes (a fantasy anyway, as it turns out).
She sees a foreign-looking man sitting on a rock – Bloom – and builds a new fantasy around him. Bizarrely, her Pre-Raphaelite vision of being taken away to a better place ends with her showing him more and more of her stockinged legs while, unknown to her, he is… well, we know what he’s doing. It’s bathos, again – the chasm between people’s perceptions of themselves and, well, the different sort of truth that Joyce presents us with. There’s a final joke as the point of view moves on to Bloom: their impossible simultaneous orgasms take place during a spectacular firework display, so the exultant soaring of a rocket, and the inevitable falling to earth of the stick, seem to be Joyce’s comment on the absurd things that novelists cause to happen.
As she moves off, Bloom realises she’s lame – so he, and we, can piece together another set of motives for the way she behaves. But Bloom is, in his own way, gentle with her. We can see how sympathetic he feels, and how he becomes even more ashamed of his own behaviour once he notices her limp. And we’re into the familiar territory of the workings of his mind as he tries to imagine the life of this woman in particular and all women in general. Menstruation and the power of the moon are in there – just as it was when Stephen saw a woman on the same beach in the third chapter. And there’s another link: the midwife. Bloom thinks about the woman in the maternity hospital going through a three-day labour and, still in his mourning clothes, he goes off to check out how she’s doing. What’s there? All human life (which, now I think of it, is a phrase definitely quoted to satirical effect somewhere in one of these middle chapters).
Chapter 14 [Oxen of the Sun]: At the maternity hospital
This is one of those chapters that makes you remember why nobody ever finishes this book. Bloom finds out that the woman is still in labour and he thinks about the pain of it all for a while… and then Joyce takes us to one of those regions we wish he’d leave alone. Bloom seems to be in a bar in the hospital, with other people we’ve met: Stephen, Mulligan, Lenehan and others. And Joyce goes all literary on us again. Yawn. We get the sort of talk these men go for, done in the style of Middle English romance, Pilgrim’s Progress homily or… other stuff. There’s serious debate in there somewhere, such as whether, if offered the choice, we should save the mother or the newborn child if only one could survive – but it becomes a mock-heroic joust. As so often, particularly when Stephen and Mulligan are involved, the background noise gets in the way.
It morphs into something else when we find out that Mrs Purefoy has finally given birth to a boy, although there’s mock-heroic (or mock- something) still in there. There’s an overblown paean to the husband’s prowess, sitting bathetically next to the mundane reality of his life: too many kids and a boring job counting money that isn’t his own. And… there’s mock fundamentalist religiosity in a condemnation of contraception (there have been a lot of references to shields and French letters in recent chapters) and, as you‘d expect in a scene containing both Bloom and Stephen, a reference to the wise child that knows its own… and so on.
How many pages in these first 400 have we spent listening to blokes in bars, and Joyce’s sardonic take on them? A lot. They all bugger off to another bar. Bloom, as usual, is the only one who shows any thoughtfulness as he congratulates the mother… and then Joyce has fun tearing up the next hour or so into tiny fragments of half-understood conversations, snatches of other customers’ arguments, half-lines from songs, orders at the bar. The reader on the audio-book, Jim Norton, uses literally a hundred different voices to try to convey the variety of what’s happening on the page. He does a good job… but I’m getting exasperated with it.
Chapter 15 [Circe], first half: Bloom in Night-town
I keep taking the modernity of this novel for granted. Even though I might occasionally decide to compare it with other artistic things that were going on at the time it was written, most of the time I forget Joyce was writing it 90 years ago. And he keeps doing weird and completely new things. Some of them are literary dead-ends, but plenty of them have become so familiar it’s easy to forget he was the first to do them.
This chapter is written in the form of a play script. Not a script that could have been performed on any stage – Bloom, the other characters and their surroundings undergo surreal mutations and metamorphoses while the stage directions would only make sense in a dream. Because that’s where we are, in Bloom’s fantasy, and while this technique might not have led to a whole new literary genre (or maybe it did – how would I know?) it’s familiar anyway. In the cinema the conventions allow us inside the head of a character in this impossible-real way; sitcoms will play out characters’ fears or embarrassment as a surreal 30-second mini-drama (I’m thinking of Scrubs, but I think Ali McBeal started it in the 90s); and most of the first section of Under Milk Wood – a drama for radio, not the stage – is a toned-down version of what Joyce was doing here 30-odd years before. It’s often bizarre, and it’s nearly all enjoyable. Alleluia.
We’re two-thirds of the way through the novel now, and it seems that Bloom and Stephen are spending more and more time in the same places. That doesn’t mean they’re exactly together, but (If the mini-summaries I’ve been occasionally looking at during this chapter are to be believed) Bloom is a bit worried about Stephen and he wants to keep an eye on him. Pause for a moment to let the irony of that sink in. All that happens is that Bloom nearly gets run over by a tram, and then we’re off with the fairies as, inside his own head, he’s suddenly put on trial: his peccadilloes – you know, the ones that make him a kind of Everyman, because they’re so small-scale and recognisable – become crimes, and everyone in Dublin seems to want to condemn him. To death, at the very least. A lot of other stuff happens in a chapter where everything is surreally magnified or morphed into something new and strange. Worried about parenthood? You’re not pregnant, are you? (Bloom is.) Or has the judicial scrutiny gone too far? Why not redress the balance by becoming king of Dublin (at least) for a while? It’s quite enjoyable while it lasts.
Chapter 15 [Circe] cont: Bloom and Stephen with the prostitutes
Sometimes we can easily follow what’s going on, and sometimes we can’t. Whereas in the first 40-odd pages of the chapter the contents of Bloom’s head were turned into a kind of revue-style political drama (Brecht? Dario Fo? What might Joyce have seen of European theatre in the 1920s?) after that the style Joyce goes for is pornography. It’s as though sly references to Paul de Kock aren’t enough for our envelope-pushing author: he has to go further, and it isn’t pretty. At one point Bloom, now transformed into the travesty of a virginal young girl, has to suffer outrages: the whole arm of the deep-voiced, mannish madame thrust into her, the threat of having to drink the contents of the whores’ chamber pots if they aren‘t cleaned out properly….
It settles down, sort of, when we get back to a more recognisable reality. We’re in the same brothel we’ve been in all along, but now the cheap furnishings and piano seem about as real as anything ever is in this book. Stephen is drunk, worrying about the money he’s been getting through since he was paid that morning. Lynch is there, Bloom is there. Er…. I’ll get back to you.
Part 3 [The Nostos]
Chapter 16 [Eumaeus]: Bloom and Stephen, mainly in the cabmen’s shelter
After the difficulties of the previous 100-odd pages, it’s as though Joyce decides to give us a rest. I’m sure this isn’t really what he wanted to do, but I’m grateful anyway. At first it’s hard to work out why he goes for the particular style he does. It’s fussy, jaunty, slightly pretentious and verbose. But think about it: we’re back inside Bloom’s head, and it’s his style – educated in the university of life, as he says here or somewhere else in the novel – with a cliché in every sentence and at least one infelicity or solecism on every page. It reads like someone trying to write like a writer: it reminded me of parish magazines or a particular kind of letter-writing. I suppose it’s supposed to remind us of Titbits.
During the 50 or more pages of the chapter we see Bloom slowly and patiently making his bid to get closer to Stephen. It isn’t easy for someone whose default position, literally, is in the shadows as when Stephen rashly offers half-a-crown – more than half a day’s wages – to a well-known figure perpetually down on his luck. But they get to the shelter and they can be sociable. Sort of. What gets in the way is Stephen’s state of mind after his long night out: he offers almost nothing in return for Bloom’s game efforts. At first all Bloom can do is attempt to engage the old sailor and other bores in conversation, to show Stephen the stuff he’s made of. (He’s almost pathetically proud of his riposte about Jesus Christ having been born a Jew. Joyce doesn’t need to tell us how Stephen would have regarded this clever remark if he’d shown any sign of hearing it.)
The protectiveness Bloom has been showing for at least the last two chapters becomes more and more openly paternal: he buys Stephen coffee and something to eat, wonders when he last ate, worries about where he might sleep tonight. He’s also disgusted by Mulligan and the others: in the Night-town brothel one of them, Lynch, managed to stay, but Bloom thinks Stephen needs to be kept away from hangers-on. Inch by inch, Bloom works his way around to inviting Stephen home for the night. Stephen hardly notices the invitation: we know Bloom could have asked him straight away. But we don’t patronise him for his self-effacing ways: he’s had years of rejection, expects little or nothing from any social encounter. And we penetrate the verbiage Joyce has thrown in our path to see his simple kindness for what it is.
There are threads running through. Sex, obviously, in the grotesque form of the old prostitute who puts her head round the door, and marriage. The old sailor says he has a wife waiting for him after his years away – if she hasn’t found someone else. And if that idea makes Bloom worried he covers it up, showing Stephen a ten-year-old photo of Molly in her prime. What else? Ireland: there’s one of those ridiculous conversations about the country’s greatness featuring someone called Skin-the-goat – shades of the Patriot half a book ago – of the many sightings of Parnell, of Ireland’s royal line. Religion’s in there…. Joyce covers the bases.
Molly. Everybody knows that this book ends with her, and yet we haven’t seen her for about 500 pages. However… it would be interesting to be able to see where she’s made all her in absentia appearances since then. She’s never far from Bloom’s thoughts, as we know, but I think she’s coming more and more to the front. Her photo is as clear an image as we’ve ever had – clearer than the glimpses we got in that early chapter as she was waking up – and now Bloom’s talking about going home. To where she will be, and he hopes she won‘t make the same sort of fuss about Stephen as she did about a dog he once brought home….
Out they go, and Bloom is proud. He puts his arm through Stephen’s – which Stephen isn’t really sure about at first – and… and what? They seem to have things they can talk about. But it’s music that really brings them together, and when Stephen begins to sing Bloom is impressed. Before they get to Bloom’s house he’s concocted a fantasy in which Stephen is the toast of Dublin society, commanding high fees under Bloom’s careful management. And I can’t decide whether Bloom’s continual search for the trick that will finally net him some money is simply part of his Everyman persona, or whether, well, it’s a bit of a stereotype. One thing you can say when Joyce is around: you can leave political correctness at the door.
(One final thing. Bloom watches the horse and the remarkable metamorphosis its sinews and tendons appear to effect in its head and neck. I can’t remember anything quite so vivid since Bloom first met the blind youth when he was on his way to find some lunch.)
Chapter 17 [Ithaca], first half: At Bloom’s house
Are there any styles left for Joyce to pastiche? Yes, as shown in this chapter.
What style does he pastiche? A kind of pedantic question and answer.
Can the reader think of any reason for Joyce to choose this style? Its mock-solemnity gives the mundane activities of Bloom and Stephen a pseudo-scientific or procedural air. When the chapter began the reader wondered how long Joyce would bother to keep it up.
For how many pages does he keep it up? 72 in this edition.
How many pages had the reader read when he had had enough for now, and had begun to describe the chapter? 36.
I wonder if Joyce is puncturing Bloom’s ‘scientific’ pretensions. As if he hasn’t punctured the poor man enough. Some of the Q&As definitely remind us of the self-taught Bloom’s fascination with facts and figures. So pieces of coal are polyhedral, there’s evidence of an inherited tendency for somnambulism in his family, we’re told exactly how water reaches the tap in his house. It’s geekish, and I wonder how much of that is down to Joyce lampooning Bloom’s pretensions, and how much it reveals the inner workings of Joyce’s own mind. Are my problems with this novel to do with the fact that Joyce is so far up his own arse he doesn’t understand – or doesn’t care – about the plight of the reader? In a conversation just before I started writing this entry I described Ulysses as the most annoying novel I’d ever read because Joyce makes absolutely no concessions. I find most of it alienating, and not in a good way. He makes the reader – this particular reader anyway – feel small.
I’ve just looked online, and a summary website explains that the Q&A technique is based on the Catechism. It‘s obvious when you think about it – another reminder of how far removed I am from Joyce’s mindset, and a reminder of how Joyce gives the reader no help. The same website also mentions that this was Joyce’s own favourite chapter. Why does that information come as no surprise at all? It suggests Joyce is only writing for his own pleasure, not anybody else’s. He‘s created his own world with its own rules, like the weird narrator of Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory. And somehow the culture, and the status of this novel in it, is forcing me to have dealings with this weirdo.
And yet… this emperor does have clothes. I can’t pretend the novel is meaningless drivel, because there’s extraordinary writing on every page. And, of course, the Joyce industry has convinced us all that somehow it‘s important. Sigh…. Where was I?
Stuff happens. Some of it is simple bathos, like the solemn description of how Bloom is forced to find a secret way into his own house and, eventually, manages to offer Stephen some cocoa. But this heavy-handed comedy is by no means all that we get. Bloom and Stephen are having a real encounter here, over what seems like hours. (Of course, minutes always seem like hours in this novel.) It’s a sign of the weirdness of the chapter that the real intimacy that develops is modulated through the distancing effect of the Q&A technique. And there really is intimacy, I think, right down to shared stories of childhood experiences and the value systems they each live by.
Or, at least, those things – among a lot of others – are covered in the chapter. It’s never made clear – the technique obscures, never clarifies – what they say to one another and, if they do say anything, how they say it. The question of Bloom’s Jewishness comes up, and we discover that although his father was Jewish, his mother wasn’t – so Bloom himself can’t be described as Jewish. In one particularly tortuous Q&A about what Stephen does or doesn’t think, Joyce makes it hard for us to work out if he realises this. We’re back with parents and children – Bloom saying almost unreservedly admiring things about Stephen’s no-good father – and inherited characteristics.
One of the things everybody knows about this novel is that in the Homeric scheme of things (which I’ve deliberately been avoiding as much as I can) if Bloom is Odysseus or Ulysses, Stephen is Telemachus…. He is looking for a father and Bloom is looking for a son. And it’s beginning to seem that despite the obscurities of this chapter’s refracted narrative form they are beginning to find one another.
30 January 2011
Chapter 17 [Ithaca], second half: At Bloom’s house
It becomes clearer – if that’s a word that can be used with respect to this chapter, which it isn’t – that the guiding consciousness is all Bloom’s. He’s precipitated this outcome by coming to Stephen’s rescue back in Night-town two chapters back. The outcome is to do with Bloom being able, somehow, to assimilate Stephen into his life – at a more literal level, to get him to move in. Small steps: the sharing of the cocoa, the shared act of pissing together outside, the tentative suggestion – disguised as the most logical thing for Stephen to do – that he stay the night at least. It doesn’t happen. Stephen might have given up on his own father (has he?) but he isn’t on the lookout for a replacement with the same yearning that Bloom is looking for a replacement son. It becomes, another quiet rebuff in the long series of them that have come Bloom’s way on this day in June 1904.
Some time on the way to this conclusion – and after it, now I come to think of it – Bloom goes through his day. The first time, following the mock erudition of his discussion with Stephen about Hebrew, Greek and other alphabets, we have a different kind of weaving: each event in his day is a re-working of some Old Testament story. The second time, as he prepares for bed, we get double-entry book-keeping: everything he’s paid for through the day, and any money he’s received, is tidily catalogued. (When I started writing about this chapter some time back, I was wondering whether there were any style left for Joyce to pastiche. Well, he’s ticked a couple more off.)
So, Stephen doesn’t stay, and now there’s only the inside of Bloom’s head to structure the last minutes of the day. Like the whole chapter, his thoughts are controlled, orderly. As if. What we actually see are a brave attempt at order in a confusing, unfair world – starting, in this case, with a meticulously described bump on the head. If we’re to believe Bloom’s version – and that’s the only one we’re being offered – he doesn’t end the day in pathetic, self-serving fantasies of what might be. These are disciplined, calming meditations to bring about the correct form of mental repose before sleep comes. Bloom’s unruly consciousness lets slip the truth of his terror of what might happen during sleep: it’s his duty to himself and society to indulge in these calming, self-aggrandising, materialistic dreams.
Such as? Such as the different ways he could make money, ranging from schemes to harness the tides for hydro-electric power to finding precious jewels dropped from the beaks of birds passing overhead. Such as the way a man can rise from humble beginnings, through the ranks of society to the position of Justice of the Peace or Member of Parliament. Such as the house that ought to be so easily affordable – described, in prose mimicking an upmarket estate agent’s word-picture and details from the best builder’s catalogue – and what he might call it. Bloomville? Whatever his thoughts, they have the habit of moving from the almost feasible to the wildly improbable. How might he travel from his new house? Velocipede? Or, after a short list of alternatives, phaeton drawn by a roan gelding of 14 hands?
The thoughts of future prosperity don’t match the mundane facts of the bedroom, described in forensic detail: positions of furniture, including any recent changes of position; measurements; appearance. There are private drawers containing health products and porn. And there is the bed containing one sleeping form and, next to it, the impression of a recent occupant, not himself. What’s a man to do? Get into bed, top-to-tail, obviously…. It’s worth noting that at no point does Bloom ever consider himself a failure. Is he the most resilient character in fiction?
Chapter 18 [Penelope]: Molly’s thoughts
For the first time in the whole novel we get properly inside the head of a character who isn’t Bloom or Stephen. (Those little snatches in ‘Wandering Rocks’ don’t count.) Molly presents opportunities to see things – including the concerns of the two men – from a different angle. And Joyce has the challenge of devising as different a narrative structure as possible from the circumscribed pseudo-academic examination-paper form of the previous chapter….
On the page it looks as different as it could possibly be. Famously, Joyce has decided to give us page after page of punctuation-free text to set against the regimentation that has gone before. Fine. But in the audio-book version I’ve been listening to, Marcella Riordan has made it as comprehensible as possible: her working script must be full of the punctuation that Joyce omitted – and, reader, it’s remarkably easy to follow. It makes for a relaxed stroll through the far from random concerns of Molly’s night-thoughts. And, if someone wanted to be systematic about it – and I’m sure they have – they could list a dozen points of contact between this imperfect woman and her imperfect husband. Money, sex, the attractions – and the unfathomable strangeness – of the opposite sex, the children, music (especially fine singing), wearing the right thing, making the right impression, finding a place to live, the dream of a better life….
Inevitably, a lot of the comedy in this chapter has to do with the mismatch between what we think we know – or what Bloom thinks he knows – and how things look from Molly’s point of view. She sees through his get-rich schemes, lives with the day-to-day dissatisfactions of never having new enough clothes to make a good impression, suffers their frequent house-moves with a kind of patience. She knows about the smutty pictures – compares herself with the models – but would probably be touched by the harmlessness of his illicit correspondence. Compared to the adulteries she suspects him of, it’s almost charming.
But Bloom hasn’t got it wrong about what she’s been up to. In the first few pages of the chapter she keeps coming back to Blazes Boylan and how he – and his impressive genitalia – behaved in the bedroom earlier on. She looks forward to their planned musical trip to Belfast, thinks about the difficulty she always has taking off her wedding ring, considers sleeping arrangements…. But she’s not impressed by him, not really. She remembers, among a lot of other things, different men – and we remember her lovers, listed in Bloom’s chapter as he downplays the humiliation he feels: whoever is the most recent, he won’t have the satisfaction of being the first (by a long way), or the last.
In fact, perhaps against all our expectations amongst the day-to-day complaints about Bloom as a husband, what she keeps coming back to are memories of him. And she isn’t holding up her excitement and the thrill of his proposal all those years ago to stand in contrast with the reality now, Somehow for Molly in this night-time state of things, there is no ‘then’ and ‘now’, only a kind of delirious acceptance of whatever there is and has been. At the end of the chapter with its repeated ‘Yes’, it’s Bloom she’s thinking of. This ridiculous man, with his feet where his head should be, has the power to make her happy. Phew.