22 September 2012

James Joyce's Ulysses - "Hard to Follow at the First Go-Off"

In my copy of Robertson Davies' Fifth Business, the introduction ruins the book's ending. It took me days to even realize that the book had a climactic revelation that redefined the narrator. Since then I have avoided reading secondary sources--prefaces, introductions, forewords, the plot synopsis blurb on the back of the book--until I've finished reading the novel. It started off as a desire to avoid spoilers, but it grew into a desire to have my own thoughts about a novel, thoughts untainted by the words and perspectives of others. Ulysses almost undid this tradition. Frustrated and challenged, I was tempted by plot synopses, expository essays, articles that would explain just why the book is considered by many smart people to be one of the best ever written. I knew scholars had been dissecting and explaining the thing for years, and I was needing an explanation of what I was reading.

But I made it to the end. I formulate my own reason why I think it is praised so highly: At times Joyce writes with the precise elegance of the Victorians - a Dickens or a Bronte. At other times, Joyce writes with the playful, absurd experimentation of the 20th century, a precursor of Pynchon, Burgess, or Burroughs. He even uses David Foster Wallace's favourite 'explained pronoun' trope: "All kinds of Utopian plans were flashing through his (B's) busy brain..." Ulysses is the work of a literary Picasso, a master of the old tradition who is inventing a new way of doing things. That said, I'm not sure I enjoyed reading it. If it weren't for the ringing endorsements of English teachers, friends, and a smart-looking guy on The Colbert Report, I doubt I would have finished.

I get the impression that Joyce did not have the reader in mind as he wrote Ulysses. In most novels, the author leads you by the hand through his story. There's a trail through the forest. In Ulysses, Joyce drops you into his tangled mess of ideas and lets you sort things out for yourself. You have to find your own way. Reader comprehension is not primary among Joyce's goals. He has other, loftier ambitions.

First, he wants to move beyond conventional narrative. The writing plugs into various characters' consciousness and records what it finds, without any added context or explanation. The novel covers a day in Dublin, and there's no cohesive plot that ties the events together. Ideas, themes, and subjects are not dissected all at once; instead, they flit through the characters' divided thoughts, coming and going. Names are mentioned without introduction, as if the reader already knows the person. A bar of soap bought early in the day is remembered periodically, intruding into other trains of thought as it needs to be switched from one pocket to another. Just as we can multitask and think of more than one thing at a time, the narrative juggles multiple themes simultaneously. A favourite passage of mine is when Leopold Bloom balances the annoyance of small talk, the sadness of contemplating death, and the thrill of glimpsing a woman's silk stockings. Our minds are full of subjects with seemingly contradictory moods and tones, all at once. At times, Joyce nails it.

I found Ulysses difficult because I do not posses the same web of knowledge and cultural associations as Joyce. He writes in Latin, Italian, French, Hebrew, and Spanish. (I got the French!) He references Italian opera, Catholic theology, English literature, Greek philosophy, Shakespeare's plays and biography, Dublin's geography, and Ireland's history. Most of the novel felt like a joke I wasn't getting. There are sources out there that will explain everything in the book, I'm sure, but those work about as well as explaining a joke, in my experience.

Here's one I did catch: "Item: was Hamlet mad?" A reference to Twelfth Night. Viola tries to flatter Olivia, but Olivia counters by parodying Viola's paen to her beauty, reducing the blazon to a merchant's inventory. "Item: two lips, indifferent red; item: two gray eyes, with lids to them..." I took this reference to mean that Stephen is wondering whether his studies of philosophy and literature just boil down to being another career, rather than being a grand search into the nature of truth and the meaning of life. Overall, the references I got were few and far between, and the references I understood even fewer. While the namedropping in Pynchon's novels seems random and meaningless, I think Joyce takes his references very seriously. There's depth and substance to each one, and I don't think I got much of it. I had a hard enough time trying to figure out what was going on.

Joyce's second goal in Ulysses is to play with language. According to his wife, he giggled while he wrote, and I don't doubt it. Every page of Ulysses echoes with onomatopoeia, rings with assonance, and chuckles with rhymes. Puns are a constant, present on every page, in every paragraph. "Closeclutched swift swifter with the glareblareflare scudding they scootlootshoot lumbering by. Baraabum!" and "(helterskelterpelterwelter) He's Bloom! Stop Bloom! Stopabloom! Stopperrobber! Hi! Hi! Stophim on the corner!" are two examples that it took me about a minute to find. Joyce is also partial to lists of names, e.g. "...Mrs Wyse Nolan, John Wyse Nolan, handsomemarriedwomanrubbedagainstwidebehindinClonskeatram, the bookseller of Sweets of Sin, Miss Dubedantandshedidbedad, Mesdames Gerald and Stanislaus Moran of Roebuck..." He throws letters on the page with a childlike glee. At best, it's hilarious, exciting; at worst, it's kind of cute and tedious. I chuckled and/or rolled my eyes again and again throughout the novel.

I have mixed feelings about Ulysses. I wouldn't enthusiastically recommend it to anyone, but I could see myself reading it a second time. It's long, difficult, and only sporadically rewarding. Of the books that've taken me over a month to read--such as Infinite Jest, Les Miserables, Lord of the Rings, Mason and Dixon--it is the only one I don't consider a favourite book. The others I found so consistently wonderful that I never considered putting them down. But I have a feeling that Ulysses, on second reading, would be substantially more enjoyable. Now that I have a map of Joyce's forest, maybe I'll be able to enjoy the scenery when I come back. But it's a hefty commitment of time and energy for something of uncertain rewards. Mixed, mixed feelings.

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