Wednesday 20 February 2019

Review: 'Ulysses' by James Joyce

Usually I write a review on here because it has an eighteenth century connection, sometimes I include something because it pleased/baffled me enough to be noticed but occasionally I just want to boast. This is one of those times. I finished James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. Though, to anyone patient enough to read to the end, I did find something eighteenth century relevant to say about it.

There seems to be two main ways of reading ‘Ulysses’, one involves a great deal of research and footnotes, the other is a little looser where the harder parts are allowed to wash by a little. I chose the second way and for the most part, it worked. It was only the chapter set in the maternity hospital that sent me to SparkNotes - I found that chapter almost incomprehensible.

It was a disorientating experience, being thrown in with Buck Mulligan shaving at the top of the Martello tower. After this we meet Stephen Dedalus, Haines and a milk lady. Throughout the section the characters refer to events we haven’t been told about, characters we haven’t met and a whole slew of references to other works. Rather like overhearing a conversation (and later, overhearing thoughts) the reader needs to constantly piece together small gobbets of knowledge. I reread that first chapter having finished the whole book and it felt so easy and natural knowing the characters and situation as I now do. I can see why people reread this book if it gives a little more each time.

As for the references, they are one of the main reasons one way of reading the text is with a guide or an annotated edition. I found that I grasped many of the references throughout the book, what I had trouble with was working out how those references shone light on what was happening at the time. For example, there was a part close to the end of the book where Stephen says, “farewell and adieu to you Spanish onions.” Of course I got the reference to the famous sea-shanty, I made the link that they were talking about Spanish ladies, I also remembered a discussion earlier about Spanish onions being larger than Irish - probably a breast reference, but I still couldn’t understand why Stephen had said it.

I think this is my first novel that uses stream of consciousness. I’ve tended to skirt around modernism in my reading before so I don’t know if this is Joyce’s handling of it or a feature of the form, but as far as I am concerned, consciousness does not stream the way it is portrayed here. A few chapters in, I caught a virus which gave me a raging fever like none I’ve had before. Even with my body burning like a hot iron, my mind still didn’t skip and jump and interrupt itself the way the stream of consciousness does here. When I was half-way through the penultimate chapter, I fell asleep and had a nightmare where my thought-patterns resembled ‘Ulysses’ and I required invasive brain surgery (which took the form of really long needles). If anything, the book resembles a stream of sub-consciousness. 

The crunch time for me was the third section at the beach which I read shortly after my fever. The section starts with the sentence; “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes.” I wracked my brain over and over, completely unable to work out what it meant yet I knew it was important as it was the first line in the section. Reading a little further, it became clear that he had decided to close his eyes. Personally, I think that sentence is bad writing as communication that refuses to communicate is bad communication. Then followed a section where the writing represents sound and Stephen falls into a reverie. 

Opening his eyes, he sees two women and a dog romping around the beach. The dog is referenced in terms of a dog, horse, buck, deer, wolf, fawn, bear, panther, leopard, and a vulture. The prose then talks about dogskull, dogbark, dogsniff, dogsbody - Joyce loves shoving two words together, he also enjoys shifting word order around for aural effect. At this point, I was both attracted and repelled; thrilled by the grand arpeggios of words and also irritated by the efforts the section goes through to distance the reader. My notes include a Johnson quote where, having sat through a complicated violin solo and being told it was difficult responded that he wished it was impossible.

Then the fourth section started with, “Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.” I was intrigued. Then, as the section continued, I was invested. It remained the same for the rest of the book, the sections with Stephen turned me off and those with Bloom pulled me in. While Stephen wanders around Dublin full of self-importance and a mild contempt for everyone he meets, whereas Bloom has a way of opening himself up to all the people around him. As the book progresses, we learn more about Bloom. He’s thinking about his wife preparing to take a lover, trying to get a few jobs done (most of which he fails) and seeing how many women’s knickers he can ogle. Despite being rather ineffective, laying plans he will never fulfil and also being relentlessly kinky, he is extremely likeable and he led me through the book with much enjoyment until the fourteenth section.

From here we entered the parts where the experimenting takes over. The fourteenth section was the one set in the maternity hospital where Joyce parodies/pastiches different writing styles over the last thousand years of writing. I had no idea what was happening (not much) and I needed a synopsis to work it out. The longest section is next, written as a script and including a number of hallucinations. As this section taught me more about Bloom (he likes being sissified as well as underwear, urine and scat stuff). I enjoyed it. 

The last part with Stephen and Leopold was written as a series of questions with unemotional answers. All the threads that have been spooling out throughout the rest of the book are sort-of pulled together but in the flattest way possible, which I oddly found more moving then if it had built to a dramatic end. 

As an afterword we had the much praised monologue of Molly Bloom. Personally, I preferred it when Kate Bush did it and it was called ‘The Sensual World’. That said, it does bring the novel to a climax.

Although I did find the book difficult and rather frustrating at times, I also enjoyed it a great deal and learnt a lot from it. As a person, I was encouraged to take notice of my own thoughts and to notice those things that caught my attention, which is always a good thing. As a reader and writer, I learnt how much a novel can be pulled, stretched and experimented with and still remain an enjoyable experience if there are some characters to be cling onto. There were many interesting side-characters but for me the book was all about Bloom and I loved the book as much as I engaged with him.

This is where I add my eighteenth century thoughts, though there aren’t many of these.

First, there was a paragraph in ‘flash’ slang, which I followed better than much of the modern stuff.

Second, there were pastiches of eighteenth century writers including Oliver Goldsmith, which I didn’t pick up on at all.

Third, this is basically ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy’. Both novels are full of digression and experiment. Both novels tie themselves in knots by trying to be true to life experience. Both have a love of sex-based jokery. And both are ultimately saved by the strength of the characters. - I could have gone into more details on this, but I’ve said enough.

Over and out.

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