Sunday, December 16, 2012

Surviving Ulysses

After several attempts through the years, I finished Ulysses last weekend. It took me several months to meander through the novel, considered one of the greatest in Western literature. Previous attempts had gotten me about 300 pages into it before I gave up. I have on previous occasions scanned the latter sections of the novel for the controversial and supposedly "obscene" parts (like a little kid looking for dirty words), but never managed to read it all the way through.

So, now that I made the compete journey I can honestly say I found James Joyce's masterwork to be clever and interesting in parts, especially when one considers it was written between 1918-1920. The bountiful parodies on religion, culture, famous writers of the past, and the often funny play on words is interesting but the narrative itself remains unappealing to me. I doubt I will make the effort again.

I know being a person who enjoys classic literature I am supposed to find Ulysses brilliant. Joyce's wordplay is sophisticated with a multiplicity of styles and perspectives presented to the reader. All that is worthy I suppose. But, the novel as a whole was a burden to me. I did not care about what happened to any character in the work. I did not truly connect or empathize with Bloom or Stephen or anyone else in the long prose journey through a single ordinary day in Dublin, June 16, 1904. Sorry, Joyce lovers. This just isn't my taste though I appreciate the great mind behind it all. Joyce would be one helluva scrabble player...just make sure he isn't making up words.

Ulysses abounds with invented words like "howsomever" and "nameinedamine". Joyce uses lots of obscure words like "metempsychosis". He makes fun of the German language's penchant for long, extended words with an invented English word that takes up two complete lines to spell out in the book. These little tidbits are interesting even if they don't create any investment on my part in the characters or the story. Joyce strikes me as more clever than anything else. I prefer to care about the characters or at least be interested by the story. Alas, Ulysses provided me with neither.

The novel is about everything and certainly interesting from a 40,000 foot meta-narrative perspective. It is about the mundane aspects of being human, the passions and needs, the anxieties, the city of Dublin, the stars and universe, existentialism, technology and medicine of that day, the eons of geologic time, moments of walking, moments of sitting, moments in a bar, the dynamics of man and woman both married and not, poverty and social injustice, Greek tragedy mixed with Shakespeare, shaving, bathing, fireworks, Hinduism (less so) and Catholicism (more so), everything.

It approaches weighty topics that punctuate long pages of rambling daily occurrences. But, the novel itself is generally light and frivolous; full of clever wordplay and a plethora of sarcastic humor. Part of what got me through the whole thing this time was realizing the hilarity of it all. Joyce may have approached the serious but he certainly danced giddily around it more than he dwelt upon it. Not taking the novel seriously is the key to enjoying, I suspect. In my case it was the key to surviving it.

It is also a sexy novel. Sex, or sexual tension, and heavy foreplay figure rather directly into the narrative in a handful of somewhat infamous passages. It seems mild by today's standards, of course, but it made for charges of obscenity back when the novel was first published. Some samples...

"To hell with the pope! Nothing new under the sun. I am the Virag who disclosed the sex secrets of monks and maidens. Why I left the Church of Rome. Read the Priest, the Woman and the Confessional. Penrose. Flipperty Jippert. (He wriggles.) women undoing with sweet pudor her belt of rushrope, offers her yoni to man's Lingala. Short time after man presents woman with pieces of jungle meat. Woman shows joy and covers herself with pieces of jungle meat. Woman shows joy and covers herself with featherskins. Man loves her yoni fiercely with big lingam, the stiff one. (He cries.). Coactus volui. The giddy woman will run about. Strong man grasps woman's wrists. Woman squeals, bites, spucks. Man, now fierce angry, strikes woman's fat yadgana." (pp. 519-520)

Telling the pope to go the hell was probably bad enough without equating priesthood with sexuality as well. Joyce was certainly bold for his time. But no bolder than Marcel Proust was in his massive novel of the time or than D.H. Lawrence was with Lady Chatterley's Lover. Sex was coming out of the closet into mainstream classic literature in the European post-World War One period.

"An approximate erection: a solicitous aversion; a gradual elevation: a tentative revelation; a silent contemplation. Then? He kissed her plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump, on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative oscillation. The visible signs of postsatisfaction? A silent contemplation: a tentative vexation: a gradual abatement: a solicitous aversion: a proximate erection. What followed this silent action? Somnolent invocation, less somnolent recognition, incipient excitation, catechetical interrogation." (pp. 734 - 735)

Molly Bloom reflects on showing off her breasts for a lover: "...they're supposed to represent beauty placed up there like those statues in the museum one of them pretending to bide it with her hand are they so beautiful of course compared with what a man looks with his two bags full and his other thing hanging down out of him or sticking up at you like a hatrack no wonder they hide it with a cabbageleaf the woman is beauty of course..." (page 753)

Finally, the novel is filled with words that are, in fact, just sounds. Very funny if you attempt to read it aloud, which might have been part of Joyce's intent. Speech acts of tongue and lips are meant sound like farts among other noises. It is a rather silly and often funny occurrence. "Iiiiiiiiiaaaaaaach" is a yawn, for example. "Piffpaff! Popo!" "Prrrrht!"

My previous attempts at reading the novel ended at page 291 of my Vintage paperback edition. It is self-evident why I felt this was a proper stopping point for a difficult work I never connected with after so many pages...

"Seabloom, greaseabloom viewed last words. Softly. When my country takes her place among. Prrprr. Must be the bur. Fff. Oo. Rrpr. Nations of the earth. No-one left behind. She's passed. Then and not until then. Tram. Kran, kran, kran. Good oppor. Coming. Krandlkrankran. I'm sure it's the burgund. Yes. One, two. Let my epitaph be. Karaaaaaaa. Written. I have. Pprrpffrrppfff. Done."

Yes. Done. Made it. Heidi-ho! Made it through and through. Through tangles and brambles of nonsense. Through interior thoughts of multiple characters perceiving the same mundane moments from different perspectives. Through pontifications of random significance, about weighty things expressed with lightness and yet also with a depth deserving to be called life. This and that and everywhichaway. Completely and totally and utterly. Through. And onward. Ttthhhhhht!

1 comment:

Marco Tioli said...

Hi keith
some months before you I also started Ulysses and posted my impressions on a blog

I completely agree with your final considerations, Ulysses is a technically fine book, but gives no pleasure to reader, neither plot nor characters give us some interest.