Tuesday, 13 November 2001

Ulysses

Listening to:

Haydn, string quartet Op. 50, No. 6 in D major.

Just read:

James Joyce, Ulysses.

I read the final four sections of this over the weekend. The four sections were Circe (Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in Dublin's red-light district, principally them in one particular brothel), Eumaeus (Bloom and Stephen on their way home afterwards, stopping off in a night shelter), Ithaca (Bloom and Stephen back at Bloom's home), and Penelope (Molly Bloom's reflections after Bloom comes to bed).

First up, it’s worth saying that this is not an easy book to read. I spent quite a proportion of my time flipping backwards and forwards between the main text and the endnotes that explained obscure allusions, translated the Latin phrases, or pointed out that the four lines just read should actually appear at the top of the facing page. (The latter sort of problem arose because the edition I read aimed to be an honest reproduction of the first 1922 edition, which was itself plagued by all sorts of typographical problems. It had to be printed in France because no publisher in the US or the UK would touch it. Pity the poor French type-setters who had to deal with the world's most complicated English novel, full of neologisms, deliberately ungrammatical sentences, and allusions to obscure Irish politicians and personalities that they would never had heard of.)

Even if you had a perfect, error-free edition in front of you (the very interesting introduction to the edition I read explained how this is still probably an unrealisable dream), Ulysses would be difficult. The initial chapters (up until Aeolus) are relatively conventional in style (particularly if you've read Portrait of the artist as a young man), but from that point on things get more difficult. Each chapter after that point tends to be written in a different style. For example, Aeolus is written in short paragraphs with various “headlines” interspersed through the text, Penelope is written as one very long continuous internal monologue in just four sentences, and Circe is written as if it were a dramatic script (but with parts also given to inanimate objects like buttons).

In addition to difficulties you might have because of the style, some of the subject matter can be difficult to follow because Joyce really does try to “put everything in”, or at least convince you that this is what he’s done. The text is full of names, and comments about the people behind them. Some of these are fictional people, so you can only expect to know as much as Joyce is willing to let you, but many more are the people who really would have been thought about by the Irish of Dublin in 1904. I had a vague idea of who Parnell was, but most of the other references went right over my head (prompting yet more turning to the endnotes).

It all makes for an over-poweringly rich, though somewhat bewildering, experience. I think I can see why some Joyce fans try to recreate the characters’ peregrinations around Dublin on 14 June every year. I will have to read it again.

To read next:

A history of London in maps, by Felix Barker and someone else.

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