Friday, 25 June 2010

The Great Bloomsday Tortoise

Team Ulysses finally made it to the summit and have every reason to be proud of themselves. This was essentially a year-long online book group devoted to reading the world's second most unreadable English-language novel (actually the first, if you consider Finnegans Wake to be multi-lingual) at sixty pages a month, beginning on Bloomsday '09, ending a week last Wednesday, and hosted and led by the oft-linked-to dovegreyreader.

I left a partly encouraging, slightly patronising comment on the initial post, bestowing a handful of brief impressions of my own, as I'd begun Ulysses in December '08. I'd been working up to it for some time, having read The Odyssey in the Fagles translation at the beginning of the year, and then Dubliners and A Portrait. I was also dipping into Anthony Burgess's Here Comes Everybody, picked up second-hand a few years before, which is typically fluid, intelligent, enthusiastic.

By the time Team Ulysses began I had read around 200 pages. I toyed with the notion of taking part, but I had already been a member of a book group, and the joint-reading thing just doesn't ring my bell. (Anyway, I was well ahead of them.) Real life and other interests intervened, and when I got round to hefting Ulysses again, nearly a year had gone by. The hare had slept too long.

I have now completed 300 pages. It has gone back on the shelf. It won't be taken down again for a while. I have some sympathy with Roddy Doyle's invective against Ulysses, still more with his criticism of what he terms 'the Joyce industry', but most of all with something I heard him say in interview in 1996: at some point one has to accept that there are some books one is probably never going to read. He was talking about War and Peace (which he did in fact read, very quickly, when he was in his teens), but for me the most likely candidate is Ulysses. At some point I'll have a go at the final chapter, the famous Molly monologue, but I make no promises regarding the rest of it.

Now this is interesting, because that makes three key modernist novels I've been unable to finish: Ulysses, The Good Soldier, and That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana. Perhaps I'm too bound to narrative, skewered by time's arrow, but in my more frustrated moments it seems as though modernism is simply a licence for the writer not to bother telling a story - and Al Alvarez, who if I recall correctly thinks it was the last great movement in European literature and possibly its high point, can go suck a runny egg.

From Here Comes Everybody [1965]:
[Ulysses] is, in many ways, a precursor of the new wave in the novel, which is quite capable of asking us to treat a work of fiction as if it were a dictionary or an encyclopedia - something to be stepped into at any point we please, begun at the end and finished at the beginning, partly read or wholly read, a plot of space for free wandering rather than a temporal escalator. The 'Wandering Rocks' episode of Ulysses is a reminder that the whole book has a spatial scheme in which time has been divested of its bullying hurry-along authority, and this is reinforced by the knowledge that the final image is of a human body, presented piecemeal in its various organs. Time is the great enemy, and books like Ulysses and Finnegans Wake triumphantly trounce it. Time has to be put in its place.
On the other hand, one only has so much of it, particularly when one sees the chapters getting longer and longer, and Joyce's accretive writing method becoming more in need of a fierce edit. The two most attractive words in the quoted section above are 'partly read'. I accept that this is close to a contradiction of a recent post on the virtues of browsing, but whaddaya know? I am legion - I mean to say, I contain multitudes.


I find one thing to say without equivocation in defence of Ulysses, and have said it before: one does get to know Bloom to a degree that one simply doesn't and can't with the characters in Dubliners. (Dubliners, I should say, is one of the very few books which I think demonstrates art in prose, as opposed to craft, and which I would urge other people to read without feeling I was being an unjustified nuisance.) Orwell says something of the same in his essay on Dickens:
You cannot hold an imaginary conversation with a Dickens character as you can with, say, Pierre Bezukhov. And this is not merely because of Tolstoy's greater seriousness, for there are also comic characters that you can imagine yourself talking to - Bloom, for instance [...]
Just so, and this is down to the space that a novel affords, and to the terrific expansion in technique beyond the standard tropes of realism which Joyce made use of in Dubliners, the famous 'stream-of-consciousness' which has been very interesting to see at work.

The more Bloom is exposed, the more one sees of his various aspects (or inspects, as so much of what we read is internal mumblings, half-finished thoughts and reflections, flashes of desire and surges of memory), the more one appreciates him. Among other things, he is much more sympathetic than any of the Dubliners: kind, tolerant, humble, fallible - in fact, the complete opposite to his Homeric counterpart, who is cunning, proud, violent, resourceful, respected - a king, not an advertising canvasser - and of course fiercely protective of his wife's virtue, whereas Bloom is a cuckold perfectly aware and accepting of his position.

According to the introduction by Jeri Johnson in the OWC edition of Ulysses, Joyce saw that the ancient heroic attributes could not be applied to modern urban life, and sought to present an everyman heroic in his ordinariness, his life being lived internally rather than through action. It's an interesting notion, particularly in the light of a criticism by Gore Vidal:
Until the last century the mainline of imaginative literature had always been stories of the gods, heroes, kings of a people. From Aeschylus to Dante to Shakespeare to Tolstoi, what went on in the palaces or on Olympus provided the main line of narrative in verse, prose, drama. [What about The Beggar's Opera? Tom Jones? Simplicissimus? But perhaps these are stops on a branch line.] I think it a pity that, as a character in Saul Bellow's Herzog remarks, somewhere around 1840 the novel fell into the quotidian, to which Professor Herzog irritably asks, So where was it standing before it fell? The answer was in myth or history or whatever narrative is back of us.

[From the introduction to Creation.]
I'm not convinced by either argument, but I see the merits of both. It is of course Joyce's right to rework the ancient myths for modernity (and Modernism), but with considerable relief I'm going back to Richard III.


Anonymous said...

Coming up on the One year anniversary of NO Posts.
More EEL...

The Silver Eel said...

Well, that's the nicest kick in the ass I've had in a long time.