James Joyce’s Ulysees, is considered by many in the literary world to be one of the great works of English Literature, and, by some, to be the greatest. Yet it is a book more talked about than actually read. Personally, I don’t know too many people who have read the book, cover to cover. Actually, I don’t even know one such person. Maybe I am just not mixing with the right crowd. Truth be told, I haven’t myself completed reading the book even once. So I’m not so sure if I am the type of company I should be keeping.
Over a long reading life, I have made several attempts to put this matter right. More than half a dozen times over the course of the last half century or so, I had attempted to tackle the book with the resolve to finish it at one round of reading. That resolve melted each time I got to about less than half-way through. Each time I found the conviction to return to it, I had had to restart from the beginning. There was just no way I could pick up the threads and continue from where I had left off the previous times.
So I am quite familiar with the book’s opening line – “Stately, plump Buck Mulligun…” This Mulligun, a minor character in the story, asked Stephen Dedalus, one of the two main characters, to “lend us a loan of your nose rag to wipe my razor.” I got introduced to the other principal character, Mr Leopold Bloom, and was treated to a glimpse of his wife, Molly Bloom’s “large soft bubs, sloping within her nightdress like a shegoat’s udder.” I also got an early preview of Mr Bloom and Stephen Dedalus’s meandering through the streets of Dublin, in the early part of the morning of, June 16 1904, the one day on which everything in the story happened. But where they individually went, who they each met with, and what they talked about with the people they met, remained a perpetual blur to me, each time I tried to re-enter the story. Considering that the whole story revolves around these wanderings, encounters, and interactions which these two key characters had, mostly with other people in various parts of the city, it is a lot of blurred images that I had to contend with each time I attempted to find my way back. It had been a long and arduous task. And till today, not completed.
As though it is supposed to be a consolation to me, I have been told that I am not the only Ulysees reader-wannabe who faces this quandary. Ulysees has a reputation of being a “big” book, and a very difficult one to boot. Partly, it is due to the writing style (or more correctly, styles) that Joyce had brought to the book. Ulysees consists of 18 chapters (or episodes) and it seems that Joyce employed a different writing style for each episode. The events in each episode were intended to mirror each leg of the odyssey in Homer’s rendering of the wanderings of the mythical Ulysees. Stream of consciousness, internal monologue, free indirect speech, multiple points of views, the silent narrator and/or or the unreliable narrator, pastiche and parody – all relatively new approaches at the time – were plied one on top of the other, across the chapters. Add to these strange invented words not found in the dictionary, and new-fangled expressions, and the absence of familiar punctuation, the reading of Ulysees can be rather trying, to say the least, like trying to navigate in a maze, with little or no, or unfamiliar or confusing traffic directions.
Joyce himself had said as much. “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant. That’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.”
This begs the question as to what good is any book whose chief aim seems to be to befuddle and obscure? I would argue for Joyce that his intended target for obscurity (and frustration) was probably the academia and not the general reader. Joyce’s objective was to make the reader work for his rewards. As I had discovered each time I came back and worked on segments which I had given up on previously, and enjoyed the fruits of new discoveries and understandings. Joyce indeed has rewards for those who persevere. But like prospecting for gold or diamonds, the work is just too hard!
Common-place these days, back in the time when Ulysees was first published (1922), all these styles, were unconventional, and considered avant-garde and viewed with disdain and suspicion. Joyce was not the first writer to use interior monologue and the free indirect style of story-telling, nor the last, but he brought the usage to a pitch of perfection, that makes other exponents apart from Faulkner, Becket, and (Virginia) Woolf, look rather feeble in comparison. It met with a lot of resistance and ridicule, and even encountered censorship for alleged obscenity for its bold and almost graphic depiction of sex. But it also had its admirers, which included Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, and T S Eliot, and Sylia Beach, of Shakespeare & Co fame, who was his early supporter and publisher.
Said Eliot, “I hold this book to be the most important expression which the present age has found. It is the book to which we are all indebted and from which none of us can escape. Joyce had made the novel obsolete by replacing the narrative method with the mystical method.”
Thanks to Joyce and other early practitioners like him, today’s fiction writers have on hand so many different devices they can adopt to tell their stories, and I would add, tell them more realistically. Much of these have become accepted norms in modern prose fiction, that neither the literati nor the reading public bat any eyelids, when encountering such “Joycean –style” renderings.
Quite unconsciously, without any thought of imitation, in retrospect, I had allowed Joyce’s influence to seep into some of my own writings. Looking back, the story “Dead End” in my short story collection, “Tales From the ECP” was written almost completely in Joycean style – stream of consciousness and internal monologue. It even has a hint of sex! ”It Takes Two” in my other collection, “Not The Same Family” was rendered from two different points-of-view; causing the reader to have to decide which of the two is the more reliable narrator. And in many of the stories in both volumes, I had left the endings inconclusive – like Joyce, and (John) Gardner of more recent vintage, I like to make my readers think and form their own conclusions.
It seems that as Joyce aged, like fine wine, he got better. He developed a multi-layered complexity of dark intense aromas and flavours which are suavely elegant. Perhaps deep inside, I am a plebeian, and like my wine not too old, not too complex, and easy to appreciate. When I was a very young man still in school, in Pre-University, I had read “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, written by a very young Joyce. “Portrait” a precursor to Ulysees, had featured a very much younger Stephen Dedalus. I thought I had understood what I read then, and still do. It didn’t seem to present too much difficulty. I even remember being mildly titillated by some scenes. In adult life, I have also read “Dubliners”, Joyce’s collection of short stories depicting the everyday lives of his fellow Dubliners, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Now the thought of reading Joyce’s final piece of work, Finnegan’s Wake, after some sneak previews, feels intimidating. I probably should just focus on finishing Ulysees first, if at all.