Friday, October 9, 2009

Just finished reading...

...ULYSSES by James Joyce.

Before I read it, my impression of this novel, from the common cultural conceptions I have encountered, was that it is basically unapproachable, impenetrable… don’t bother reading it, it’s too time consuming, the return is not worth the investment. Interestingly, one of the things about ULYSSES that doesn’t seem to be part of the common cultural knowledge is that it is based on Homer’s THE ODDYSSEY. Luckily, I came across that fact right before I started reading so I was able to approach it understanding what James was doing with the story and narration.

And now that I have read it, I both agree and disagree with these common conceptions.

There are some sections that I quite liked. I appreciate the fact that the entire novel examines life in Dublin for a group of related and sometimes unrelated people during the course of a single day.
The beginning unfolds nicely as we are introduced to the stream of consciousness device. I quickly realized that Joyce uses no quotation marks to show speaking or dialogue and that, in passages where characters are conversing, it is often difficult to tell where the actual verbal statements stop and the inner monologues of the speakers begin. Without punctuation it can be puzzling to determine what is spoken and what is thought, but with a tiny bit of effort, it is easy enough to figure out.
The stream of consciousness device is wonderfully utilized, and renders beautifully the quiet, intimate slowness as well as the volatile incompleteness of patterns of thought in the human mind.
And I liked an episode where we, the readers, bounce down a Dublin street, from the mind and point of view of one person to another, privy to their thoughts, wonderings, concerns, and preoccupations.
The final episode where we are treated to the private thoughts and stream of consciousness of Molly Bloom, the wife of the main character Leopold Bloom (and stand-in for Ulysses himself) is refreshing. Not only do we get the direct thoughts of a woman (most characters and narrators in the book are male), but we get the counterpoint to much of what Bloom has done and thought during the course of the day and in some instances, his life.
And I must admit that it is quite a literary feat to conjure up so many unique, individual and complete lives, attitudes, situations, and personalities.

But the book is lengthy and dense (nearly abstruse in parts) and I will confess that I quickly skimmed certain passages and pages. I saw no reason to carefully and slowly read a very long paragraph listing names of people in Dublin (which seems to happen several times in this manuscript). There are sections that recreate lofty Biblical verse—these too I skimmed. I found no joy in reading such passages, as I do in reading, say, Proust or Marquez.
The centerpiece of the novel is a very long hallucination written in the form of a theatrical script complete with stage directions and character descriptions. Now, I am usually all for surreal art but this pushed my patience, vacillating between action/ character development and an attempt seemingly to simply annoy the reader. I sense that Joyce was trying to parody many social and religious institutions, but… it’s just not that interesting.

Recurring motifs in ULYSSES include sex, anti-Semitism, sex, Shakespeare, sex and food. And sex.

I can see how this was ground-breaking in its day. ULYSSES seems to be considered by many to be the epitome of the Modernist movement in literature. But I have read other Modernist writers such as Gertrude Stein (author of the fascinating, hypnotically repetitive and challenging THREE LIVES) and Virginia Woolf (whose language makes me swoon and whose book TO THE LIGHTHOUSE made me weep). I have enjoyed them, and other Modernist authors so much more than ULYSSES. Indeed, I enjoyed Joyce’s THE DUBLINERS far more than ULYSSES. It is my feeling that THE DUBLINERS did with economy and interest what ULYSSES was trying to do.

Recommend? Perhaps... with warnings.

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