Ulysses by James Joyce is one of those books that has a reputation that precedes it and rightfully so because it is difficult, sometimes inaccessible and for its time it would have been shocking as well with its thoughts on sex expressed particularly by Molly Bloom.
Usually you go through a book without resorting to aids or advice but it really cuts down the enjoyment of Ulysses if you try and do it alone and I found some of the sites on the web, particularly the Reading Ulysses series on RTE1 added to the enjoyment of the book.
The other issue with Ulysses is that some people will tell you that before reading it you need to have read other books, particularly Homer’s Odyssey and while that might be true Joyce mixes things up so much that it is not a literal interpretation so while those other texts might be useful it is possible to get a quick summary of the tale of Homer’s Ulysses and understand the references.
The book follows one day and night in the lives of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. You start with Stephen a 22-year-old intellectual who teaches but is in debt overshadowed by the death of his mother and his well-known father Simon. Then as the location moves to the newspaper office you pick up the story with Bloom, who sells adverts in the papers. The day starts with a funeral, moves back to the centre of Dublin, has a strange passage in a couple of bars and a brothel, a cabman’s shelter and then Bloom takes Stephen back home and the final chapter is the voice of Molly Bloom who has been repeatedly mentioned in the story but not yet introduced.
Is it well written?
It is written in a number of different styles with it set out like a play in some sections, using no punctuation in others and includes things like music to illustrate points. From a readers perspective it keeps changing and that is what makes it so difficult because it is hard to keep a grip on reality. The references to Dublin are overlaid with Homeric and Shakespearian references that make it very difficult to try and picture sometimes where the characters are. But there are chapters, which are very satisfying – particularly the penultimate one – and you can tell that Joyce is able to produce a work that is telling several different stories and working on various different levels. For that reason it is the sort of book you end up going back to.
Should it be read?
So many people are put off but I am really glad I got through it because not only is there a real sense of achievement but this story remains relevant now. None of the issues – anti Semitism, nationalism, adultery, sex, debt and drunkenness – have gone away and for that reason this connects to a modern readership. At 700 odd pages it is going to be a commitment to read this in terms of time but it is best attempted at one go because otherwise it is not only difficult remembering the story but is too tempting to give up.
Because of the microscopic nature of the attention on just two characters and the single day it naturally gets linked in with Proust and Remembrance of Things Past. Also because of the references in the text Homer’s Odyssey and Shakespeare’s Hamlet would be worth reading before, during or shortly after.
Version read – Penguin modern classic paperback 1972
Well the end comes and it is a strange feeling because this book has grown on me and I found the last chapter with Bloom and Stephen one of the most pleasant to read and it stirred a real interest in both men and then the voice changes and Molly finishes things off
Bullet points between pages 679 – 704
* There is a suggestion that Molly is becoming slightly jealous of her daughter as she ages and the attention of men, and her lover Blaydon, is focused on Milly rather than herself
* Molly reveals that she knew that Stephen had been in the house and she had watched as Bloom fell over the railings and remembers the other time he came home with a guest, a dog, that also was an unwelcome intrusion into the home
* She reflects on the funeral that started the day and is dismissive of most of the mourners and wonders how Simon, Stephen’s father, is getting on now he is a widower and that takes her into thinking about Stephen and the Italian lessons that he is being paid to teach her
* She conjures up lewd thoughts about Stephen and although attracted to an academic type of man has to admit, despite putting the best gloss on it, that she does not have the same level of intelligence around the subjects of literature and poetry
* She muses about her relationships with men and the way women behave generally and then there seems to be an understanding that although she can get round him an does things behind his back Bloom at least won her hand because he treated her in a way no one else had
“ That was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is…”pg703
* The ending is wrapped in memories of the coast of Gibraltar and of her youth beauty and the moment when she accepted the path that took her through the years to 7 Eccles Street
“I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I say yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”pg704
I will post a review and share some thoughts on the experience of reading Ulysses in the next couple of days. That’s the first winter reading challenge book done just four more to go…
So we come to the end and the final chapter is dedicated to the voice of Molly Bloom – a character we have heard numerous references to, mainly because of her affair with Blaydon, and it is a strange train of thought we jump on board with her
Bullet points from pages 659 – 679
* The first thing you notice is that there is no punctuation and this is a seamless, endless series of thoughts all running into each other starting with the idea that Bloom is having an affair because he is hiding things from her
* She thinks back to when she first got engaged to Bloom and it seems to be a happy memory although she makes it clear she had other admirers and probably could have done better than Bloom but he seemed to get to her and win her over
* Fashion is obviously important to Molly and she lists the items she has seen other women wearing and items she has her eye on or has recently purchased and boasts about her appearance despite her age
* There are some thoughts about her formative years in Gibraltar and the friendships and things she saw there – fashions and spanish patterns of behaviour
The second half comes after midnight…
I’m leaving the final chapter as a treat for the weekend and so these bullet points are from the penultimate chapter, which involves just the two men Bloom and Stephen.
Bullet points between pages 600 – 658
* Bloom and Stephen sit in 7 Eccles Street, Blooms house and talk about their pasts and work out they have met each other twice before and had a mutual connection but if you think that they are getting on well it seems shattered by Stephen singing an anti-Semitic song
* Despite that Bloom hopes the young man will stay and be a good influence on his wife, whom he knows is having an affair with Blaydon and there is a slight hint that he might be hoping of a future relationship with his daughter
* But Stephen opts to leave and they go out to the back door and stare at the stars and then Stephen, who has no where to go heads out into the night leaving Bloom to go back inside alone
* Back inside Bloom notices that all of the furniture has been moved around which disconcerts him and he surveys his possessions, does some accounts that indicate he is well off, and then heads to bed
* Upstairs he climbs into bed next to his wife and there is a great description that displays his full understanding about her adultery
What did his limbs, when gradually extended, encounter?
New clean bedlinen, additional odours, the presence of a human form, female, hers, the imprint of a human form, male, not his, some crumbs, some flakes of potted meat, recooked, which he removed.pg652
* He then decides that of all the options – ranging from assassination of Blaydon to divorce or suing for damages – he will stick with his wife. For those Homer references this seems to be about purging himself of the jealousy of the suitors
One of my favourite passages in this chapter is when Bloom looks back over the day – the contents of the book from his perspective so far – and reminds the reader of all the things that have happened
The preparation of breakfast (burnt offering): intestinal congestion and premeditative defecation (holy of holies): the bath (rite of John): the funeral (rite of Samuel): the advertisement of Alexander Keyes (Urim and Thummim): the unsubstantial lunch (rite of Melchisedek): the visit to museum and national library (holy place): the bookhunt along Bedford row, Merchants’ Arch, Wellington Quay (Simchath Torah): the music in the Ormond Hotel (Shira Shirim): the altercation with a truculent troglodyte in Bernard Kiernan’s premises (holocaust): a blank period of time including a cardrive, a visit to a house of mourning, a leavetaking (wilderness): the eroticism produced by feminine exhibitionism (rite of Onan): the prolonged delivery of Mrs Mina Purefoy (heave offering): the visit to the disorderly house of Mrs Bella Cohen, 82 Tyrone street, lower and subsequent brawl and chance medley in Beaver street (Armageddon)- nocturnal perambulation to and from the cabman’s shelter, Butt Bridge (atonement).pg650
Final chapter tomorrow…
The end is in sight and a slightly easier chapter and start of the penultimate one should have made it a good day for reading but things were draining at work so I have struggled and not been able to read any Homer today. Still here is what I did get through in Ulysses
Bullet points between pages 540 – 600
* Bloom and Stephen head for the cabman’s shelter where a sailor appears to know Stephen’s father and then shows off some tattoos but when asked by Bloom to recount some stories about his sea faring days the sailor refuses to discuss things
* A woman comes in who Bloom seems to recognise but she is told to go away and Bloom relaxes but then the atmosphere tenses as the sailor and the man running the cab shelter disagree about the role of the Irish in the British navy – whether it is exploitation or not and Bloom starts to get itchy feet
* After leaving Bloom invites Stephen home and on the way back they talk about music, with Stephen praising Shakespearian songs and Bloom revelling in the friendship that you sense he hopes is starting between the men but this doesn’t seem to be coming back from Stephen
* As the two head towards Bloom’s home they disagree on various topics and when they arrive Bloom has to climb over the railings, he falls but manages to get the door off the latch and get in and open the door to Stephen. The style is questions with answers, another twist of style added after the other experiments earlier in the book
* Bloom offers Stephen the chance to wash but he is not keen on water and turns the chance down and Bloom makes him a cup of cocoa and you discover Bloom is 38 and Stephen is 22
More, hopefully much more tomorrow…
Searching for stuff about Ulysses I stumbled on a fantastic resource on the Irish broadcaster site RTE, which has a Reading Ulysses series from 2004 still online that is accompanied by photos of Dublin and a great introduction that puts the book, the author into context. I have only listened so far to the introdution and it is well worth listening to because it is discussing the book rather than reading the story and provides great details that really add to the experience of reading Ulysses.
The two main influences I can detect at least on Ulysses are Hamlet and the Odyssey. Both of those references crop up in the hallucination passages just before the end of part II and part III
One of the giveaways of the Shakespearian references is the moment when the man himself appears but also the appearance of Stephen’s dead mother but this also has Homerian overtones because when Odysseus visits the land of the dead it is his mother he meets there. Plenty to think about and of course there are those who will happily write a thesis on it all but all I really want to do now is finish the book!
Bullet points between pages 500 – 540
* The focus of the madness shifts slightly away from Bloom, although he continues to be involved and focuses on Stephen who meets his dead mother who urges him to stop being an atheist and repent
* Stephen then gets involved with a debate with an English solider as a mirage of King Edward appears and the solider threatens to attack him if he is rude about the King and there is a good insight into the politics with Stephen describing himself as a green rag to a bull
* Things then calm down and it is Stephen who is involved with the police but Bloom comes to the rescue – he must have sobered up – and defends Stephen and tries to bring him round as the chapter ends Bloom also sees an apparition of his dead son Rudy
* Bloom and Stephen walk off together – the first time in the book they have been alone with each other – and Bloom starts to ask questions about his father and indicates that although he has been around when Stephen has been drinking and in the newspaper office he obviously doesn’t know that much about his personal circumstances
This feels a bit like recommending a cheat for a computer game and thereby taking the enjoyment out of it but if you get to around page 500 of Ulysses and you are really struggling with the hallucination sequences then it helps to know that if you are using a book without footnotes then there is a way of quickly getting back in touch with the direction the narrative should be going in.
This comes with a caution – only use if desperate because it can spoil the reading experience – but there is a cheat’s guide to Ulysses on the BBC.
I have to admit that reading this book today has been hard going. It has produced all the things that I feared Joyce might have in store. When I started putting together some bullet points it became clear it is not the easiest thing to do when you don’t know what is real or a dream and Joyce seems determined to make life as difficult as possible for the reader and is almost so keen to lose you he will violently shake you off.
Bullet points between pages 420 – 500
* Things start slowly with Bloom appearing to go and visit a brothel where he is known to the madam in charge and is obviously a former visitor but then things take a surreal turn and the text is written like a stage play with italicised descriptions and directions for the cast
* Some police suddenly threatens Bloom with arrest and as he tries to argue his way out of it things start to take a very surreal turn and he is in a courtroom in front of a judge answering all types of charges and changing his character almost with every new accusation
* Throughout the case there are numerous references to numbers with three whores, the eight beatitudes (it should be seven shouldn’t it?) and along with that there are moments when your head starts hurting when Bloom appears to change sex and at one point gives birth to seven boys
* The court case still rumbles on and all of the main characters so far seem to make an appearance including the talking corpse of the man they buried that morning and at various moments Stephen plays the piano and makes a few odd comments not always related to the proceedings
I am going to struggle on tomorrow…
I have read plenty of other comments on the web by people who have struggled with Ulysses and today I agree with them all it has been very difficult reading. Part of the reason is that you are trying to take in the story and at the same time look for this meanings and symbols and the net result is a headache and a failure on both counts.
Bullet points between pages 370 – 420
* Bloom is sitting and reflecting on the argument in the pub wondering whether or not it was meant to be maliciously anti semitic and wonders if he should have answered back more
* The scene then shifts to Horne’s house where Bloom and Stephen meet but the frustrating things is that because of the style, which is narrative without speech, it is hard to work out whether or not they are talking to each other
* It becomes clear after a while there is an argument over religion going on and Bloom tries to play the role of peace maker and things change tack while they discuss the child murderer in a celebrated case
* There are references to Gods and sailing across the sea but they are all mixed up with Thor being the God, which is mentioned, and then there are other references to Greece and drachmas being lost on the horse race
* There is then a discussion about science, in particular around the question of childbirth with both Stephen and Bloom taking part in the debate
It feels like Joyce is toying with you at this stage mixing things up and then hinting at things without making them obvious to the reader. Still, more tomorrow…