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REPOST: Ulysses

Cover of the 1986 Penguin edition (ed. Hans Walter Gabler) Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 16/08/1998.

I bought that book over there twenty years ago today. Happy Bloomsday.

Thursday, June 16th 1988. I'm in Dublin, on holiday visiting relatives. Strolling down O'Connell Street, I wander into Eason's bookshop and have a look around. The big pile of copies of James Joyce's Ulysses stacked in a prime position in the shop doesn't really register for a few seconds, and then it suddenly hits me:

Bloomsday.

Joyce's novel follows two Dubliners - Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus - on their wanderings about their home city. The whole action of the book takes place over a single day: June 16th, 1904. Eighty-four years later to the day, Joycean scholars were roaming around Dublin trying to retrace the steps of Dedalus and Bloom. It being a little late in the afternoon to consider roaming with them, I buy a copy of the book instead, thinking that purchasing it in Dublin on what they call Bloomsday is a fairly cool thing to do. Back in England, I get around to reading it. As suspected, it's bloody hard work, and I come away thinking that alternate chapters of it are a work of genius, and the rest is just demented.

In the ten years since then I haven't picked the book up again: it's been sitting on the bookshelf as a silent testament to how damn literate I am, just next to Tama Janowitz's The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group. And then a month or two ago, the publishers Random House produced a list of the 100 greatest books of the century, and Ulysses was up there at number one. Inspired by the hype, Americans have been flocking to the shops to buy the book: at one stage James Joyce was even outselling Tom Clancy.

It seemed like it was time to read Ulysses again. So I set myself a straightforward task: to read and review it over a single weekend (August 15th-16th). I took the phone off the hook, cancelled all appointments, put on my best reading trousers and just went for it. Even though the one major exam I've failed in my lifetime was English Literature O Level, I decided to do this without a safety net: no references to Joycean analytical works, no sneaky peeks at Homer's Odyssey to pick out parallels, no looking up the trickier words. Joyce aimed this novel at a general reader, and dammit, I can be general. I sat down with the book, a tape recorder for making notes and a small supply of Guinness, and began.

Yer man himself Saturday August 15th

09:30 - Chapter 1 "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed..." Dammit, Joyce can write breakfasts. I'm doing this reading fuelled on a glass of orange juice and a bowl of muesli, but reading about Stephen Dedalus and his friends (Mulligan and Haines) having their early morning fry-up makes me feel this was a big mistake. Still, conventional enough so far.

10:03 - Chapter 2 "You, Cochrane, what city sent for him?..." Dedalus at his day job teaching at a boys' school, although it's fairly obvious he's disillusioned with the job. Still very readable. Hey, this is easy!

10:40 - Chapter 3 "Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes..." Oh, Christ, here we go. Now this is the sort of stuff I had problems with when I read this book ten years ago. Dedalus walking around the beach, thinking back on his time in Paris and his family - all done as a stream of consciousness leaping around from flashback to general observation to godknowswhat. Sure, I appreciate it hadn't been done before, but this is probably the point where the casual reader would quit. However, I'll press on...

11:25 - Chapter 4 "Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls..." Oh, stop it with the breakfasts already. I now realise where I'd got the impression that only alternate chapters worked: it would appear that I like the ones with Bloom, and I don't like the ones with Dedalus. We see Bloom's start to the day, again as a stream of consciousness - but whereas Dedalus' is crammed with classical allusions and arcane conceits, Bloom's is based around more down to earth matters. Is Blazes Boylan banging his wife? How's his daughter getting on? Which column of the paper should he wipe his arse with? Even allowing for today's standards of language, you're still pulled up short by the huge fit of depression that his seeing a small cloud generates: "a dead sea in a dead land... the grey sunken cunt of the world." Hey, Leo, it's only a cloud.

11:50 - Chapter 5 "By lorries along sir John Rogerson's quay Mr Bloom walked soberly, past Windmill lane, Leask's the linseed crusher, the postal telegraph office..." We follow Bloom as he attends a mass and reads a letter from a woman that he's secretly corresponding with. See, it's not all high-falutin' intellectual stuff, there's potential adultery going on here too.

13:45 - Chapter 6 "Martin Cunningham, first, poked his silkhatted head into the creaking carriage and, entering deftly, seated himself..." Leo at a funeral thinking about death. He feels responsible for his father's death, in the same way Dedalus feels responsible for his mother's. So they'll obviously meet before the day's out, won't they?

14:50 - Chapter 7 "IN THE HEART OF THE HIBERNIAN METROPOLIS..." They almost meet as Bloom visits a newspaper office to place an advert (his day job) and just misses Dedalus delivering a letter for his headmaster.

16:00 - Chapter 8 "Pineapple rock, lemon platt, butter scotch..." Bloom, still wandering round town, has lunch in a pub. As you can see, not much plot at the moment. I'm getting physically tired now and I'm only a quarter of the way through so far...

17:50 - Chapter 9 "Urbane, to comfort them, the quaker librarian purred: - And we have, have we not, those priceless pages of Wilhelm Meister..." That's a bit better. Dedalus visits the library and has an interesting literary discussion about Shakespeare and Hamlet. It's very readable, but I'd still take Bloom over Dedalus any day - the latter's far too much of a smartarse for his own good.

19:10 - Chapter 10 "The superior, the very reverend John Conmee S.J. reset his smooth watch in his interior pocket as he came down the presbytery steps..." An extraordinarily filmic chapter, using complex cross-cutting and multiple viewpoints long before they were widely accepted in the cinema. It hops between dozens of different points of view of Dublin, which all intersect beautifully - starting and ending with two long journeys that pass through every point, and in between focussing on those points separately.

20:00 - Chapter 11 "Bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyringing..." And to top that, the next section opens with a William Burroughs style cut-up of the chapter that follows, using hacked up bits of sentences and jiggled around phrases to produce a dizzying effect. The actual chapter uses all these bits in a fairly straightforward plot - Bloom dines at the Ormond (while Dedalus' father and friends are singing in the room next door) and writes back to his illicit lady friend Martha. It even ends with a fart gag!

22:00 - Chapter 12 "I was just passing the time of day with old Troy of the D.M.P. at the corner of Arbour hill there and be damned but a bloody sweep came along and he near drove his gear into my eye..." Bloom nearly gets into a pub fight with an anti-semite. It's reported in an ever-changing variety of styles - court & social report, parliamentary meeting etc. "Who made those allegations?" "I'm the alligator." Wish I could remember where I saw that joke nicked recently.

23:15 - Chapter 13 "The summer evening had begun to fold the world in its mysterious embrace..." Gerty MacDowell and her friends are sitting on the beach: Bloom watches them and has a carefully symbolised wank. (Still pretty raunchy for 1922.) Off to bed 23:55, as I'm more or less exactly halfway through the book by page count. It's still very enjoyable, apart from occasional flights of classical fancy (mainly due to Dedalus) - and you can still enjoy the language, characters and story without understanding all that. 

'Signs on you, hairy arse.' (Chapter 15, line 53) Sunday August 16th

09:00 - Chapter 14 "Deshil Holles Eamus. Deshil Holles Eamus. Deshil Holles Eamus..." One chapter to read in bed before I get up. Unfortunately, not one of the best to start the day with: Bloom & Dedalus finally meet in a maternity hospital, discussing the nature of birth and so on with some doctors. It doesn't progress the story much, but there are some interesting arguments, unfortunately presented in a mishmash of styles from the entire history of English Literature, so I'm probably missing most of it.

11:15 - Chapter 15 "(The Mabbot street entrance of nighttown, before which stretches an uncobbled tramsiding set with skeleton tracks, red and green will-o'-the-wisps and danger signals...)" Comics writer Peter Milligan (who once rewrote Ulysses to fit Tank Girl into the plot) recently raved about the Irish Times' review of Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums, where they called it "a rip-roaring torrent of words". He liked "the way it suggests the important bit of the book isn't the actual words or what they mean, but rather the rip-roaringness of them". And that's how I feel about the Nighttown chapter, which was my favourite ten years ago and still is today, as it's one of the most psychedelic pieces of writing I've ever read. Dedalus, Bloom and chums visit a Nighttown brothel and experience a series of increasingly apocalyptic hallucinations/flashbacks/whatever. We frequently leap without warning into Bloom's fantasies - being put on trial by assorted women for his leching, becoming a hero of Dublin, even becoming female. If you don't read this chapter at full tilt, you shouldn't read it at all.

14:15 - Chapter 16 "Preparatory to anything else Mr Bloom brushed off the greater bulk of the shavings and handed Stephen the hat and ashplant and bucked him up generally in orthodox Samaritan fashion..." The home stretch. The pace is starting to wind down - Bloom and Dedalus chilling out after a hard night's drinking and whoring in a cabman's shelter, Bloom mainly occupied with trying to sober Dedalus up.

15:45 - Chapter 17 "What parallel courses did Bloom and Stephen follow returning?..." A question-and-answer format ties up the stories of Bloom and Dedalus as they share a cup of cocoa and retire to their respective beds.

17:30 - Chapter 18 "Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel..."Molly Bloom's thoughts as she lies in bed next to her sleeping husband - another rip-roaring torrent to finish the novel. Since I last read it, I've seen two staged versions of this chapter, both at the Edinburgh Fringe - Yes in 1994 featuring Eartha Kitt and some bloody awful Charles Aznavour songs, and Parallel Lines in 1996 featuring four women and a bed that turned into a large water tank for a suitably moist climax. Because let's face it, this is rude stuff (heavily edited for both stage versions), and you're practically up to your ankles in bodily fluids by the time you get to...

18:30 - "...and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I 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 I said yes I said yes I will Yes." Phew. Done. So is Ulysses the greatest book of the 20th century? It may be to some people, but everyone's going to have a different idea of which book is the greatest, and the circumstances of where and when you first read it will play a fairly hefty part in that decision. (Skinny Legs And All by Tom Robbins, since you ask.)

The best thing is to think of Ulysses as being to literature what Citizen Kane is to film. In each case, it's cited as the best in its medium so often that you can't ever experience it with a completely open mind. Virtually everything produced since then has stolen something from it, and when you go back to the original source, it doesn't seem so special because you've already seen 25th-generation Xeroxes of all the most revolutionary bits - the streams of consciousness, the cross-cutting, the sexual frankness and so on. But without that initial leap of genius, we wouldn't have those 25th-generation Xeroxes today. So you can argue about whether Ulysses is the best book of the 20th century or not, but without a shadow of a doubt it's the most important. And anyone who disagrees with me can Kiss My Royal Irish Arse. Being a monkey, and all.

Links

Random House have a special page dedicated to their Top 100 list - find out what the other 99 books were, and vote for your own favourite.

The Brazen Head is a ludicrously comprehensive site about James Joyce and his works.

Dyoublong [dead link] is The Irish Times' contribution to the celebration of Joyce in general and Ulysses in particular.

Amazon.com will sell you the book online if you're too lazy to get off your butt and walk to the shops. The reader reviews are good fun, as they obviously include a couple of people who bought the book after the Top 100 hype without realising what they were letting themselves in for.

Finnegans Web is a Trent University site which has the entire text of both Finnegans Wake and Ulysses available on line, if you're too tight fisted to pay for the books.

Ulysses For Dummies is the ultimate cop-out option - the entire novel brutally, hilariously hacked down to a mere eighteen animated GIF files.

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