September 15, 2009 9:42:00 AM
James Joyce''s "Ulysses" has had two big strikes against its reputation ever since it was published in 1922. One is that it is a dirty book. This is a false and silly charge. Long ago the courts decided that it could be imported into the U.S. because it is not obscene, and anyone looking for stimulation by searching for the "good parts" is in for frustration. The other strike is that it is a difficult book. This charge is more accurate. "Ulysses" is certainly not a novel that is as accessible as "Gone with the Wind," for instance.
It recounts only the ordinary events of an ordinary day, June 16, 1904, in Dublin, but it does so in the most extraordinary way. Each of the chapters is written in a different style, and there are parodies of historic or specialist (like legalese or scientific) prose which might be best enjoyed by literary experts. The book has hundreds of characters within it, but concentrates on just three, the contented Mr. Leopold Bloom, an advertising salesman; the anguished Stephen Dedalus, a student and teacher; and Bloom''s wife, Molly, who spends the whole day at home. I had always thought that the detailed stories of these characters, with long pages that show their inner thoughts, was the least didactic of novels; it was a joyous celebration of daily life, and of wordplay, and it held within it three characters which are among the most believable and fully drawn in all literature. It did not, in my view, have a lesson to teach.
I am having to reevaluate my stance in light of "Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce''s Masterpiece" (Norton) by Declan Kiberd. Kiberd is a professor of Anglo-Irish literature at University College Dublin, and is of course well placed to offer an appreciation of the novel (set aside that he sees "Ulysses" as part of the Irish tradition of "collections of micro-narratives" rather than a novel). The first chapter is "How Ulysses Didn''t Change Our Lives" and the second is "How It Still Might Do So". There are 18 subsequent chapters, each one keyed but not restricted to one of the 18 chapters of "Ulysses" itself, to explain how the book reflects on day-to-day activities like eating and ogling.
There are final chapters that set "Ulysses" within the literary neighborhood of Homer, the Bible, Dante and Shakespeare, all of which readers of the book will know are borrowed extensively for the text. This is not a guide for the first-time reader. There are many such guides; 40 years ago, I used Tindall''s A Reader''s Guide to James Joyce (which is still in print) to go through the daunting book the first time. Since then, and this is a pattern for many readers, I have read "Ulysses" with satisfaction and delight repeatedly, and consulted it innumerable times because my day-to-day experience has triggered some memory of an event in the book or a phrase used to describe it. Naturally reading Kiberd''s text sent me happily back to the original many times.
Kiberd downplays the book''s difficulty, and maybe this is just because as a literature professor he never found it difficult. It is never going to be as popular even as classics like, say, "Pride and Prejudice." The original copy owned by Ernest Hemingway, for instance, has been opened at the book''s early and final pages, but all the rest of them are uncut. Kiberd laments, "A book which set out to celebrate the common man and woman endured the sad fate of never being read by most of them."
It is true, however, that if Mr. Bloom were to encounter the book, he probably would not have gotten far into it, and Molly would have managed even less, although Stephen had all the intellectual competence to do enjoy it. Bloom, as the book shows repeatedly, has an understanding of literature including Shakespeare and texts of opera. "This was the era," Kiberd proclaims, "when democracy meant that anyone could enjoy Shakespeare." Hamlet was not an elite art imposed on schoolchildren, but was the common literary coin. I am thinking that "Ulysses" would be outside of Bloom''s capacity to enjoy (while Hamlet was not) because of the extraordinary prose complexity and lack of an obvious plot. Kiberd, however, says "''Ulysses'' is an epic of the bourgeoisie," but that literary specialists have removed it from the specifically Dublin environment and from commoners and common readers.
Putting aside the difficulty of the book, what might "Ulysses" teach us? Why, it might teach us kindness. Its whole point is the eventual paternal and filial union of the bohemian Stephen with the bourgeois Bloom in the final chapters of the book, though as befits a book of common day experience, there is nothing as heroic as the union of Ulysses and his son Telemachus which occurs in "The Odyssey," one of the antecedents of Joyce''s work. Stephen is a troubled son, returned to Dublin upon the death of his mother, called upon to do so by his improvident father. He has intellect galore, well founded in the classics and in Catholic teaching. He can spontaneously expound to other intellectuals about his theory of Hamlet, that other book of disturbing father and son relations. Stephen''s intellect gives him no peace, though, as he is imposed upon by those who should be his friends, he has little capacity to make his way practically in the world, and he has yet to realize his undeniable potential as an artist. Bloom as father figure is easier to understand and easier to like. He has one quietly admirable trait after another, like curiosity, tolerance, or magnanimity. He is eminently practical; if he finds himself down in the dumps, he remembers that he can return to the physical exercises in one of the books he owns and he will find relief.
He is haunted throughout his day and on his many passages around the city by knowing that his wife Molly is at home entertaining a manager for her upcoming singing concert, and that the entertainment is not musical. He accepts the infidelity just as he accepts the death of his infant son Rudy, another memory that impinges upon him frequently, but never overcomes him. He gets a glimpse of Stephen during the day, finds there is something he likes about the young man, and late at night when there is a contretemps in a brothel, goes out of his way to rescue him for a bit of light repast and a good chat. Stephen has not had such generous contact all day, and Bloom has not had so intimate a conversation.
Perhaps we can learn Bloom''s lesson of kindness and care, and perhaps Kiberd is right that among the reasons Joyce wrote the book was to send this sort of a lesson. His argument is always interesting, but I was reminded of Bloom himself, who had looked into Shakespeare with the idea of solving life''s problems, and (in the words of the penultimate chapter which consists of farcically pedantic answers, like this one to the question "Had he found their solution?"), "In spite of careful and repeated reading of certain classical passages, aided by a glossary, he had derived imperfect conviction from the text, the answers not bearing on all points." That there is a popular interest in "Ulysses" is most evident in the Bloomsday celebrations, where hundreds of visitors and Dubliners trace the routes of the book''s characters and dress in period costume, and do it all for the fun of it with scant trace of literary pretense. Kiberd''s chapter-by-chapter interpretations, with their emphasis on the humanity of "Ulysses" and his call to a populist interpretation, will be welcome to most fans of the book, and a good reason, if any were needed, to look once more at the pages of the original.