Ulysses – Sirens

The arduous experiments of Joyce seem to have put paid to any idea that a novel can also be a pleasure.

That’s Jorge Luis Borges in the foreword to Manuel Mujica Lainez’s The Wandering Unicorn, which I’ve just acquired this week – he also says bad things about the psychological and the realist novel – and I find myself nodding along to it all, and increasingly sensing Borges must have been reading my blog the things he’s coming out with. Mujica Lainez is apparently in “the tradition of Stevenson, Hugo and … Ariosto”, for what it’s worth.

And the Sirens passage in Ulysses in my mind fits quite nicely into the brief quotation. I didn’t enjoy reading it – not much anyhow, beyond the delight to be found at times in Joyce’s use of language. I found it frustratingly written; at times, I didn’t really know what was going on: people have dinner, and some of them singing, but not necessarily in the same room – or the same establishment – at the same time. No, not entirely sure. And then, apparently it’s constructed in the form of a musical piece, so I discover – hence the Sirens, who sing, and the people singing in it too, who are not necessarily sirens, being men, and the sirens who are the women not singing – and this makes a bit more sense of why there’s that section at the beginning which is a sort of prelude, but is at first unintelligible, and why there are leitmotifs everywhere and reptitions of phrases. O yes, in retrospect it all seems quite clever, and no doubt you could spend a long time taking it apart and examining it; and probably if you read it again it would come out better; – and yet, I can’t forget the fact that, reading it the first time, I didn’t really enjoy it, and felt frustrated all the time, and annoyed, and kept wondering – as I often do – what was the point of obscurantism anyhow, what did it really achieve, these lies that writers make up that it’s about approaching some kind of deeper truth or the only way you can understand the world nowadays, the only way we can interpret it.

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