Ulysses, by James Joyce

Let me just state at the beginning of this review that I read books, I do not study them. If a book chooses to make oblique reference to things outside the text, to other literary works, to symbolism, then it has to expect many readers not to understand them. I have been against obscurantism in literature for as long as I remember: for the simple reason that the author has the choice to be clear, and he chooses not to be. Any claim he makes that he must be unclear (and perhaps in general this tends to apply more to philosophy) I take to be a lie, whether to us the reader and by the writer to himself.

I didn’t enjoy much of Ulysses. I didn’t experience much pleasure in reading it. I didn’t turn to it again at any time with an anticipatory sense of joy. Since each chapter is written in a different style, I often found myself hoping the next chapter would prove more appealing, and being disappointed when it wasn’t. Joyce’s main method in this work, it seems to me, is to labour the point.

I will take the penultimate section as an example. In this section, Joyce indulges in a question and answer style, in which a sort of secondary narrator asks questions of a primary narrator, in order to elicit the narrative. Here is a quote: this is where Stephen Dedalus is just leaving Bloom’s house and Bloom has just opened the door for him:

For what creature was the door of egress a door of ingress?
For a cat.

What spectacle confronted them when they, first the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, from obscurity by a passage from the rere of the house into the penumbra of the garden?
The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.

With what meditations did Bloom accompany his demonstration to his companion of various constellations?
Meditations of evolution increasingly vaster: of the moon invisible in incipient lunation, approaching perigee: of the infinite lattiginous scintillating uncondensed milky way, discernible by daylight by an observer placed at the lowerend of a cylindrical vertical shaft 5000ft deep sunk from the surface towards the centre of the earth: of Sirius (alpha in Canis Maior) 10 lightyears (57,000,000,000,000, miles) distant and in volume 900 times the dimension of our planet: of Arcturus: of the precession of equinoxes: of Orion with belt and sextuple sun theta and nebula in which 100 of our solar systems could be contained: of moribund and of nascent new stars such as Nova in 1901: of our system plunging towards the constellation of Hercules: of the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threscore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity.

Were there obverse meditations of involution increasingly less vast?
Of the eons of geological periods recorded in the stratifications of the earth: of the myriad minute entomological organic existences concealed in cavities of the earth, beneath removable stones, in hives and mounds, of microbes, germs, bacteria, bacilli, spermatozoa: of the incalculable trillions of billions of millions of imperceptible molecules contained by coheson of molecular affinity in a single pinhead: of the universe of human serum constellated with red and white bodies, themselves universes of void space constellated with other bodies, each, in continuity, ts universe of divisible component bodies of which each was again divisible in divisions of redivisible components, dividends and divisors ever diminishing without actual division till, if the progress were carried far enough, nought nowhere was never reached.

and so on, for 4 or 5 pages. You see, the style of this chapter is the scientific, everything is described in a scientific manner, which is fine perhaps for a few pages, but really I feel begins to drag when it’s 80 pages of the same; the first two answers here quoted showing by contrast elements overwhelmed throughout the book in the general tedium: a) humour; and b) the beauty of language. And this is what I found most disappoining about Ulysses, that it doesn’t in the least, say, like Moby Dick, even begin to allay the dullness of its content by its literary style. Oh, Joyce displays a virtuosity of styles – in that he employs many different ones – but none of them I found interesting or in any way enlivening the text; it is his choice – his will, unlike say Shakespeare or Beckett, not to find any particular beauty in words themselves.

I find myself re-assessing Joyce. His books, I must admit, don’t stay in my memory. I’ve read Dubliners twice and can barely recall any of the stories; they seemed well enough written, but never overly impressed me. Again, I’ve read Portrait of the Artist twice. I could remember nothing, the second time I read it, of my first reading; and in my second reading was thoroughly bored by the whole second half of it.

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8 thoughts on “Ulysses, by James Joyce

  1. Well, I can only say I disagree, but that’s probably not particularly surprising or helpful. I accept that Portrait is quite hard going, more so than Ulysses I would say. I think though that Joyce finds a very real and touching beauty in words – often in odd, perhaps not-of-themselves beautiful words. I can see all the things that people find annoying, or off-putting, or barriers, about his work – but I find the virtuosity, the ambition and the brazen bollocksology of his work quite appealing.

    So far gone in my Joyce delusions am I that I will give serious thought to “reading” Finnegans Wake.

    Shite and onions!

  2. “If a book chooses to make oblique reference to things outside the text, to other literary works, to symbolism, then it has to expect many readers not to understand them.”

    I think that’s true enough, but I think it’s a leap to call allusions to things some readers won’t get “obscurantism.” How does a writer avoid referring to things at least some readers will miss except by referring to nothing at all, by writing only the most simplistic and flat texts?

    I’m clearly throwing in with Leroy here, and while I found Portrait dull as dishwater, Ulysses is filled with great beauty and remarkable language. Finnegans Wake is admittedly very difficult, but when I came to the final chapter it all pulled together as if by magic and the last twenty or so pages are achingly gorgeous, deeply human.

    My preference in short stories nowadays is for Chekhov over Joyce, but “The Dead” is a great story that stays with me.

  3. I should admit that my opinion is also based on the fact that I am writing novels which include references that I know many readers will miss. But for the readers who’ll get the references, the book will be more enjoyable. There is in one book a misreading of “Hamlet” that will make no sense to people who have not read the play; I am not however writing for those people and I think that’s just fine. There are also many references to the Bible, to Wittgenstein, to Pascal, to other writers that (I argue) enrich the text. I have no idea, of course, how the book will read to people who don’t get the references. I’m not sure that matters at all, though.

  4. Hey, you failed at Ulysses! That’s alright, me too! Cheer up, it’s just a novel and there are lots of better novels out there.

  5. Funny enough I enjoyed this a lot. I also agree with Scott on “obscurantism”. There are books who make references nobody would be able to understand but as far as I know, one can understand Joyce. Not that I understood it all.
    A Catholic upbringing helps though.

  6. Beauty in language: I think Joyce doesn’t have the same interest in language as I find in other writers I’d consider to be fine stylists: Beckett, Shakespeare, Dickens, Melville, Faulkner, Nabokov; – perhaps language in Ulysses is only a means to another end, rather than the end itself – or an end in itself; I think it’s secondary to his purpose. He’s not looking for beauty (just as his acolyte Eimear McBride isn’t).

    Obscurantism: I think referentiality is one aspect of obscurantism in Joyce; there are plenty of others. I don’t think Joyce gives reasonable consideration to the idea of anyone trying to read his novel, possibly because this isn’t his purpose.

    Referentiality: I was seriously considering writing a comparison piece between Ulysses and Quentin Tarentino’s Death Proof – both lovers of referentiality; but at least Tarentino’s fun if you don’t understand the references. (The other comparison piece would be with Bely’s Petersburg – which is sort of what Ulysses would be like if it was any good).

    Books we are writing: I am against referencing anything in my own writing (at least consciously). On saying that, the novel I’m currently writing makes references to several films, though whether you get these references or not has no relevance with respect to your understanding the novel. (I am going to list them at the end anyhow, though more because I’m worried about legalities).

    Catholicism: Yes, I think you have to be Catholic (and possibly Irish) to fully appreciate Joyce (especially large chunks of Portrait).

    Miguel: Amazed we actually agree about a book. I’ve achieved the one thing I want with Ulysses: I’ve finished it, and can now have nothing to do with it ever again.

  7. My question would be: what do you mean by obscurantism? Is it the practice of peppering a text with references to other texts, or is it the choice not to be clear? Because being ‘unclear’ needn’t take the form of obscure references. There’s also unconventional syntax or structure, narrative ambiguity, abstruse vocabulary, etc. You’ve written favorably about many books that employ these strategies, which many readers (not me) would reject as obscurantist, and which might be seen as more daunting or difficult than referentiality, because they are less easily ignored. Writers like Asturias, Rolfe and Faulkner faced a choice to be clear or unclear, and to the extent that they chose not to write simple stories in easily readable prose, they chose to be unclear. So why are they not obscurantist, while Joyce is?

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