Sunday, September 22, 2013

Book 133, Ireland: "Ulysses" by James Joyce

Yes!!!! I’ve finally finished this classic of world literature, one day before my classes start! Read it half through a paperback copy (which got wet in my bag, which made its cover to tear off when I later dropped it), and half via Kindle (which cost US$0.99 and a great deal of headscratching over whether certain Unicode symbols were scanning errors or modernist experiments).

I’ve been called to read this so many times – once as a child, when I happened across an encyclopaedia of the English language in a bookstore which exhibited the weird drafting process of Mr Joyce; once in university, when I learned that this had been part of the original CoreCurriculum syllabus but had been replaced for political reasons with Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse; once when Kenny at BooksActually was announcing a Bloomsday event.

And now I’ve finally finished it. Whoop huzzah!

As for understanding it, that’s a entirely different matter.

The first chapter is surprisingly digestible: it’s the young intellectual Stephen Daedalus having a chat with his friend in the morning, them throwing around literary references like nobody’s business – but I get that; that’s how I talk to my sister sometimes. Sure, it’s weird, but that’s more or less the point – you don’t come to Joyce expecting stories written in plain English. (This was perhaps why I couldn’t see the point of Dubliners.)

Once we enter the world of the middle-aged quasi-Jewish retiree Leopold Bloom, however, I get pretty lost – how is this character related to Stephen? Who are all these other characters, anyway? My friend Rachel Westbrook actually recommended that I read the SparkNotes on the book simultaneously, and I did refer to them a little on my smartphone. (I’d heard that each section corresponded to a different period of English literature, and I was picking up on a few references to the Odyssey, but the Hamlet parallels had eluded me.) This casual 3G business became more difficult once I travelled overseas, of course.
Now that I’ve finished, though, a few things stick in my mind:

1) This book is very dirty.

No wonder it got accused of obscenity! Molly Bloom’s sexual fantasies/recollections are quite shockingly explicit, and Leopold’s recollections/fantasies are as scatologically perverse as Joyce's own fart-obsessed correspondence. Although the charge does turn out to be over Bloom's masturbation scene over 20 year-old Gerty's legs in the park, which I totally did not get.

2) The book is surprisingly global.

I'd known, of course, that this was an encapsulation of the whole of the western tradition, but I'd forgotten how much of the east and the south had leaked into the west by the Edwardian era, partly because of the hugeness of the British Empire, which Ireland was the very first building block of (unless you count Scotland and Wales, I suppose). Sailors showing off Chinese tattoos, faces that look like Indian gods, Japanese attending imaginary socialist conferences, veterans of the Boer Wars, the word "nigger" thrown around to talk about straw hats or lips or hair or cannibalism, a reference to Zarathustra and Buddha.

And even the Italian waiters hanging around, and Bloom's Hungarian heritage. Dublin might've seemed like a cold nowhere town, but there was stuff happening there, the world streaming in. Search for keywords on the html version, if you don't believe me.

3) The book is of its time.

Of course every book is, but we think of epics as timeless, so it's strange to be reminded of how this is all taking place on the specific date of 16 June 1904, in the wake of Parnell's failed struggle for Irish independence, when Yeats was the only literary Irish giant; ten years before Joyce would start working on this and twenty before it was published in America, a time span in which Joyce aged from Stephen Daedalus's twentysomethingness to Bloom's fat forties.

And all the references to Jews, and the casual antisemitism - sobering to think that this was written before the Holocaust, indeed during the Great War which would lay the foundations for the Third Reich.

And now Ireland's had its prosperity, risen and fell as a Celtic Tiger, had the resources to celebrate its great literary heritage. (I suppose I ought to honour the memory of Seamus Heaney here, even though I always thought of him as Northern Irish.)  It's a different land, and yet this relic of a novel from an age of pessimism is such a prize in the nation's treasure trove, because it's so rich, because it's so daring, because it's so strange.

Oh it's tempting now to conjecture how one could write a Singaporean Ulysses, drawing the craziness of Asia and the West together on a trek down Armenian Street. But how true would it be? Would it be an attempt not to create something great, but to create something for the sake of greatness?

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote:

THE BISHOP OF DOWN AND CONNOR: I here present your undoubted emperor-president and king-chairman, the most serene and potent and very puissant ruler of this realm. God save Leopold the First!
ALL: God save Leopold the First!
BLOOM: (In dalmatic and purple mantle, to the bishop of Down and Connor, with dignity) Thanks, somewhat eminent sir.
WILLIAM, ARCHBISHOP OF ARMAGH: (In purple stock and shovel hat) Will you to your power cause law and mercy to be executed in all your judgments in Ireland and territories thereunto belonging?
BLOOM: (Placing his right hand on his testicles, swears) So may the Creator deal with me. All this I promise to do.
MICHAEL, ARCHBISHOP OF ARMAGH: (Pours a cruse of hairoil over Bloom's head) Gaudium magnum annuntio vobis. Habemus carneficem. Leopold, Patrick, Andrew, David, George, be thou anointed!
(Bloom assumes a mantle of cloth of gold and puts on a ruby ring. He ascends and stands on the stone of destiny. The representative peers put on at the same time their twentyeight crowns. Joybells ring in Christ church, Saint Patrick's, George's and gay Malahide. Mirus bazaar fireworks go up from all sides with symbolical phallopyrotechnic designs. The peers do homage, one by one, approaching and genuflecting.)
THE PEERS: I do become your liege man of life and limb to earthly worship.
(Bloom holds up his right hand on which sparkles the Koh-i-Noor diamond. His palfrey neighs. Immediate silence. Wireless intercontinental and interplanetary transmitters are set for reception of message.)
BLOOM: My subjects! We hereby nominate our faithful charger Copula Felix hereditary Grand Vizier and announce that we have this day repudiated our former spouse and have bestowed our royal hand upon the princess Selene, the splendour of night.
(The former morganatic spouse of Bloom is hastily removed in the Black Maria. The princess Selene, in moonblue robes, a silver crescent on her head, descends from a Sedan chair, borne by two giants. An outburst of cheering.)
JOHN HOWARD PARNELL: (Raises the royal standard) Illustrious Bloom! Successor to my famous brother!
BLOOM: (Embraces John Howard Parnell) We thank you from our heart, John, for this right royal welcome to green Erin, the promised land of our common ancestors.

Next book: Hall Caine's The Manxman, from the Isle of Man.

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