Saturday, 7 July 2001

James Joyce: Ulysses (1922)

Edition: The Bodley Head, 1960
Review number: 864

It is virtually impossible to describe a novel as complex as Ulysses, even if it were fully comprehended. The basic idea is quite simple, to describe the interior life of a man during one particular, not atypical, day in his life. There is much more to it than this, of course; the evocation of Dublin in 1904 - based not just on memory but on exact research; the parody of such things as advertisements, the newspaper society pages and the catechism; the recounting of bodily sensation in unprecedented detail; the relationship with Homer's Odyssey.

I recently heard an interesting fact, that the 1904 day so meticulously created was the date of Joyce's first assignation with the woman he later married. And yet there is really no trace of this in the novel, no reason why this particular day is of more importance to the characters than any other. It is tempting to try to relate events to this fact - the funeral of Patrick Dignam, for example; what was buried on that day in Joyce's life?

One of the discussions in Vonnegut's novel Timequake is about Ulysses, with one participant debunking the idea that there is really any parallel with the Odyssey (the alternative theory offered is that this was just something Joyce said to provoke interest from academics). Things you might count against it might include the character of Molly Bloom, so unlike Homer's faithful Penelope. There is certainly no direct, linear relationship between the book and the poem; an episode in the novel might match an episode in the epic, but the order of episodes is different. (A lot of the Odyssey is actually about Telemachus' search for his father, or consists of Odysseus recounting tales of his adventures. Stephen Daedalus represents Telemachus, as Bloom's son died young.) Though the relationship is not simple, it is definitely there, and Vonnegut is perpetrating his own literary joke. (That is not to say that there are no other structures in the novel; in the catechistic section, the events of the day are linked to a variety of rituals, including the distinctly non-liturgical "ritual of Onan" as well as Catholic church sacrements.) Even if the Homer link is considered established, there are still important questions which it raises. Why did Joyce choose the Odyssey, and what is it that he is using the parallel to say? These questions are closely related, and difficult to answer without considering another - what is the theme of Ulysses?

Joyce's intention was clearly to write something about what a human being is, both physically - just about every part of the body plays a part in the novel - and psychologically, with its groundbreaking use of what later became known as the stream of consciousness style. Of all Greek heroes, Odysseus is the least stereotypically heroic, even if many of the others are flawed in one way or another. He is a liar, a cheat and a thief; he succeeds by using his intelligence rather than his strength (though he is heroically strong, as is shown by the showdown with the suitors, when none of them is able to bend his great bow). The closest parallel here to Bloom is that Bloom writes newspaper advertisements. The plot of the Odyssey is also of technical assistance to Joyce, as its sequence of episodes along a great journey provides scope for a variety of treatments as well as setting.

It may be, then, that Joyce saw Odysseus as close to modern men, and so Bloom is an unheroic version of his mythic counterpart. Of course, it is also true that Bloom's life is epic to himself.

It is all to easy to lose track of the deeper structure of this difficult to read novel. It is so full of clever tricks, of fascinating details, that there is a tendency to admire the surface and stop paying attention to what is going on beneath it. This is particularly the case in sections like the brothel scene and Molly's internal narrative which ends the novel, which are so brilliantly executed that they almost compel concentration on the immediate context rather than the whole story.

Certainly fundamental to an understanding of twentieth century literature, Ulysses is one of the greatest and most difficult to read of all novels.

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