MY TOP SHELF – 16

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

16

ULYSSES

James Joyce (1921)

Folio Society, 1998; etchings by Nimmo Paladino; blue cloth, in blue slip-case.

….and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914-1921.

The great Irish writer James Joyce admired Ulysses, the main character of the epic poem of that name by Homer.  The poem describes the voyage of the wily Ulysses back home to Ithaca in Greece and the reunion with his son Telemachus and his wife Penelope after the fall of Troy.  Joyce fancied Ulysses more than Hamlet, Don Quixote and Faust.  He thought that Ulysses did not seek bloodshed, but saw that war was merely a promotion by entrepreneurs.  Like Ulysses, and a lot of Irish, Joyce wandered.  He wrote his masterpiece as an expatriate over seven years at Trieste, Zurich and finally Paris.  Throughout that time he pestered friends for information on the Dublin that he grew up in for what is probably the most Irish book ever written.  The book aims to document in detail Dublin as it then was, and humanity as it always has been.  The author did not lack ambition.

The story of the Ulysses of Joyce takes place in one day or, perhaps more correctly, twenty four hours, the 16th June 1904, in Dublin.  The three main characters are Leopold Bloom (who has some resemblance to Ulysses), his wife Molly Bloom (who probably has little or no resemblance to Penelope) and Stephen Dedalus (who stands in for Telemachus).  There are eighteen chapters, or titles.  The first three centre on young Stephen and the last title is the famous soliloquy of Molly Bloom.  The central fourteen chapters are a journey around Dublin and his own mind by Leopold Bloom on the day that is now celebrated in many parts of the world as Bloomsday.  We will briefly sample some chapters.

The opening chapter is set at 8.00 a.m. on Martello Tower, Sandycove.  It features young students or teachers, including Stephen.  There is a notion of a family without a father – like occupied Ireland without its leaders.  The novel is littered with allusions to Catholicism, Shakespeare (especially Hamlet) and Wagner.

In chapter 4, the time is again 8.00 a.m. at 7 Eccles Street, the home of the Blooms.  Molly starts where she finishes – in bed.  Bloom gets her breakfast in bed.  He is under the thumb a bit.  He cooks himself a kidney while he prepares for the funeral of Paddy Dignam.

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls ….  Kidneys were in his mind as he moved about the kitchen softly, righting her breakfast things on the humpy tray.  Gelid light and air were in the kitchen but out of doors gentle summer morning everywhere.  Made him feel a bit peckish. 

Bloom takes the mail up to Molly.  It includes a letter from her manager, Blazes Boylan.  Poldy and Molly do not like dressing together but we get a full rendition of Bloom on the jakes.  The chapter resonates with betrayal at home.

In the Penguin’s Student Edition, Declan Kiberd (who was born in Eccles Street, Dublin) finely observes that ‘the reader has the uncanny feeling of knowing more about Bloom than he knows about himself’.  The same goes for Molly – unless, perhaps, you are not a woman.

By Brady’s cottages a boy for the skins lolled, his bucket of offal linked, smoking a chewed fagbutt.  A smaller girl with scars of eczema on her forehead eyed him, listlessly holding her battered cask hoop.  Tell him if he smokes he won’t grow.  O let him!  His life isn’t such a bed or roses!  Waiting outside pubs to bring da home.

Looking for lunch, bloom goes into the Burton restaurant.  They are eating roast beef or corned beef and cabbage or stew.

Smells of men.  His gorge rose.  Spat on sawdust, sweetish warmish cigarette smoke, reek of plug, spilt beer, men’s beery piss, the stale of ferment.  Couldn’t eat a morsel here.

That is just what those slophouses smelt like.  Bloom is too genteel if not womanly for that kind of place.  He goes to Davey Byrne’s, a ‘moral pub’.  While Nosey Flynn sips his grog, Bloom has a gorgonzola sandwich with English mustard for 7 pence and he has a burgundy with it: very, very cosmopolitan, and not obviously Irish.

Chapter 12 is set in Barney Kiernan’s pub at 5.00 p.m.  It is another that is so funny that it may cause trouble when you are driving, but it has a heavy dark side.  The English and Irish establishments get a serve but ‘the Citizen’ represents the one-eyed Irishman – this is the chapter that comes in the place of Cyclops in the case of Homer and he goes after the Jewish Bloom.  The drinkers are against Bloom because they believe he held back on a tip for the races.  Bloom tells them of the great Jews of history and says that ‘the Saviour was a jew and his father was a jew.  Your God.’  The answer is that he had no father.  The humour here can be both dark and black.

If you are not convinced that you are in the presence of a genius, this may be the last occasion on which it might happen.  Chapter 13 is 8.00 p.m. near the beach at Sandymount Strand.  Bloom becomes carried away watching a young girl as the sacraments are celebrated in the nearby cathedral.  A wordless communication that Freud could have written goes on against the backing of the sacrament and then fireworks going up:

Then they sang the second verse of the Tantum Ergo and Canon O’Hanlon got up again and censed the Blessed Sacrament and knelt down and he told Father Conroy that one of the candles was just going to set fire to the flowers and Father Conroy got up and settled it all right and she could see the gentleman winding his watch and listening to the works and she swung her leg more in and out in time.  It was getting darker but she could see and he was looking all the time that he was winding the watch or whatever he was doing to it and then he put it back and put his hands back into his pockets.  She felt a kind of a sensation rushing too was when she clipped her hair on account of the moon.  His dark eyes fixed themselves on her again drinking in her every contour, literally worshipping at her shrine.  If ever there was undisguised admiration in a man’s passionate gaze it was there plain to be seen on that man’s face.  It is for you, Gertrude MacDowell, and you know it.

The scene gets more graphic as it goes.  This is a chapter of overwhelming power whether read on the printed page or heard on the riveting Naxos recording.  The conclusion is high drama.

In chapter 15, it is midnight in the redlight area mostly inside or out of the brothel of Bella Cohen.  A lot of Ulysses is very funny – most of this chapter is downright hilarious.  It is a kind of dream sequence like The Goons and the Marx Brothers, but most of it makes Spike Milligan or Groucho Marx look pedestrian if not predictable.

Stephen falls into the company of two sluts, Biddy the Clap and a young woman whose second name is Kate.  Unfortunately, Stephen makes a remark about the King – it was probably a reference to Hamlet – that does not seem right to two drunken cockney redcoats.  (‘I’ll wring the neck of any bugger says a word against my fucking King.’)  Although the humour is broader than slapstick, the author describes the way in which the two cockney redcoats propel themselves into a fight over nothing with deadly accuracy.

There is no specified time for the last chapter, and the place is the marriage bed at Eccles Street.  The whole chapter is one sustained monologue of Molly with hardly any punctuation at all.  This is how it starts.

Yes because he never did a thing like that before as asked to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs

Molly reflects on her tryst with Blazes Boylan – they had to move out of the bed for fear of annoying the neighbours.  She is at first dismissive of Blazes but warms to him in the course of her reflection and is looking forward to the next session until she feels the curse coming upon her.  Such, Ned Kelly said, is life.

The soliloquy and the book end in the manner set out at the top of this note.

Those who fear this book, or who are merely neurotic about it, should remember that it ends on this note of affirmation – ‘Yes’, in recitative.  It may not be as serene as the end of Don Quixote, and it may not share the apparent domestic bliss of War and Peace, but this is a book that affirms human life.

This novel is also, with Don Quixote, one of the funniest books ever written. If you are listening to the spoken word, three writers may have you exclaiming out loud at their brilliance – two are English poets (Shakespeare and Milton) and the third is this Irish novelist, James Joyce.

Here are some ways to break down the fear or prejudice about Ulysses.  First, get hold of a print of Duck Soup, and remember what it is like to laugh out loud at pure madness.

Next, get the Naxos 4 CD set of extracts.  (They also have the whole book on 22 CDs).  The parts are most beautifully read by Jim Norton – who sounds as versatile as Peter Sellers in the brothel sequence – and Marcella Riordan.  Almost a quarter of the book is there, including Chapter 1, the Gertie MacDowell sequence, the brothel scene, and Molly’s soliloquy.  This will introduce you to the rhythms of the language and to the humour of the author.

Then, get a text of large type that you are comfortable with – either electronic, or the Penguin’s Student Edition, which has full notes at the back.

Finally, if you want to get to the marrow – or if you would rather have some than none – try concentrating on the Bloom parts and read Chapters 4-8, 10-13 and 15, 16 and 18, and then read Chapters 1-3, 9, 14 and 17 at your leisure.  An alternative tactic – one that works well with Ring Cycle novices – is to start with items that you are confident that you will be at home with – Gertie and the brothel scene, perhaps– and then read the rest.

If all else fails there is the 22 CD full set, and you will be selling yourself very short if you quit this world without at least listening to the 4 CDs of excerpts.

Someone made a remark about Milton to the effect that it was a wonder that his erudition did not crush his poetic genius.  We might say much the same for Joyce.  It is obvious that we are in the presence of a mind of extraordinary power, and in his seven years of cataloguing one day in the life of an ordinary man, Joyce has left us as enduring a testament to our humanity as we have known.

In her fine short life of Joyce, Edna O’Brien recalled the remark that as Joyce got older, he looked like Dante who had lost the keys to his own inferno.  There is little wonder.  The effort of bringing forth monuments like this book must be man-killing.  In his series Civilization, Kenneth Clark was lost in wonder at Michelangelo, and he saw the hero as artist.  We might be lost in wonder at Ulysses, and we might see the artist James Joyce as hero.  We would not be denigrating the Renaissance Italian man to say that the modern Irish man is entitled to stand as hero on the same plane.

 

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