James Joyce’s Ulysses

I feel the need to talk about Ulysses in some greater detail. It is a novel by James Joyce that is about to grow one century old in the next years. Let me briefly google a version of this. To many people I have spoken to, it’s polarizing – some love it, even call it the greatest novel ever written; others (most) either hate it, or didn’t understand a thing and dropped it after some 20 pages.

I first heard about this in school. My German teacher taught us about how time can seem very dilated or very fast in a book: Most novels will tell a story that spans over a long period of time, but for the reader time will pass faster than for the characters. Pretty much any standard novel will have this, for instance the Harry Potter books span a time of roughly seven years, but it only took me a couple of months to read them back to back. Now, my teacher’s counterexample was Ulysses: A novel that tells the story of one single day in Dublin, Ireland, on nearly 1,000 pages of plain text.

I was amazed to hear of this, and I got curious. But it took me a couple years until I got my copy of Ulysses. I started reading it when I was 19, and I didn’t have any idea what to expect. Very soon, I understood that there were many things that I didn’t understand – at most after the first 20 pages or so. I found a synopsis of the book on the internet which at least helped me to see the basics… but it didn’t get me very far. Being sort of impressed, I read through most of the novel, skipping some of the really weird parts. But besides being impressed and besides understanding that there’s a lot of things in it, I didn’t get a feeling for the novel.

On 16 June 2013, I re-started reading Ulysses again (you’ll see why, soon). This time, I equipped myself with a book that I refer to as my “tourist’s guide”: Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated. It has the look and feel of a phone directory, but there are word-by-word explanations to all the references in the book, giving background information on who’s who and what’s what. In this respect, I have to bow to the late Don Gifford and his hard work that has opened my mind to the world that Joyce has (re-)created (?) for the reader to enter. And, implicitely, I have to bow to Joyce himself, who wrote this massive work, leaving no loose threads anywhere at all, and inventing so very many things a novel can be.

In particular, in this novel there is no chaos (unless it’s intended) – many people say, they can’t read it because it’s chaotic. That could not be further from the truth. Joyce has worked on Ulysses for about eight years, and you can feel it’s composition on each and every page. Each of the chapters has a speciality to it, either by referencing a certain topic, or by stressing a certain behaviour. There are schemes for the novel that let each chapter have a color, an organ, a science – Joyce himself obviously had these schemes as a technical help for himself when he wrote it. Besides: when Joyce was done, he was so exhausted, he didn’t write anything (except letters) during the following year. Then he started his work on Finnegans Wake, which I didn’t read (for certain reasons). Judging from all that I’ve heard, there are no loose ends in Finnegans Wake as well; they are only buried even deeper.

I have to admit that I have been unable to read the English version of Ulysses, except for having a look at some special pages. I own one, but my plowing through Ulysses was based on the German translation by Hans Wollschläger. Here, again, my deepest respects to this translation. It is more than a mere translation, it is a perfect transition of Joyce’s words into German, following every style, every level of speech, even making the poems and songs work in German. Wollschläger has invested many years in his translation, and you can tell he not only translated, but delved into the novel deeply. It is marvellous German prose, based on equally marvellous English prose.

So, what is the thing about Ulysses… it surely is not the storyline. There is hardly any story, compared to the massive amount of text. Let’s have a look at what happens: The day is 16 June 1904, the place is Dublin, Ireland. Leopold Bloom is an advertising agent, in his late 30’s, married to the singer Molly. He prepares her breakfast, wanders through Dublin, attends the funeral of one of his friends, goes to work, has lunch, visits a pub, has an argument with a drunkard, takes a walk on the beach, pays a visit to a maternity hospital, where he meets Stephen Dedalus. Stephen is a young writer, teaching at a boys’ school, which is not a happy job for him. He hasn’t got enough money to pay the rent, he tries to be a professional writer, gaining the respect of the literary circles, theorizing and philosophizing all the time. After Leopold and Stephen have, by chance, met at the hospital, they arrive at a brothel where they get kicked out because Stephen is drunk and does not behave. They walk home to Leopold’s house, talk, and then Stephen leaves, and Leopold goes to bed. His wife Molly has an affair, and has cheated on Leopold this afternoon; he knows everything about it.

Having skipped some details, this is about it. The story is hardly the point in Ulysses: It’s the way the story is told. There are 18 chapters, each of which has it’s own literary style. And in most chapters, we can have an extremely close look at the characters, by reading exactly what’s on their minds – a stream of conciousness. This is a stylistic device that Joyce did not invent; but he was the first author to use it so thoroughly as seen here. Some have said that Leopold Bloom is the literary character that one can know most about, because we can have a look into his head that is more detailed than any description ever could be.

Besides that, forms follows function. For instance, the chapter that deals with Leopold’s and Stephen’s meeting in the maternity hospital also deals with the birth of a child. Hence, the style of the chapter follows the growing and the evolution of the child inside his mother’s womb: the language of the chapter evolves from ancient English, passing through the middle ages and Shakespeare’s style, until it arrives at some modern-day slang (or better: what was modern-day slang in the days of Joyce). I will have to say more about this chapter later on. Another example is the chapter where Leopold goes to work. He sells advertises to be printed a newspaper. Being with all the journalists, the chapter is split in smaller parts by boasting headlines that largely exaggerate the contents of the text. In yet another chapter, Leopold goes to a pub where he encounters some people playing the piano and singing: the whole chapter is composed like a fuga by Bach, re-organizing certain motives (sentences) over and over again, repeating them and re-arranging them. In some parts, even the rhythm of the text sounds like a poem, or lyrics of a song, when you read it out loud.

The most famous chapter is the last one. It’s some 70 pages of plain text, without any punctuation at all. We can read Molly’s thoughts as she is lying in her bed, falling asleep. She recounts what she did during the day and her thoughts are floating here and there and everywhere. This is some wonderful prose, that I could not grasp when I first read it without my “tourist’s guide”. But this remark holds for almost all of the novel.

I know of at least one movie that tried to bring Ulysses to the cinemas – and, in my opinion, it failed. The main probem is the lack of story, you can hardly bring the literate styles on a screen. So, this 1960’s movie looks like an unconnected sequence of scenes that will probably make no sense unless you already read the novel and understood the whole point of it. Besides that, the movie is strange most of the time (and for my taste, it focuses on the wrong things). I’m afraid, I can’t recommend any moving pictures on this topic – but my taste is not exclusive of course. Everyone who liked the movie can dislike the book and vice versa. Or even like (or dislike) both of them.

Before I discuss the chapters one by one, a remark on why this novel is called Ulysses in the first place: Ulysses is the Latin version of the name Odysseus, which is more common today. Joyce planned to show a modern Odysseus, a wanderer trying to get home (and, in doing so, show the Dublin he knew by heart, while being in a self-chosen exile; he wanted to describe Dublin so perfectly, that you could re-build it from scratch out of his books). Leopold is this modern Odysseus while he walks through Dublin, encountering people, having adventures of sorts. And each chapter of Ulysses corresponds to the ancient Greek Odyssee, having parallels concerning the characters. I won’t go into too much details on these parallels – many are obvious (like the one-eyed cyclops, for instance), some are rather obscure (such as many little details in Ithaka).

Stephen starts his day together with his room-mates in the Martello Tower, it’s 8a.m. His fellows are medical students who mock and despise him. They have breakfast, talk about the Irish nation (one of the others is British), then leave their home to go swimming in the sea. Stephen leaves for work, while the other two took away his keys.

Stephen has a history class at the boys’ school, it’s 10a.m. He is bored by his job, then he tells a riddle to the students to which they cannot possibly guess the solution. The school’s director pays Stephen his wage and bores him even more by racist and non-sensical talking.

Someone on the internet wrote: if you’ve come so far in reading Ulysses, here’s the chapter that will likely make you put it away. And that’s true. I have come to like the prose in it, but I can’t wrap my head around what goes on in Stephen’s mind here. This is too strangely philosophical for me. It’s 11a.m., by the way, and Stephen just goes for a walk on the beach.

Here is where I started my re-reading of Ulysses, and for good reason. It’s 8 a.m., and Leopold prepares breakfast for his wife who is still in bed. I love the part about the kidney, and the part about metempsychosis will come up in everything that follows – once I understood the thing about “met him pike hoses”, I found it hilarious. It is, again, wonderfully translated in the German version to “mit ihm zig Hosen”. The prose is rather simple and clear, many hidden references that are nice to know, but that won’t affect you when you don’t.

It’s about 10a.m. and Leopold has to kill a little time until he will attend the funeral of his friend at 11a.m. He gets a letter from the post office that his pen pal Martha wrote him – this is his way of countering the actual adultery of his wife that will happen later in the afternoon. He briefly attends a mass (where he wonders a little while what INRI and IHS might mean – his interpretations certainly made my day), buys a bar of soap in a shop and takes a bath. That is, I’m not really sure he takes a bath, it might be one of his musings and only happening in his head. You can never be perfectly sure in this book.

At 11a.m. Leopold drives to the cemetary with three other men, one of which is Stephen’s father. This chapter is full of moody images, discussions about death, suicide, the afterlife and so on. Leopold is treated like an outsider, though he tries to get into the social group constantly. It is a rather small funeral with 12 people attending (though in the newspaper, some more will be mentioned, with Leopold’s name misspelled).

This is one of the chapters I mentioned earlier: Leopold goes to work about 12p.m. Since he is with the journalists at the newspaper’s office, the chapter is split in smaller parts by boasting headlines that largely exaggerate the contents of the text. Leopold tries to place an ad for one of his customers in the paper, while, again, he is treated like an outsider. The journalists mock him while he’s gone. On the other hand, Stephen passes by and tries to give a letter of his boss to the paper to be printed. Stephen is treated better, the journalists will print the text even though they think the letter is ridiculous: they try to do Stephen a favour. Towards the end the headlines interrupting the text get more and more weird, using more and more classical stylistic devices.

At 1p.m. Leopold gets peckish. He wanders through Dublin looking for a place for his lunch. In the first place he enters, he is disgusted by the other men eating, so he goes somewhere else. There, he has a gorgonzola sandwich and some burgundy wine. This is a rather straight-forward chapter, using a lot of Leopold’s stream of consciousness. There are many nice things to find in this.

Scylla and Charybdis
Now, this is challenging again. I’ve never come to like the chapters about Stephen very much. Here again, chances are that you will turn down the book. It’s 2p.m. And Stephen is telling literary experts about some theories on Shakespeare’s life and work. To really follow that, you should bring profound knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays – which I don’t. I can’t really enjoy the prose either, this is too much over the top for me. Though, what I can get is the irony that is dripping from in between the lines here and there. It feels like Joyce is mocking Stephen in his theories, and Stephen in turn is taking his theories over the top to mock his listeners which he doesn’t seem to respect very much. But then again, this might be just an attitude of Stephen’s which Joyce presents us as laughable.

Wandering Rocks
Now we leave the main characters for a while. This chapter is a bunch of short stories with several varying main characters all around Dublin. From a stylistic point of view, these short stories are not independent, but here and there you will find an out-of-context phrase or a couple of words from another of these stories. This helps to make a timetable of these stories, all of them take place in the early afternoon. On the one hand, this shows that the entire novel doesn’t take place in a kind of vacuum of space-time: Leopold and Steven live in the real Dublin of 1904. On the other hand, this proves that neither of these stories are particularly important, we don’t have any kind of hero stories. This day is a day like every other one.

At 4p.m. Leopold enters a bar and listens to the piano being played, while Stephen’s father sings a couple of songs to it. Nearby, he hears Boylan, his wife’s affair, managing some of his business in the bar, but being in a hurry because of his upcoming appointment with Molly. Leopold feels distressed by this and leaves soon as well. The whole chapter is full of musical allusions, and it is constructed like a fuga. Especially the first two pages of the chapter are several context-free sentences which show up the main motives of what comes in the chapter. This is a fun chapter to read, particularly when you read some passages out loud.

At about 5p.m. Leopold arrives at a pub where he wants to wait for a friend of his. He encounters an Irish nationalist, called “the Citizen”, who starts a fight about racist ideas with Leopold. Part of the problem is also that everyone thinks that Leopold has won a big bet on a horse race today. This is based on a misunderstanding earlier: Leopold didn’t even know about the details of the horse race, but someone else thought he had been given a hidden tip by Leopold. So, everyone in envious to the non-existent amount of money in Leopold’s pockets. The title of the chapter is, of course, a reference to the one-eyed giant of Greek mythology, who has his counterpart in the Citizen. As a comparison, the Citizen throws a tea-box after Leopold when he leaves the pub in the end; the cyclops threw a boulder after Odysseus when he got tricked and blinded. Stylistically, the text is a standard first-person-narration of one of the uninvolved pub-visitors. But then and again, the text is interrupted by strange passages that describe the situation in a corresponding style: a lawyer’s-style paragraph, the description of a christian procession, a pedigree lineage and so on. This gives a lot of depth to the chapter, making it one of those that I will return to read again seperately.

It’s already about 8p.m. and Leopold has arrived at the same beach that Stephen has had his walked on this morning. He sees some girls from afar who play with two young children. When the sun sets, all of them leave except for one of the girls, Gerty. She finds Leopold attractive and lets him have a look under her skirt – which he enjoys. For the comical aspect, his enjoyment is accompanied by fireworks that are lit far away… Most of the chapter is written in the style of cheesy romantic novels.

Oxen of the Sun
What an amazing idea. This has been the most fascinating chapter for me from the start. It’s 9p.m. and Leopold wants to inform himself about a friend of his being in labour at a maternity hospital. She gives birth to a boy, while Leopold sits in a room together with medical students who get terribly drunk and make jokes about contraception, birth and, overall, women. Stephen is among them, most drunk and most silent. In the end, they all leave the place to go to a pub, where Stephen pays for several rounds of absinth, before they are thrown out of there. I alluded to the style above already: The language evolves from ancient English to a modern-day slang, and the German translator did a great job in capturing this. It is terribly hard to read and to follow, but I gained a lot from this. And especially the ancient texts and the slang-part in the end are extremely funny to read, (once you get the contents of them). There is a lot of hidden subtext that needs to be uncovered, it is buried under many layers of language style. And I’m sure, I didn’t even get half of it. To me, this is the most intriguing chapter of the whole book. I don’t know how you get to have such an idea in the first place – but I am thankful the author and the translator for this reading-experience.

This is by far the longest chapter of the novel, and one of those that I can’t really relate to. Leopold follows Stephen to nighttown, into a brothel where they meet a couple of prostitutes, until Stephen is kicked out because he is drunk and doesn’t behave. Outside, Stephen argues with two soldiers and gets knocked down. The style is like that of a theatrical play, at a first glance. At a second glance, there are many surrealistic passages, dream-like sequences that Joyce described as hallucinatory. Very weird, very deep looks into the minds of Leopold and Stephen, with strange phantasies on display. In a way, this chapter is intended to be the core of the novel (judging from its length), but it’s not my favourite part – at all. The timetable is blurred here, it’s not really possible to tell the time because of the drunk and hallucinatory atmosphere. It’s sometime around midnight, that’s for certain.

Now, Leopold and Stephen stumble to a pub, they are terribly tired and you can tell from the prose. Long, winding sentences that end very differently from how they started. They talk about every topic that comes to their minds, and Leopold tries to be friends with Stephen. Stephen himself is a little rough, he is sobering up and sort of irritable. But he isn’t ungrateful towards Leopold, it’s just that they haven’t found their level of discussion yet: Stephen is highly philosophical, Leopold rather practical and nearly desperately trying to grasp Stephen’s philosophy. They meet a former sailor in the pub whose story may or may not be true – you can’t really tell. In the end, they leave the pub for Leopold’s house, where Leopold wants to offer Stephen some proper coffee and food.

One of the unjustifiedly unfamous chapters, here. The whole chapter consists of a strict Q&A-style, like an interview or a catechism from which you learn theological truths. Contained in the answers there is a lot of nice prose, next to a lot of ironically precise information that doesn’t acutally help. Gifford’s book (my “tourist’s guide”) points out some logical flaws to the answers – one isn’t really sure if Joyce wasn’t accurate in writing and researching, or if he dropped some of the flaws on purpose. I tend to the first answer, but you can’t be sure at all, considering the way Joyce wrote the rest of the novel. I can really imagine him at his desk giggling to himself about how the researchers of later decades would try to wrap their minds around all these flaws… The contents of the chapter are Leopold and Stephen entering Leopold’s home (he doesn’t carry his keys, just like Stephen does), continuing their discussions, now a lot more friendly and on point. They drink cocoa and Leopold offers Stephen to stay for the night. Stephen refuses and leaves (there’s a lovely description of the night sky), so Leopold tidies up his stuff before going to bed. He unintentionally wakes up Molly and tells her about Stephen and what he did during the day. The chapter ends with a big black dot, reminding the mathematician in my head of the end-mark of proofs in the math literature. In a way, everything is done.

In the middle of the night, Molly is trying to sleep. We can read her unfiltered thoughts in a stream of consciousness, where she remembers the events of today. Those thoughts drift and float, such that we also get a lot of background on her life before her marriage with Leopold, on the reasons for her adultery and on anything else. It is hard to describe, you should take a look at that yourself. Someplace on the internet I found the recommendation: “do yourself a favor and read the last two pages, no matter how you did with the rest of the book”. Although it’s tough, this is one of the chapters that I will read more often in the future.

All these explanations don’t even scratch the surface of what is hidden in the novel. Looking back, actually some things do happen in Ulysses… But most other novels are a lot more dense when it comes to telling a story. As I said, there are no loose ends, and there are so very many things that are unintelligible today (just take that weird “u.p.: up” postcard that every character in the novel understands, but everyone outside doesn’t). Joyce himself said, he made himself undying because in his work there are things to discover that will take centuries to find out. But this shouldn’t stop anyone from reading this novel. It helps to have a guide to Ulysses, but Gifford’s book that I used may be over the top for some. Everyone is invited to enjoy the wonderful prose that there is, there are marvellous passages even in Stephen’s philosophical stream of conciousness, and there are many beautiful stylistic ideas to discover. Even if you don’t understand each and every little detail, it is a fine read.

And I didn’t even mention: many parts are funny as hell, once you see through the wall of style that Joyce has built. Other parts are very explicit about sexual things, especially when you consider that the book was published in the 1920’s. It even was prohibited in most English-speaking countries because of some quite explicit passages. Now, if that doesn’t peak your curiostiy, I don’t know what will 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s