Compared to the other monster that Joyce wrote, this one is a breeze.
Normal people can succeed in reading it more than once in their lifetime, and a semester-long course in college on the subject may forever shine as a pleasing addition to one’s intellectual flair amongst cognoscenti.
Yet for all its pyrotechnics, its obese importance, and secure place in the canon, I choose to remember it now for the story of grief it tells, so fundamentally, yet so obliquely that it’s of secondary importance to most critics compared to the main character’s cuckoldry.
Particularly the grief of a child, Rudy, who died eleven years before the novel starts, at the age of eleven days.
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To recap the story of Ulysses: on that day, 06 June 1904, three central characters go about their daily occupations. It’s Stephen Daedalus payday at the elementary school where he works, and he’s going for drinks tonight with his annoying-hipster-medical friend Buck Mulligan. He hopes not to return home. Leopold Bloom is going about on various business and errands during the day, as a canvasser for newspaper ads, but mainly he’s trying to occupy himself to stay out of the house while his wife is having an affair. Molly Bloom, charming singer, is receiving the visit of her impresario-lover for a private rehearsal and a dirty romp (sounds oddly familiar in today’s landscape). Everybody is trying to think of something else than their own dire situation, and would rather be elsewhere. Stephen in Paris; Leopold in a more tolerant Ireland; Molly in Gibraltar.
Language frays at the edge, and instead of describing neatly according to a rigorous character grid of motivations and ambitions, setting and plot (here’s looking at you, Balzac), entropy gets in the way. Style, puns, abrupts shifts of tone: the narration cannot (will not) stick to a fixed pattern, and you get the novelistic equivalent of prog-rock. Digressions and changes of focus abound, which is just nature’s way of telling us that there’s something else on our minds.
What’s occupying our mind is failing to see the world as a whole rather than a kaleidoscopic collection of minutia, however organised and structured behind the scenes it may be (like Joyce’s schemas). What’s occupying our mind is trying to remember yet another fact using mnemotechnics and automatisms rather than feeling, because feeling too much will bring us the glooms (even though these memory losses are just the brain rot of grief). What’s occupying our mind is losing intimacy for the same desire to avoid feelings. What’s occupying our minds is buying, selling, collecting, aggregating, and collaging ideas, lovers, soaps, dirty books, esoteric beliefs, habits, or detours.
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The Odyssey is essentially the story of detours: after having won at Troy, Odysseus is held captive on the way back by the nymph Calypso. When he finally leaves and gets in sight of his home in Ithaca, his boat is blown back by the bag of winds his shipmates opened. By the time we begin reading the story, he’s already halting the main narrative by relating his previous adventures. It is, ambivalently, the desire and the inability (wilful or not) to go back home after war. At the literal level, Odysseus cannot find the way home because magicians and monsters keep getting in his way. At the metaphorical level, he is battling his own demons, and trying to put his scrambled head into order to find the straight road leading home.
So are Bloom, Stephen, and Molly in Ulysses, who are swimming against the current of life’s chaos and minutia. They are looking for home, which includes husband, wife, father, mother, son and daughter, a satisfactory combination of which neither can achieve.
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I remember two things when our son Arthur died at 37.5 weeks en ventre sa mère. The first was the cold. Not only was it dreary February, but my body stopped responding correctly and layers of wool would never suffice, even at room temperature. The second is the scrambling: the inability to utter complete thoughts, the exhaustion caused by filling one of many stupid forms required to bureaucratically normalize his death, or the one felt by simply trying to slog through the daily regimen of life: washing, eating, sleeping. To a certain extent, four years later, I can still recognize the occasional return of the scrambling: whenever a simple errand starts to feel like an odyssey, or when one of my sentence can’t find its period.
I did not become a “better person” from it, nor do I think I turned out a worse one. But reading last year the story of a thirty-seven year old ad canvasser looking for ways to kill time drove home the reality of Ulysses. Yes, it’s a great novel, a playground for nerds of all kinds, a great dramedy, and a triumph of the mind, but it is inhabited by a dull substratum: the green bile of life in Dublin then, the bitter boredom of not realizing one’s dreams, the fraying edges of a life clothed in mourning yet shielded against the feeling of grief, religiously unbelieving.
For all the shining brilliance of James Joyce over the Parisian coteries, I think Victor-Lévy Beaulieu is the one who understood best the dissatisfaction of life that brings out the necessity to strangulate language. When I reread Ulysses last year (of course I’m that guy), I thought of the death that pulls us from within, and the prodigious efforts a single, ordinary day can cost.
Being ordinary is no mean business.
James Joyce. Ulysses, ed. Hans Walter Gabler. NY: Random House, 1986. ISBN 9780394743127.