Thursday, August 6, 2009


Back in June, I started a post about '15 books that left a mark on me,' from earliest reading, and covered the first five. Here's a bit on the next biggie, which I happen to be teaching a class on this summer, which ends today. So, here's to From Stately, plump to yes I will yes.

6. Ulysses (1922)--James Joyce (Irish)

My first attempt was in high school, eleventh grade. Up unto that point, modern prose was whatever I met with in the paperbacks of the day - Ray Bradbury, tales of sci-fi and the fantastic - with a more artistic version provided by translations of Hesse, by Orwell and Huxley, but with little sense of the tradition out of which Joyce’s prose came: no Flaubert, but translated glimpses of Baudelaire and the symbolistes, Fowlie’s Rimbaud. Thankfully, more than a passing notion of Ibsen.

That first time I got as far as the opening of Chapter 14: 'Oxen of the Sun.' I couldn’t have made that statement at the time. I didn’t know the Homeric titles, and the chapters were unnumbered in that old Random House edition. I only knew I'd reached the paragraph beginning, 'Universally that person’s acumen ...' and could in no wise parse it. Skipping ahead a few pages, nothing cleared up. Was I still in the same book? When comprehension flags, so does attention. Put it aside.

Still, that first foray was instructive. The first three chapters – Dedalus’s - were like nothing I’d ever read. Later, I learned to call this ‘modernist,’ but at the time all I was aware of was a command of language more immediate and notable than in poems of our century, a prose in which rhythmic units were not guided by line breaks, but by as faultless and unmatched an ear for the aural dynamics of language as could be imagined. As ‘modern’ as anything, I thought, but dated too. Stephen Dedalus was not my contemporary, but he had my interests at heart. He was bored by everything anyone told him using the old style vocabularies, using ‘everyday speech.’ He had to find his space in an alienated relation to his mother tongue -- he needed Church Latin, Scholasticism, Elizabethan English, the wit of Swift and Wilde.

Raised Catholic, educated in a parochial school for eight years, I was familiar with some of those churchy rhythms, with the innotation of King James gospels read aloud, and had already gained a love of Shakespeare through memorization of speeches in Macbeth and Hamlet. Which is to say that the spell of Dedalus was immediate enough, was -- even with that dire and debilitating sense of Dublin’s paralysis that weighed on him -- oddly comparable to the shrunken prospects for language in a middling suburb in the mid-Atlantic States in the middle of the 1970s.

And somewhere in my mind's eye, reading Ulysses, was a vision of what my unknown Irish ancestor must have left behind in coming to America, and even a sense, glimpsed in more ethnic parishes than the one I belonged to, of what part Catholicism played or could play in national identity. Joyce showed me a city, a nation, where priests set the tone.

In that first reading, there were so many glimpses of a different way of doing things, of presenting experience in such a direct and inimical way: the vigor of Malachi Mulligan’s mind in his relentless jests, so performative, so cinematic -- he enters the book as if aware a camera is on him; the touchingly private moment of Bloom’s visit to the jakes, so simple, so elemental even; Father Conmee, so reassuringly banal, an image answered by watching priests on the schoolyard; even the periods of blank confusion -- who is who in the newspaper chapter, in the cemetery chapter, in the many bar scenes -- could be offset by such striking moments: the men spying on the barmaids who spy on the street outside, the dissatisfactions of the funeral service and the ghoulish nature of burial, the hilarious leaps into verbal absurdity in 'Cyclops,' the rapid-fire witticisms and asides in 'Aeolus.'

But nothing stunned me as much as the 'dancing coins' on pious Deasy’s shoulders, and nothing captured my mind and heart like the love of language, the sheer verve of the art of discourse, as in Dedalus alone on the strand. For a would-be poet, every walk along the beach is a walk into eternity, and Joyce’s rendering of the nature of such reverie as a constant making and unmaking of thought, a search for constructions to place on reality, is an odyssey in itself, a depiction in miniature of the liberties his new stream-of-consciousness could take in its flow over objects, through time and space, arrested only by the odd intuition that words might be as palpable as shells and as scattered.

To Be Continued


Joseph Hutchison said...

I see from your profile that your Ph.D thesis dealt with Proust, Joyce, and Pynchon. Pynchon is a favorite of mine; I never went on with Proust after Swann's Way; but Joyce ... I've read and loved everything but Finnegans Wake, which I attempt yearly and always get a few pages deeper into before collapsing somewhere on the bank of the Liffey. A friend of mine read it, and loved it, with Campbell's Skeleton Key... close at hand, but I can seem to read that way. Do you have any suggestions? Reading it aloud? Establishing a cruising speed and sticking to it?

Donald Brown said...

My first time through FW was with the Skeleton Key as well. What I did was read the Key for the section I was about to read and then read the FW section shortly thereafter. The Key makes certain distortions that, in the long run, are questionable, but there's no denying that it's a very coherent take on the book and how it works, that will be helpful to you if you ever want to try to 'explain' FW to anyone.

But at the same time I was doing that, I was meeting with friends and we took turns reading FW aloud, just to let it wash over us. The great thing about that is that much moe of the humor comes out when you're just reading along/listening.

More recently, I've read FW with a group of faculty and grad students, and the preferred technique was to read aloud a few pages, round-robin, then try to parse what we'd gone over. This is great if you're in college and can drum up enough interested people -- it very much helps if some have studied foreign languages -- to stay with it.

But your idea of establishing a speed and sticking to it is the best for just getting through it the first time and seeing what sense you make of it.

Also, if you find yourself stuck in the first chapter, try a chapter that is more self-contained and 'easier': my suggestion is Ch. 8 (the ALP chapter, which is the best known single part of the book), or Ch. 7, "shem the penman," which is a pretty funny Joycean self-portrait.

Joseph Hutchison said...

Great advice. Thanks! I'll let you know if I emerge on the other side as an exhausted swimmer or ... sausage!