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Breast milk anyone?
Ulysses - James Joyce
Member Name: demosthenes
Ulysses - James Joyce
Date: 31/08/01, updated on 02/11/01 (1908 review reads)
Advantages: could have been written by God
Disadvantages: not a walk in the park
But it’s not as difficult as you might think (especially if you purchase Harry Blamire’s The Bloomsday Book (which is absurdly expensive (£16?), but worth getting if you’re serious about Ulysses)), and is extremely rewarding when you get into and through it.
Ulysses describes a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, a nice man who lives in Dublin, is married to Molly and likes to read on the loo. The trick when reading Joyce’s Ulysses, and this is where The Bloomsday Book is so handy, is to relate it to Homer’s Odyssey. Leopold is Ulysses/Odysseus, Molly is Penelope, Stephen Dedalus (hero of Stephen Hero (oddly enough) and Joyce’s later re-writing of that book, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) is Telemachus, their son, even though Stephen is only Leopold’s spiritual son.
Each chapter of Ulysses mirrors a section of The Odyssey, and The Bloomsday Book explains it all. The reason for this lies in Modernism (modernism to those who know it well and aren’t afraid anymore). Literary modernism is a period and style of writing that is represented by Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot’s The Wasteland, and even Picasso’s cubism (all of these artists were working in Paris in the same time, and they released their seminal works within a few months of each other – serendipity!).Modernism was, essentially (and to be simplistic about it) a search, a seeking: they were looking for three things – a new style, connection with the past, and a way out of the crisis of language brought about by structuralism (which showed how, simply put,
language works, and how meaning is by and large arbitrary and socially agreed upon, as opposed to essential and intrinsic). So, by echoing The Odyssey, Joyce links Ulysses to classical literature, and so offers not just a new narrative and an experimental novel (Joyce invented, in the final chapter (more about this later) the interior monologue) that tussles with how to use language and explores a new style, but also makes a connection with the foundation of classical literature. It is a double eclipse, a waxing and waning – link to the past, to tradition, but break away from it as well. Hence, Stephen Dedalus, walking on an Irish beach, has a vision of ancient ships coming in to land, sailing into the bay. Or he imagines an umbilical cord that connects him to his mother and is a kind of telephone to the divine, coming out of his navel, his omphalos (the navel, the hub, being a central image of connectivity in the novel).
Each chapter is also written in a different style from each other chapter. This is Joyce showing off, but also Joyce challenging the whole of Western literature: again, he is mimicking it so as to move away from it. He is like the pupil who establishes his mastery over his masters by writing a better book in their own style. The Bloomsday Book (the Ulysses bible), again, explains all this as you read (the page numbers refer to the Penguin edition, I think).
So, at the end of the novel you reach some of the finest writing ever offered up for us to read – the famous last chapter, the Penelope chapter, wherein we sink into the mind of Molly Bloom. Penelope is written in eight enormous sentences, and thus the entire chapter has only eight punctuation marks (full-stops). The number eight is, of course, significant, because on its side (Molly is lying on her side in bed, thinking to herself) it is the symbol for infinity. Molly’s interior monologue is a grasping at eternity. She draws us into her memory, of how she met
Leopold, of falling in love, of having sex with him on a hillside, of sleeping with Blaise Boylan that afternoon, and so on and so on. My favourite bit is when she remembers squirting her breast milk into Leopold’s tea for him (perhaps that reveals too much about me). This monologue is intensely erotic, not just because of what she remembers, but also because of the languorous, lovely, lusty way in which Molly thinks and the way in which Joyce transmits that to us. I know people who have spent a good deal of their lives reading this novel, but are obsessed with this chapter in particular: it is an amazing thing.
Ulysses, when you’ve finished it, will stay with you: it resonates in your mind and in your life, in your ‘breaking brain’. Don’t be intimidated, but do buy The Bloomsdy Book and use it as you read. Each re-reading, by the way, gets easier and easier, and you find new and amazing things in it.
Bloomsday (the day the novel describes) is the 16th of June. Light a candle or something, or more fittingly, do something erotic – Joyce would appreciate it, I’m sure.