On “Ulysses”

dream landscape 2 I finished Ulysses. My goodness, that was a slog. The allusions are fun, though characterization and coherence suffer roundly, and while I understand it’s supposed to be one of the first and most important “modernist” novels I’m rather convinced it was luck that chose it for that laurel rather than some other pile of authorial navel-gazing coming to Sylvia Beach‘s attention. I also rather think Stephen Dedalus was Joyce as he wanted to be, Leopold Bloom more like the hapless fetishizer of bottoms Joyce actually was. Circe’s island as a brothel, the Sirens as masturbatory fantasies, well, it was a man writing it, and it’s rather uncomfortably in the spirit of the original’s social conditions. Making Penelope into a cuckolding Molly only serves to highlight the fact that Joyce didn’t know shite about women, and is the biggest blackening of the Odyssey‘s eye–and the one, really, that I did not forgive Joyce for. His overheated (and inaccurate) fantasies about what a woman might think made me roll my eyes so hard it was difficult to keep reading.

I agree with Jung that there’s no rest in the book. The presentation of bodily functions in its pages (part and parcel of the “obscenity” trial) is schoolboy-ish, rather like a kid writing “bottom” in a margin or snort-giggling over Lake Titicaca. (Had Beach been enamored of another author, I might well be discussing that instead of Joyce. He was well-connected, at least.) I suppose that was only to be expected, and that schoolboy-ish or not it was daring for its time and opened a door somewhat–so that’s one point in Joyce’s favor.

I understood the allusions and the games with prose and rhetoric Joyce was playing, but it felt like he was simply dipping a surface reading of the Odyssey into used bathwater without adding anything new, interesting, or worthwhile, while taking away a great deal of power and beauty. Also missing is the idea that choices the truly disenfranchised (women, slaves, etc.) make can affect the outcome of great events as well, which the original had in spades. I’d almost prefer O Brother, Where Art Thou? as a finer homage. The Coen brothers had the benefit of looser social conditions, but still.

My views are admittedly somewhat colored by my feelings about the Kerouac Factor–young males sponging off women and kin, going off in search of “adventure,” finally producing a pile of self-referential bullshit that seems marvelous when one is twelve to fourteen but ages badly and turns puerile once one has acquired some basic perspective by sheer dint of living and thinking about things. (Or, one who wanders unprepared into the damn wilderness because living on the fringes has given a false sense of superiority and an inaccurate estimation of one’s own survival skills.) You could also call this the Salinger Factor. It’s gotten to the point where I see a young guy buying On the Road or Catcher in the Rye and I think, oh, we’re going to stick that in a back pocket and use it to draw in girls who haven’t lived long enough to know better, aren’t we. As a “classic” that a lot of slightly older males use to seem well-read and Serious About Literature, Ulysses falls somewhat under the same shade.

My final estimation of the book: not one I ever think I’m going to reread, though I’m glad I made it through. The allusions were fun, and playing the “oh, this is the prose style we’re in now” game was enjoyable, at least. I still would prefer to read Nora’s letters. I’d rate it a solid B-, for the classicism and the glimpses of historical Dublin, and for the occasional flashes of brilliance struggling through in Joyce’s sendup of penny awkward (instead of dreadful) novels. I kept reading, hoping for more of those flashes, but in the end, they remained fleeting.

Next up: some history to cleanse the palate. Already it’s proving far more enjoyable.

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