Friday, February 5, 2016

Ulysses ~ James Joyce

Words cannot explain how much I loved this amazing piece of work by Joyce!  I was astounded and flabbergasted by his knowledge and use of language. 

The structure of Ulysses is based on Homer’s The Odyssey, which I did read first, however without my study guide I would have missed an awful lot of the references, some of which were so clever that they were hilarious.  It is definitely beneficial to read The Odyssey first to fully appreciate the skill involved in creating the structure for Ulysses.

It is also beneficial to read A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man to understand the character of Stephen Dedalus.  This I also did, and loved it, although it was heartbreaking in places.

Ulysses is set in Dublin and is basically one day in the life of Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew (this in itself has many connotations which I won’t go into as the Study Guides describe it so much better than I).  Bloom is a bit of a loner, he’s on the outside of his group of friends, and he’s a cuckold.  He is however a very caring and gentle man, who dearly misses his son Rudy who died in infancy.  During the course of the day he finds himself concerned about Stephen Dedalus and tries to be a father figure to him, and after a challenging evening keeps him out of trouble.

Molly Bloom is Leopold’s voluptuous operatic wife, who is having an affair with the director of her theatre group.  The affair is no secret, and on the day that she is expecting her lover Leopold ensures that he fills his day and evening away from home. 

The events are mundane in themselves, a funeral, a visit to the newspaper office, a trip to the pub, a walk on the beach (where Leopold undertakes a lewd act), a visit to the ‘red light’ district (keeping an eye on Stephen) and eventually home again into the bed which is still warm from Molly’s antics.

The wonderful thing about this work is how it is presented.  First of all there are so many things that need to be kept track of (ie the lemon scented soap in Bloom’s trouser pocket which he buys in the morning, the outcome of the local horse race, and the various people he interacts with) as they crop up throughout the novel.  By various devices we learn about the history of Dublin and Ireland, its notorious figures (real and fictional) and politicians, along with the general mood of the day towards current events and Ireland’s stance with England.

The novel is written in many styles which, if read without a study guide, would be an impossible task to understand.  Once you realise what Joyce is trying to achieve within the style you marvel at his cleverness and revel in the words.  Such styles include one section which demonstrates the evolution of the English language from stylised Latin to Dublin slang.  Truly amazing! One part is written in the style of various prose such a newspaper accounts, diarists, sensationalist novelists, romantic novelists etc and another section is written like a play (the events in Night Town) etc. 

But, for me the most beautiful sections of Ulysses were those written as a stream of consciousness.  They were incredible, and made me think about the way that my own thought processes work and yes, like in the book, they do jump around and are unfinished. 

The last section is written as Molly’s stream of consciousness so that we finally get to see her point of view and why she is having an affair.  At first she seems to despise Leopold, but by the end you realise she does love him dearly and that realisation is the most beautifully written passage in the whole novel.

Ulysses is without doubt the most challenging book I’ve read since Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon.  It took me a good five months to complete with the assistance of a study guide, reading half an hour each morning before work when I could guarantee no interruptions and no danger of falling asleep which always happens when I read in bed! I finished it late last year but I have been ruminating on it ever since, still trying to get my head around what I have experienced, and I know that I will never read anything like it ever again.


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