christopher james

Poems and prattle

Month: August, 2012

The Ulysses Diary – Day 8

Bono, that arch doyen of popular song, once said that if James Joyce had remained in Ireland to write Ulysses, he would have talked it away. Written in artistic exile in Paris, Joyce certainly had no problem recalling the Dubliner’s distinctive turn of phrase in this section of the book. The talk at the funeral is a curious mixture of reverence and irreverence. The church caretaker even has time to tell a joke – how a mourner mistakes a statue of Jesus in a foggy graveyard for his late acquaintance. ‘Not a bloody bit like the man’ he says. Joyce makes his own reference to Hamlet to save us the trouble of deciphering the reference to the gravedigger.  

Bloom has his own thoughts: ‘Don’t joke about the dead for two years at least’ and yet, he can’t help but find his mind wandering as it does throughout the book. Once again his vanity and jealousies get the better of him: ‘Nice soft tweed Ned Lambert has in that suit.’ The episode is full of stream of conscious and word association mirroring the distracted mind. ‘Far away a donkey brayed. Rain. No such ass.’

He turns from these idle thoughts back to the grave – of the ‘hole waiting for himself,’ and even worries about buried alive, going as far as to devise himself a rescue system, reflecting that there ought to be an ‘electric clock or a telephone in the coffin and some kind of canvas airhole. Flag of distress.’ From such childish footling he suddenly feels a stirring sense of loss for everyone who walked Dublin’s streets before him, invoking their ghostly, collective voice:

‘How many! All these here once walked round Dublin. Faithful departed. As you are now so once were we.’   

Once again, religion, politics and history rattle like restless phantoms around the narrative; even the great (Charles Stewart) Parnell, the nationalist leader is reduced to ashes. He ‘will never come again’ Hynes says. Bloom considers what grants immortality: a photograph? A scratchy recording on a gramophone? They are flimsy substitutes for the flesh and blood and the spirit of a man.   

Charles Stewart Parnell

The episode concludes with the symbol of an obese grey rat, scurrying about in the crypt, ready for the next visitor. It’s a dark, unsettling chapter, musing on death and little else: ‘the saltwhite crumbling mush of corpse.’ Bloom is already well acquainted with death but manages to shake it off for now, thinking of ‘warm beds: warm fullblooded life.’

An unusual word that caught my eye: ‘Chapfallen.’ Taken to mean a unique male version of ‘crestfallen’ implying a certain mid-life weariness.

Pages: 101-117

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The Ulysses Diary – Day 7

Tonight my friends, we reach page 100. Someone order the Guinness. With a challenging novel there is always the temptation to stop, poke a finger in the book to mark your place and take a self congratulatory look at the progress you’ve made. For the stat fans out there, we’re approximately one seventh of the way there.  

But this is a novel to be savoured; anyone who speed-reads Joyce I’m afraid is missing the point. Unless possessed of superhuman powers of absorption equivalent at least to a leading brand of kitchen roll, any sense of meaning would simply enter one eye and go out the other. Switch off for a moment and you will find you’ve read a paragraph and taken in precisely nothing at all.   

So, the funeral carriage sets off containing Martin Cunningham, Bloom and Mr Dedalus (Stephen’s uncle as the separate narratives converge). It’s a slow, meandering trip ‘at walking pace’ through Dublin’s streets, leaving plenty of time for thoughts on life and death.  Stephen is spotted loafing in the street and Dedalus senior rants against that ‘contaminated bloody doubledyed ruffian’ Mulligan, who he believes to be a corrupting influence. Bloom reflects on his own (now dead) son, Rudy.

Once again, thoughts large and small, profound and trivial permeate Bloom’s mind – he snaps out of the reverie for his son glad to have bathed, although now complaining about holes in his socks. He is constantly preoccupied by minor setbacks, perhaps to avoid dwelling on his life’s larger calamities. The cortege takes a grand tour and Joyce gives us Dublin’s landmarks to orient us – the canal, Gray’s Statue, Nelson’s column (now gone). There’s is a sharp description of the beginning of a shower: ‘A raindrop spat on his hat.’ Again, sound and smell are as important, and we hear the authentic voices of the street: ‘Four bootlaces for a penny.’ There is a documentary quality to the reportage; Bloom’s senses are also perhaps heightened by the occasion.

There is irreverent banter in the carriage; an anecdote is told, before the men become ashamed at their flip behaviour; respectability is important to them, but together they can’t help but giggle like schoolboys. ‘Poor little Paddy wouldn’t grudge us a laugh. Many a good one he told himself.’ There is a delicious eulogy from Dedalus senior, pronouncing Paddy ‘As decent a little man who ever wore a hat.’

We veer from comedy to tragedy. The sight of a separate procession taking a child’s coffin is another reminder of Bloom’s lost child ‘weak as putty in a whitelined deal box.’ There is a heartbreaking description which arrives in staccato bursts: ‘Our. Little. Beggar. Baby.’ The loss makes Bloom a more serious, sympathetic figure. There are faint songs and echoes in the text that interrupt the conventional narrative flow – a built in, haunting soundtrack that appears without parenthesis or comment: ‘Rattle his bones. Over the stones. Only a pauper. Nobody owns.’

A further hold up is more unexpected – a herd of cattle are being driven to market: again brilliantly sketched: ‘slouching by on padded hoofs, whisking their tails slowly on their clotted, bony croups.’ It is these vivid moments when the book reaches its pitch of verisimilitude. Almost as soon then, it lurches back into dark comedy; another anecdote is told of a coffin being thrown from the hearse and a vision of Paddy shooting out of his coffin and ‘rolling over stiff in the dust.’

Perhaps what’s most telling in this sequence are the frequency of references to progress, change and the passing of time; they note that trams are now transporting the dead in Milan rather than horses. Dedalus is glad ‘a fine old custom . . .  has not died out.’ Black humour seeps through the pages, undercutting the sorrow of personal disaster and providing consolation against the indifference of city life.  

Pages 88 – 100

The Ulysses Diary – Day 6

Compared with the end of part 1, this section is quite coherent – and also wonderfully enjoyable; Bloom can be found once again restlessly roaming the streets (in much the same way as Ulysses/Odysseus travelled the seas).

If Virginia Woolf is painterly in her approach, the Joyce is filmic. Little escapes his eye – from the billboards and advertising slogans of ‘the Belfast and Oriental Tea Company,’ ‘Cochrane’s Ginger Ale (Aromatic)’ and ‘Plumtree’s Potted Meat.’ Commercials are haphazard poetry of the streets, part of the living language. He hears snatches of street talk from boys outside pubs ‘Come home to ma, da.’ Dublin comes to life through Bloom’s senses.  

There is an encounter with an acquaintance and the originality of Irish conversation is in full evidence, despite the fact that Bloom would rather not be bothered: ‘How’s the body?/Fine, how are you?/Just keeping alive.’ This is the sort of thing you imagine Joyce overhearing in the next snug while in the pub working at his notebook.

The tenuous thread of the impending funeral is what keeps this narrative going – but it’s still easy to get lost. Joyce continues to mix Bloom’s always amusing unspoken thoughts monologue (‘curse your noisy pugnose’) with his observations and the narrative switches without warning between these and reported speech.

There are continued ruminations about money – Bloom recalls the story of the man who cashed a seven figure cheque. Envious, Bloom works out how much porter a million pounds would buy him (a million barrels) It’s a beautifully inane thought.   

Upon reaching the church, there are more of Bloom’s garrulous, cynical musings, this time on Catholicism – including the idea that they drink wine rather than porter in church simply because it’s ‘more aristocratic.’ He also muses on the pleasant life of religious orders: ‘They had a gay old time while it lasted. Healthy too chanting, regular hours, then brew liquors.’ He can only think in terms of his own pleasure centric universe.

His irreligious thoughts aside, he ruminates on the pleasures of perfume, Turkish massage, for which alas there is no time and we leave him in delicious anticipation of a bath, which is described in such immaculate poetry, I won’t try and paraphrase here – or indeed spoil your enjoyment when you come to read it.

Pages 72-88

The Ulysses Diary – Day 5

I have a confession; I’ve been moonlighting with a number of other books. Not even books that throw light on the Irish masterpiece. Simply books that I’ve found more accessible, more welcoming, more coherent. Ulysses is not a comfort read. It’s a dense, forbidding brick of a book from another time and another place. And it was very strange even then.

My main mistress has been Claire Tomalin’s life of Charles Dickens, which marches on with the brilliance and energy of the man himself; when not swimming in the Thames, staging plays, acting, editing magazines, entertaining, travelling, he spent a little time writing novels. Sometimes two at a time. Ridiculous.  But this is the book that sits irresistably next to Ulysses on my bedside table, which is a very dangerous thing. It’s like having a marshmallow next to a piece of broccoli.

Back to the book. Episode II begins with the introduction of the book’s central character: Leopold Bloom. His strange appetite’s are revealed immediately; he is a man of the flesh. More specifically, he enjoys ‘the inner organs of beasts and fouls.’ His world is devoted to pleasure in all its forms: food, sex, drink, sunlight (‘his eyelids sank quietly as he walked in happy warmth’) – even the evacuation of his bowels. Ostensibly, this section is simply about Bloom leaving the house to buy kidneys for breakfast then returning to cook and eat it; he is curious and observant; of his cat’s manners; of the jingling of the loose fittings on the bed (an intimation perhaps of his wife’s infidelity?) Like Dedalus, he daydreams, free associates – one thing reminds him of another. He muses on foreign lands; the ‘orangegroves and immense melonfields’ which expand the horizon of the novel beyond Dublin – without actually leaving it.

As you would expect from a novel that takes place on a single day; the narrative is minutely detailed; simply collecting the change from the butcher is exquisitely recorded. The prose is highly sensual; we can smell and taste as well as see – from the urine tang of the kidney to the perfume of the waxonfruit. Bloom is also prone to moodswings; he veers from pleasant musings to ‘desolation’ as he discovers evidence of his wife’s affair with Boylan. ‘Grey horror’ seared his flesh.’

Nevertheless, he and his wife act out a routine morning, exchanging thoughts and pleasantaries, while he eyes her objectively, faintly aroused as she slowly rises. Time and again he returns to his ‘toothsome, pliant meat’ – is it a reliable comfort (even when slightly burned). The description of Bloom’s defacation you imagine was without precedent at the time, and is a masterpiece of comic description: ‘seated calm above his own rising smell.’

From these few pages, we get a profound sense of the man – his thoughts, both noble and carnal, his pleasures, his fears; his appointments. The mechanics of everyday living are documented in their entirity. It is the simultaneous nature of existence that is revealed here – things do not happen one at a time, as they do in perhaps more conventional novels. Despite its oddnes, this is closer to reality. People experience life changing events while swirling a spoon in a tea cup, or feeding the cat. Ulysses contains both the poetry of the profound and the poetry of the mundane.

Pages 53 – 72

The Ulysses Diary – Day 4

It feels strangely heroic tackling the world’s most difficult novel: something akin to running an ironman triathlon or perhaps venturing into unexplored jungle. Your stupidity is laid bare – your lack of cultural fitness is wide open for all to see. The poison darts of unknown references, indecipherable Latin and Greek quotations are ready to sting you at any moment.

Of course there is considerably more help for the modern reader; when I was a student, you would either rely on the marginalia of the student who owned the book before you (always unreliable) your lecture notes (not always up to date or taken at all) or the secondary text (usually written and recommended by the lecturer hoping to flog copies to his students). The now the infinite resource of the Internet provides instant translations and ready (if still suspect) answers to some of Joyce’s riddles.

Wise or not, I am attempting to fly solo with my reading, avoiding online interpretations, wanting to discover the novel for myself as its first baffled readers would have found it; to enjoy its poetry, rather than decipher it. This will no doubt, result in some embarrassing wrong turns.

I take a lunchtime sprint through the second episode: Dedalus concludes his payday discussions with the pompous headmaster, who provides some Polonius like advice to the young teacher. Despite the older man’s council to heed the maxim: ‘I paid my way’ Stephen finds this impossible with a list of creditors and only a handful of change to satisfy them all. There is a particularly fine comic moment when Stephen runs through a mental list of everything he owes: ‘Mulligan: nine pounds, three pairs of socks, one pair brogues, ties. .  .’

The next moment, he is being treated like an errand boy than a classical scholar – being asked to deliver the Mr Deasy’s letters on Foot and Mouth problem to the newspapers for publication. Joyce uses their meeting to open a discussion on Irish history and ‘I saw three generations since O’Connell’s time. I remember the famine.’ The shadow of Ireland’s history falls across everything – particularly the skism between the rebel blood and ‘old England’s winding sheet.’ Nationalists find themselves descended from the British. This section is also home to one of the Ulysses greatest hits: ‘History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to wake.’ Perhaps we should ring a bell every time we step across one of these?  

After leaving the office Stephen falls into a dreamlike reflection – a classicl Joycian stream of consciousness, about his religion, his friends, his dreams and regrets; densely written with only occasional nods to narrative sense. He is still haunted by the death of his mother and pursued by his conscience: ‘The aunt think you killed your mother.’ The text becomes feverish and fragmented: ‘The flood is following me. . .  these heavy sands are language tides.’ At times like these, you find yourself hanging onto Joyce’s coattails, simply hoping not to fall off. An earlier reference to jews as ‘wanderers of the earth’ sparks an evocative sketch of Paris: ‘crude sunlight on her lemon streets. Mosit pith of farls of bread.’  When there is a narrative signpost such as ‘I mustn’t forget his letter for the press. And after? The Ship’ (to meet Mulligan) you accept it gratefully.     

Above all it is the fragments of poetry you find yourself enjoying most: ‘They are coming, waves. The whitemaned seahorses, champing, brightwindbridled, the steeds of Mananaan.’ Coining new phrases, sensual and uninhibited, Joyce is flying here. Taken as a verse novel, a collection of poems alone, it is a magnificent achievement.

Pages 36 – 52

The Ulysses Diary – Day 3

I’ve realised something about Ulysses. It needs to be read slowly. Really slowly and almost everything needs reading twice. Absorbing it at the first reading is almost impossible. You need to tune into its idioms, the impersonations, the jokes and references. It’s a little like reading a foreign language of which you only have a basic grasp.

The holy trinity of Mulligan, Dedalus and Haines make their way down to the shore and continue their discussions. Sex, death religion and money are the themes that circle endlessly around their conversations. There are meditations on Catholicism; its mystical, ritualistic hold on the nation, and there is also an uncomfortable, possible anti-Semitic discussion about race. It’s difficult to determine Joyce’s position from the text – so much comes in the form of ventriloquism.

The sensuality of earthly pleasures continue to dominate the spiritual musings; the ritual of lighting a cigarette mirrors the complex rituals of the church; and there is a poetry in the detail:  ‘he took from his pocket a nickel tinderbox (and) held the flaming spunk towards Steven in the shell of his hand.’ The sea is also a constant presence – both as a giver and taker of life; there is a deep and obvious awareness of their country as an island nation.

Later we find Dedalus teaching; there is a cruel and depressing meeting between him and the dull boy Sargent; Dedalus realises the boy will never overcome his dim wittedness; ‘Futility,’ Joyce notes, then adds: ‘Ugly and futile.’ The boy’s stupidity is mocked by Dedalus’ own brilliance and intellectual snobbery, at odds, incidentally with his professed Christianity. However this is followed by payback – Stephen’s own humiliating visit to the headmaster to receive his pay: ‘two crowns and two shillings.’ The text is littered with religious references: ‘world without end’ – ‘the scallop shell of the pilgrim’ They haunt the book like a guilty conscience.  They are ‘symbols soiled by greed and misery.’

Pages 24-36