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