christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: james joyce

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

Advertisements

The Ulysses Diary – Day 1 part 2

Perhaps by way of encouragement, in my edition page 1 is actually page 9, so it already feels like we’re off to a flyer. It goes something like this. There are these two students who live a bookish, penniless existence in a tower. One is a loquacious medical student (Mulligan) the other a slightly more reticent, but you suspect, cleverer, school teacher (Dedalus). Both know a fair smattering of Latin. Today they would be living on ProPlus, Red Bull, cheap lager, beans, while watching Australian soap operas, possibly children’s daytime TV. There is a third lodger, an Englishman (‘a ponderous Saxon’) called Haines who appears to be a little outside the club, but is fascinated by their witty, surreal banter. He likes it so much he wants to make a book about it.

It’s eight in the morning, the day is beginning and like true students, they’re already thinking about lack of money and beer:  ‘The sacred pint alone can unbind the tongue of Dedalus,’ chides Mulligan. Dedelas is in need of drink. He is mourning his mother, although receives no sympathy from Mulligan who mocks him as a fearsome Jesuit. Food and drink in fact are deliciously decribed throughout: strong tea, thickly buttered bread, drizzled honey, mouthfuls of fry. The characters like, Joyce himself are aesthetes and decadents – they delight in the surface pleasures – their own fruity turns of phrase; at one point Mulligan says ‘I remember only ideas and sensations.’ Ideas and sensations are a good description of the book itself. Joyce is the third player in this literary bandiage. His own prose is flowery, poetic – almost deliberately purple in places; in their ‘gloomy domed livingroom . . . two shafts of soft daylight fell across the flagged floor.’ The memory of Dedalus’ mother is ‘muskperfumed.’ Throughout there is a tension between the virility of life – the freezing sea, the greasy food, the shouts and shadows vs. the sterily of death. Mulligan isn’t really mocking Dedelus, he’s affirming the many pleasures of life.

The Ulysses Diary – Day 1

The campaign begins on the Tube on the way back from a meeting near Euston at 3pm. There’s no easy way to open Ulysses in public and to be seen to be starting on page 1 is positively laughable. I look down, somewhat forlorn, at my copy of Wild Olives by William Graves about the colourful life of his father, William Graves in Majorca. I’m really enjoying this and it takes every ounce of willpower to avoid picking it up instead.

Furtively, I retrieve my mother’s 1971 reprint of the Bodley Head edition from my satchel and am immediately distracted by the note I left in from the last attemppt, which appears to be a to do list. It reads: ‘Make cake, run, read Dickens, poem idea – How it all turned out in the end.’ I’m not sure how it did turn out in the end. I can’t remember if I did go for a run or make the cake. I make lists like these all the time. My new year’s resolutions were once: ‘Watch King Lear, Ride a Penny Farthing.’  

Shuffling about with these papers, I realise several people have glanced at the cover. A middle aged woman with a kindly face, blonde hair and a black skirt that ends above the knee, surpresses a smile. Now the book has drawn attention, I feel I can’t very well start at page 1, so open it midway instead and pretend to be engrossed in page 316. This consists mainly of a long list of the names of various clergymen. I don’t feel like I’ve spoiled any surprises for myself. When I think no one’s looking, I carefully turn back to the start of the first episode and get my head down. I hear the woman make a remark to her husband (‘Wake up!’) who unbeknownst to me is sitting opposite her. She’s Irish, which is an auspicious start.

Pages: 9-24

The Ulysses Diary

While shaving this morning, I make a solemn promise. After a hundred false starts, and after carrying it from house to house, town to town, home to work, I am going to read Ulysses.

Of course I’ve pretended to have have read it many times; when I studied A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man at school in Rugby while I was still singing in the choir: Panis angelicus. Fit panis hominum; Dat panis coelicus. Figuris terminum; when I took a copy to Dublin with me on a city break a few years back. Most recently when I won second prize in a poetry competition with a poem called Smuggling Ulysses (a slightly apocryphal tale about a man in 1922 who transported the first edition of the book stuck to his skin from Paris into England.)

And of course I’ve dipped into it. Everyone has dipped into it. Like most literary fraudsters, I can quote the bit about ‘The snotgreen sea. The Scrotumtightening sea.’  This sounds great intoning on the beach at Cromer while you’re stripping off and steeling yourself for a few bracing lengths. But maybe that’s only because it can be found on the third page in; and even the hungover student who tries to read it on the bus before their seminar will get at least that far. But le’s face it, I am a gigantic fraud. This must end and the campaigns starts today.