christopher james

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Tag: the ulysses diary

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 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