Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Looking Ahead: Notes on Proust

I'm wandering through Circe at the moment, in Ulysses, but last night I took a break and picked up Swann's Way -- the first volume of Marcel Proust's 7-volume masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. I've decided that will be my next book when I finish Ulysses sometime in the next couple weeks, and last night I took Swann's Way for a drive. I wanted to see how many pages I could read, at a leisurely pace, in an hour. I read twenty-five pages in little more than an hour, and made it to page thirty-one (because I was enjoying it -- good sign!) after an hour and 17 minutes.

In Search of Lost Time runs 3,098 pages. I'm using the latest Viking edition.

I did some calculations, which I know are subject to variables beyond my control. But I determined that if I read for about 75 minutes a day, I can finish it by the end of the year. The goal is to finish it by the end of January 2015, however. I realize that sounds crazy, but finishing the 1,500-page Clarissa, or: The History of a Young Lady and nearing the light at the end of the tunnel on my first time through Ulysses has emboldened me. Also, I was encouraged by the fact that I genuinely enjoyed Proust's writing voice. I connected with it. I got it. Honestly, it didn't strike me as "hard." Complex, yes, and beautiful. But not difficult.

Certainly, not Ulysses difficult.

I can do this. I am doing it.

Then, on to Middlemarch. Two weeks? Three weeks? Maybe I'm being optimistic.

Then, War and Peace. For the record: I'm already nervous about all those Russian names.

And finally, Gravity's Rainbow. I picked that to replace The Tale of Genji, which I ditched early in the project (after finishing Moby Dick) because I simply hated it. That, and I wanted to include something written in the 20th century. Earlier this year, on the occasional night when I couldn't sleep, I'd get up in the middle of the night and read a few pages. I became intrigued. I figured, why not?

That's the Reading Everest map for the rest of the journey.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

How Much Joyce is Enough? (Part I)

I survived the Oxen of the Sun episode of Ulysses, the first that I genuinely disliked (at times) and felt utterly lost in. As weird as everything else has been, it's the first chapter in which Joyce makes English seem like a foreign language. At times, it strays (linguistically speaking) into Finnegans Wake territory, and I can't help but think it was during its writing that the idea of Finnegans Wake began to gestate in Joyce. Once again, I turned to the RTE broadcast of Ulysses for assistance. I listened carefully as the first page was read aloud in bold, stentorian tones. 

I understood every word. And I had no idea what they meant. 

But I want to return to Sirens for a moment, because I came across an anecdote about its writing that has occupied my mind since hearing it. 

The Sirens episode takes place late afternoon. Bloom has an early dinner with Stephen's uncle at the Ormond Hotel, while Boylen heads to his tryst with Molly. Bloom watches the barmaids, and listens to Stephen's father sing. In a strictly narrative sense, this is all that "happens." 

Joyce takes more than 12,000 words to present this relatively simple action in such a way that the text mimics, with fantastic precision, music. It took him five months to write it.

It was while reading Sirens that I realized that years ago, when I embarked on this crazy project of reading the longest, most difficult novels of all time, a friend loaned me The Teaching Company's lecture package on Ulysses, delivered by Professor James A.W. Heffernan of Dartmouth College. He had embarked on Ulysses and, like so many others, thrown his arms up in despair. So he loaned the CDs to me, probably not expecting to get them back, nor really wanting them back. 

I listened to the lecture on the Sirens episode.

Heffernan told a story about a remark Joyce made about Sirens after writing it, and that sent me to the Ellmann biography, looking for the full quote. Here it is:

"I finished the 'Sirens' chapter during the last three days — a big job. I wrote this chapter with the technical resources of music. It is a fugue with all musical notations: piano, forte, rallentando, and so on. A quintet occurs in it too as in the 'Meistersinger,' my favorite Wagnerian opera. Since exploring the resources and artifices of music and employing them in this chapter, I haven't cared for music any more. I, the great friend of music, can no longer listen to it. I see through all the tricks and can't enjoy it any more."

He sees through the tricks, and can't enjoy it anymore.

This fascinated me, because within the last few months I've come across similar remarks made by a filmmaker and a novelist -- each of whom claimed to no longer enjoy "consuming" the art they they had dedicated their lives to producing. Why? They knew the tricks. There were no more surprises. They had toiled in the sausage factory and, having truly seen what was on the end of their fork, could no longer eat. 

It's at this point that I feel obliged to recall another Joyce quote. I don't have it in front of me, but can come pretty close to it: "All I ask of my reader," Joyce said, "is that he devote his life to reading my work."

Given that Joyce's literary output was, in terms of volume, well below that of Frank Herbert, Stephen King and even J.K. Rowling, devoting one's life to reading his work does not seem like a tall order -- until one considers that his work includes Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake. Then you may find yourself becoming defensive, cognizant that you are, as we all are (as Harold Bloom morbidly observes) reading "against the clock." And you may demand to know, as H.G. Wells did: "Who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousand I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?" 

Seriously. Right now, my "to read as soon as possible" list, purely for recreation and amusement, includes:

1) California, by Edan Lepucki
2) The Word Exchange, by Alena Graedon
3) The Circle and The Hologram, by Dave Eggers
4) Station Eleven, by Emily Mandel

On the non-fiction list, these titles, two of which I've actually gone so far as to check out from the library and three of which I'm in various stages of reading (but, realistically, am actually not reading):

1) Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt
2) The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God, by Peter Watson
3) Call Me Burroughs: A Life, by Barry Miles
4) This Changes Everything: Capitalism v. the Climate, by Naomi Kline
5) No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the N.S.A., and the U.S. Surveillance State, by Glenn Greenwald
6) The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert

I'm sure I could plow through any one of these books in two or three days, and yet: I'm reading Oxen of Sun in Ulysses. I am not devoting my entire life to reading (nothing but) Joyce's works, but I certainly have devoted my life since the middle of June to reading one of them. 

But here's where I'm going with this ...

Suppose I did, as Joyce wanted the literate world to do, devote my life to reading his works. Or rather, that I made it my mission to unravel each and every one of the enigmas and puzzles Joyce stuffed into this particular work, or at least as many of them as possible. Suppose I immersed myself in the selection of critical and biographical works recommended by Anthony Burgess in his surprisingly readable ReJoyce (which is, admittedly, a mere sliver of the pie of Joycean studies). Suppose I subscribed to James Joyce Quarterly, and attended conferences on Joyce and Ulysses, and suppose I got so good at it that I was capable of getting published in James Joyce Quarterly

Suppose, in other words, that I arrived at a point where I could see through the tricks. 

Would I still enjoy it? Or would I eventually come to regard Ulysses as Joyce apparently came feel about music? (In fairness, I don't know if he continued to feel this way for the rest of his life.) Is there a law of diminishing returns that eventually kicks in?

Part II of this post will be published later this week. I'd be more precise about timing, but I haven't written it yet, and I'm terrible about following my own deadlines. In the meantime, I'm deep into Circe, and will have more to say later about Oxen of the Sun, surely the strangest piece of writing I've ever encountered (and I've read Naked Lunch).

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Stuffed Inside 'Ulysses,' a Play Longer than 'Hamlet'

I have a couple other posts in the works (one inspired by Sirens, the other on Oxen of the Sun) which I'll publish later this week. But at the moment, a joyous announcement: This afternoon I finished Oxen of the Sun and I stand now at the precipice of Circe -- the longest single episode of Ulysses, which clocks in at 148 pages. 

I've been looking forward to this one ever since I started the book last summer, having read something somewhere alluding to it as a momentous chapter. Bloom and Stephen have now met, but now they will (I assume) bond. Joyce tells this part of the story in the format of a play -- an epic play. A play that runs longer than Hamlet (Shakespeare's longest play) by more than 1,000 lines. A play that took the RTE radio production more than four hours to read aloud. (A performance of an unabridged Hamlet on stage takes slightly more than three hours.) So I'm excited about heading into Circe this week. The end is in sight. Three episodes follow Circe, which brings Part II of Ulysses to its conclusion. Eumaeus, Ithaca and Penelope form the third and final part. 


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Sirens and Cyclops

This may be short, at the moment I'm more into reading the book than I am in writing about the book ...

Sirens, which I read a couple (three?) weeks ago now, is largely a blur. I read it while listening to the RTE Radio broadcast of Ulysses, figuring so long as music was the theme (and technique), it was probably best that I actually hear it. That was a good call, although the hysterical laughing of the barmaids got old fast. But I listened to all 97 minutes of it. Who wouldn't go the distance with this one, knowing the final note of the piece will be a fart? 

Cyclops -- the one-eyed beast from The Odyssey, here rendered by Joyce as the sort of person who is glued to FOX News all day -- an Irish version, of course. A loud, obnoxious right-wing, flag-waving idiot, his stupidity fueled by drink. Unnamed, which I thought was interesting -- as is the narrator, who is similarly reactionary (and anti-Semitic). Bloom holds his own with them, before fleeing the bar as the 'citizen' flings a dog biscuit tin at him -- just as the Cyclops in The Odyssey hurls a giant stone at Odysseus as he flees the island. 

But the real attraction of Cyclops, of course, is the extraordinary technique. When people (who haven't read Ulysses) talk about how difficult it is to read Ulysses, they invariably refer to the stream-of-consciousness and stop there -- because that's all they know, or at least, all they've heard. But stream-of-consciousness is only one of the tools Joyce uses. (And I love the way he frequently drops off the final word or two of a thought when it's clear enough what the words will be ... he lets you think it.) Joyce, a master of language and linguistic genius, has a huge toolbox, and in Cyclops, he dispenses with stream-of-consciousness and instead throws in what The New Bloomsday Book author Harry Blamires calls interpolations -- a rendering of the narrative in a different stylistic voice, a different kind of writing: So we get the language of the epic, the language of journalism (and several kinds of journalism, at that: gossip columns, sports columnist, etc.), the language of a children's picture book, the language of a religious ceremony, the language of a question-answer session in the House of Commons, the language of a public meeting, the language of the Bible, of bathroom graffiti, etc. It's pretty amazing, actually. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend listening to this portion, because the voice actors really bring out the ... well, absurdity of the way language is used to posture before an audience of readers. What we might call the falseness or banality of socially-constructed language. I hope I'm making sense. I certainly did not understand everything in Cyclops, but I got it. I got enough to suffice as a foundation for the next reading.

And then today, I read Nausicaa. The first half in a coffeeship, which (ahem) climaxed after an hour. And then the rest of it at home. Loved it. But more on Bloom at the beach next time. Seriously, I can hardly wait to get back to the book. I really want to be ready to tackle Circe by the weekend, and the only thing standing between me and that is Oxen of the Sun.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How to Read 'Ulysses'

In the past 24 hours, I have ...

Loaded and emptied the dishwasher 5-6 times, dropped my 5-year-old son Silas at Kindergarten (and picked him up) cleaned both litter boxes, refilled the cats' food and water bowls, read five books with Silas, bought coffee beans, researched how to remove burned plastic from a glass top stove, filled out son's homework log, taken out the trash, rolled garbage carts out to street, left a polite but firm note on the car whose owner then parked within a few feet of the garbage carts, forcing me to move them down the street before the truck arrived, put a new battery in Diesel 10, walked 1.5 miles and stretched, designed and built Lego replicas of accessories that come with a TrackMaster set (a gate, crane and oil pump) Silas does not have but is familiar with because he's seen it on YouTube and has declared he wants for Christmas, made a 30-second video of Diesel 10 rolling through the gate for son's amusement, cleaned up broken glass from a jar my wife retrieved from the freezer in the garage, cleaned a cat vomit stain in the carpet, glanced at the Sunday New York Times without actually reading any of it, read the first few pages of The Age of Atheists by Peter Watson before growing drowsy, swept the kitchen floor about a dozen times and scrubbed off 20-30 sticky splotches, tidied up the living room, did three loads of laundry (and actually put it away afterwards) and folded towels. Meanwhile, I have put off cleaning my bathroom, mowing the lawn, cleaning the garage, and taking down the summer air conditioner.

I also read (miraculously in three sittings, the third of which was interrupted by the broken jar incident) the Cyclops episode from Ulysses.

More on this later ...

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Wandering Rocks, Part II

I did not intend to read The Wandering Rocks twice, but one night a couple weeks ago I made myself comfortable on the living room sofa and plugged in my earphones to listen to the episode that follows, The Sirens. Two minutes later, I was in full WTF?!? mode. I removed the earphones, and looked at the text. No. I couldn't do it. I wasn't ready. 

So I went back to The Wandering Rocks

Why not?

I read it again, an exercise that leads me to think that one has not really read Ulysses once all the way through until you've read it ... twice. 

Then, only then, can you really start reading it. 

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by this point that a second reading of anything in Ulysses yields secrets that were elusive (even if they were in plain sight) the first time around. This is the episode, you'll recall, that tracks multiple characters around Dublin, as they move around the city in and out of each other's "scenes." Acknowledging that it is impossible at this point to say anything new about the book, I'll point to Burgess as having made the best analogy: It's like watching the gears of a clock line up neatly with each other. You'll be reading along, following Character A around, when Joyce without warning slips in a sentence referring to Character J -- more precisely, what Character J is (presumably) doing at that exact moment. Some refer backwards, some forwards.  Joyce reportedly wrote the chapter with a map of Dublin in front of him and a stopwatch, to determine exactly where everyone would be, and how long it would take them to walk from Point A to Point B. 

It's a fantastic experiment, and one cannot help but be in awe of the mastery Joyce exhibits here -- not only in the precision in moving around in a geographic space and through time itself, but in revealing character. My favorite, by far, is the sequence in which a fellow is telling a friend how he once pawed at the breasts of Leopold Bloom's wife Molly while they all rode a carriage together. Bloom was distracted by studying the stars. It's an exchange that highlights the apparent ridiculousness of Bloom, one of literature's most famous cuckolds, and yet it ends with a marvelous quote. Lenehan, possibly thinking he's offended M'Coy by talking trash about Bloom, gives the subject a second thought:

-- He's a cultured allaroundman, Bloom is, he said seriously. He's not one of your common or garden ... you know ... There's a touch of the artist about Bloom.

Note: That's how Joyce writes it. No quotation marks. 

A touch of the artist. More to Bloom than meets the eye, in other words. More importantly -- and I'm proud to say that I figured this out entirely on my own -- it hints at the inevitable meeting with the real artist in the book, Stephen. Clearly, they are kindred spirits.

Of course, I'm also aware of how The Wandering Rocks functions, in a way, to illustrate how the entire novel works. In an earlier episode, Bloom threw a piece of paper into a river; in this episode, Joyce pinpoints the throwaway's progress. A place for everything, and everything in its place. 

I'm now a little out of joint in balancing reading and writing. Since finishing The Wandering Rocks, I've read, while simultaneously listening to, The Sirens. I felt that was the only way to go, since the whole idea behind it is music, and music must be heard. 

So The Sirens will be the next topic here in the next day or two, but in the meantime, I'm actually already into Episode 12 --  Cyclops. Yet another literary experiment. Fascinating.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Wandering Rocks

I had intended to approach Episode 10 of Ulysses on two paths -- simultaneously listening to it while reading The Wandering Rocks. As I walked in the coffee shop early Saturday afternoon, I realized I'd left my earphones at home, so I was on my own. I got a coffee and a cheese Panini and got down to it.

We spent the previous episode holed up in the library, and for this episode of Ulysses, Joyce puts us back out on the streets of Dublin. The best way I can describe it is this: Robert Altman's film The Player, which opens with a tracking shot (no camera breaks) that goes on for nearly eight minutes -- besting the tracking shot Orson Welles used to open Touch of Evil by nearly five minutes. Altman's camera wanders around a movie studio as various characters walk in and out of frame, occasionally peering into offices and then out again, allowing the viewer to pick up snippets of conversations here and there. It took 15 takes to do this. 

It's a tribute to Joyce's genius as a writer, then, that The Wandering Rocks is even more complex than that. Not only does his "camera" (the text) follow a multitude of characters (both old and new) through the geographic space of Dublin, he jumps back and forth in time -- going back to pick up a sailor that you saw three pages earlier, revisiting the scene from his point of view. And of course, he also occasionally jumps into the minds of the characters, visits their memories. One small victory to note: I'm at a point where I can pretty much instantly tell whether I'm reading Stephen's thoughts versus his dialogue. I know how he thinks.

It became immediately clear to me what Joyce was doing -- and like each preceding episode, it was utterly different from each of the episodes before that. I immediately fell into the rhythm established by Joyce, pausing only to circle the names of new characters as they appeared. 

Then, I was lost, and it is here that, once again, I struggle to find the words to describe what Joyce does with words, and to describe the effect of those words on the reader.

Yesterday I was looking at photographs of Crater lake, the deepest, cleanest lake in the United States, and I was particularly fascinated by the image of divers swimming along the edge of the rock, the abyss falling away into cold darkness. Reading Ulysses is like swimming along the edge of such a cliff, following Stephen, Bloom, Molly, Buck Mulligan, etc. But they are better swimmers, they know the waters, and they're well equipped for diving. As you swim along, they get further ahead of you, and you are aware of the fantastic depth into which they're disappearing. You're keeping up, barely, but even as you swim along, you find that what really commands your attention is the abyss that yawns beneath, and you are filled with awe and fear.

This is a profoundly different experience from the 1,500-page Clarissa. Ulysses seems to get longer and bigger the more you read. Given the fantastic complexity of the previous 200 pages -- and knowing that Joyce (so far) trots out a different literary trick in each episode -- it is impossible to regard the coming 500 pages with a sense of relief. Only five hundred pages go to! You realize how deep the abyss is. You're gonna need a bigger submarine. 

Increasingly, as I get deeper into the book, I find myself asking the same question as I emerge more or less unscathed from each episode: How does one read this book? I can already see that I will read it again (and, like Hamlet and King Lear, again and again and again) but upon finishing The Wandering Rocks, I was unsure of what to do. So much of it clearly was over my head. Should I read it again now? Should my first reading of Ulysses actually be two, back-to-back, one-chapter-at-a-time readings? Or should I just plow ahead, knowing that my next ascent of Ulysses may be months or even years from now? (I do have Proust, Tolstoy, George Elliot and Pynchon left in this insane project, after all.)

Last night, I sat down with a glass of Jameson and thumbed through the Bloomsday book. Almost as bewildering as the actual text. Burgess was a little easier, but I was growing drowsy and finally got real. I'd spent two straight hours or so with Ulysses earlier in the day. My brain was fried. I'd planned to spend the evening with Joyce, but it obviously was not going to happen.

So I watched The Blob

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Episode 9: In Love with Shakespeare

Once again, I take solace in the words of Anthony Burgess, a supremely intelligent writer, a man of letters and an incessant reader of Ulysses, who gently advises us in his book ReJoyce that Scylla and Charybdis is an extraordinarily difficult episode of Joyce's novel. 

Once again, the final paragraph of his chapter on Scylla and Charybdis:

This is a difficult, subtle chapter, as befits its central character, its symbol and the art it glorifies. It draws on more literary forms than anything we have met so far -- the lyric, the dramatic (both verse and prose), and an interior monologue that contains (like a whirlpool) concentric layers of reference, touching on the very verge of consciousness. The vocabulary is immense and the Shakespearean scholarship formidable. An apparently simple theme -- the drawing together of the brain and heart and senses in a father-son symbiosis -- is dealt with on various interlocking levels, some of which seem to contradict each other.

The scene plays out in a library, and it is Stephen's show: He is presenting his theory on Hamlet, and everything Shakespeare. Previously, his perspective has been described by Buck Mulligan this way:

It's quite simple. He proves by algebra that Hamlet's grandson is Shakespeare's grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father.

This is ridiculous, obviously. Hamlet did not have children, or at least, we are not told that he did. Of course, Shakespeare doesn't tell us everything about his title characters. We can gather from Lady Macbeth's single line about having "given suck" that she has breastfed at least one child, but there is no mention of offspring beyond that. If true, the child likely died. 

I am not going to pretend that I'm able to follow Stephen's argument, which makes up the bulk of the episode. (I know this because I highlighted all his lines in yellow, and he has by far the most dialogue -- and that doesn't include his thoughts). But near as I am able to understand it, his perspective is: A text cannot be understood and appreciated unless it is viewed through the prism of the author's life.

We know little about Shakespeare, although we do know he had a son named Hamnet, and he died. Stephen basically takes this and runs with it, although Joyceans more seasoned and learned than I (which would include basically all of them) might object to this gross simplification. The opposing view is best articulated early in the episode by George Russell, who is a poet:

But this prying into the family life of a great man. Interesting only to the parish clerk. I mean, we have the plays. I mean, when we read the poetry of King Lear what is it to us how the poet lived? As for living our servants can do that for us, Villiers de l'Isle has said. Peeping and prying into the greenroom gossip of the day, the poet's drinking, the poet's debts. We have King Lear, and it is immortal. 

It would be a gross simplification to describe Scylla and Charybdis as a simple back-and-forth between these two neatly described and compartmentalized positions. They -- and Stephen -- meander all over the place, citing nearly half of Shakespeare's plays. When the references are to Hamlet, King Lear, Falstaff, The Merchant of Venice and even Coriolanus, I'm on fairly stable ground. When it veers into others -- even Antony and Cleopatra, which I have not seen or read -- less so. 

And is is here, if I may be permitted to upstage Stephen, that I would like to introduce my theory of Hamlet, or at least an observation. To do so, we must begin with Macbeth:

One of the primary intrigues of this play -- one in which the violence is arguably the most important action -- is that virtually all of the mayhem occurs off-stage. The title character, dubbed by the critic Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human as "a great killing machine," in fact kills only three people: Duncan, and the two guards keeping watch (unsuccessfully) over the sleeping king. This all happens off-stage, meaning that this great killing machine is never actually seen killing anyone.

The script has two characters dying on stage: Macbeth's companion Banquo and Macduff's son, murders ordered by Macbeth, but not actually carried out by him. And, finally, he dies off stage. Macbeth and Macduff "exeunt, fighting," and after a brief bit of dialogue, Macduff returns carrying the title character's head.

So Macbeth is about the sociopath, the "great killing machine" who kills three people -- hardly unique in one's climb to power during the Middle Ages, while Shakespeare's masterwork, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is about ... what?

Hamlet is arguably Shakespeare's most intelligent character, an enlightened soul who reminds Horatio that more things are in Heaven and Earth than he can possibly imagine. He's cultured, well-read, a student at the University of Wittenberg, and a theatre aficionado.

He also, if one takes the time to count, is personally responsible for the deaths of three people, arranges for the deaths of two others, and is arguably to blame for Ophelia's suicide -- hardly be a surprise, given the exuberant cruelty he subjects her to in the "Get thee to a nunnery" scene. Had the Ghost of the dead King not implored him to leave Gertrude to her conscience, can we rule out the possibility that Hamlet might have slit her throat before stabbing Polonius?

I've never seen the phrase "killing machine" attached to the Prince of Denmark, but Macbeth is described this way all the time. And yet: Hamlet invites our sympathy; Macbeth doesn't, though Shakespeare seems to dare us to at least identify with him. What do we make of this?

To just return to the argument, I'll just weigh in with this: I agree with both of them. Is there some value to be had from understanding something about writers and the times that produced them? Of course there is. I've read a few writers' biographies myself: Shakespeare. William S. Burroughs. Andre Breton. I hope to one day read Ellmann's biography of Joyce.

On the other hand, it is possible -- as with anything -- to get carried away, to wallow in material of interest only to the parish clerk. I mean, after all, we have the plays. One could spend a lifetime drawing pleasure and insight from a play such as King Lear without ever knowing the name of the man who wrote it. 

I suppose my understanding of Scylla and Charybdis is no more wobbly than my grasp of any of the preceding episodes. This is, after all, my first reading of Ulysses, and I must remind readers that these blog posts are only my very rough notes, not intended to be a comprehensive overview of anything. I haven't mastered the episode, but I at least survived it -- largely thanks to a lifetime of reading and thinking about Shakespeare's plays and seeing them (about two thirds) performed. It was difficult, though what's interesting about Ulysses thus far is that each episode is difficult in a unique way. Scylla and Charybdis and Proteus are both maddening, but for different reasons. And neither is anything like The Lotus-Eaters.

I expect the same challenges in the tenth episode, The Wandering Rocks, which even looks different from the first nine: It is broken up into 19 short, unnumbered sections. It is thirty pages long (which will get me past the 200th page!) and runs 1,280 lines.  

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Comment on Robin Williams ... and James Joyce

In the last year and a half, I've written tributes to two public figures I really was not ready to say goodbye to -- Roger Ebert and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It pains me to add to this list the amazing Robin Williams, dead at 63 of, apparently, suicide.

No one -- and I mean, no one -- has ever made me laugh harder or longer than Robin Williams. The only one who comes close is Albert Brooks, whose histrionic lecture on the Nest Egg Principle to his frazzled wife in the 1985 comedy Lost in America had me on the floor in tears. But the Nest Egg lecture lasts for a couple of minutes. I recall watching a Williams concert DVD on my 40th birthday that had me laughing, non-stop, for nearly two hours. Explosive laughter that made my face feel as if it were physically shattering into pieces, laughter that, once my body was no longer able to physically contain it, ultimately transcended laughter, going beyond it -- or perhaps retreated into some deeper, primal place in which the origins of laughter may be found -- until I was making bizarre, wailing sounds with a gurgling quality: think Ned Beatty choking to death while squealing like a pig. By the end, my face and body ached as if I'd been beaten senseless. I was soaked in sweat and exhausted, and I felt awesome. Good God! If we all laughed that hard at least once a month, we'd live to a hundred.

There are good actors, great actors, and brilliant actors. Then there are artists who, like Williams, were possessed by genius. Yes, Williams certainly would be on any list of the best comedians of the 20th century, but on the other hand, he'd eclipse everyone else on the list to such an extent that he may as well not even be on it. It would be like putting Hamlet on a list with Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Polonius; yes, they're all human males, and yes, they're all in a play called Hamlet, but beyond that? Nothing. He's light years ahead of them all.

And it hit me this morning, while reading the Scylla and Charybdis segment of Ulysses what it was that Williams did. In a way, he went one better than Joyce, who dared to replicate consciousness using the written word. Williams exhibited consciousness, literally put the thing itself on display, using the full, magnificent range of his voice and body, more fully than it had ever been in comedy. Others could do parts of what he did, but Williams did all of it -- faster, bigger, with greater vocal dexterity and variety. 

I wondered what it might have been like to hear Williams read Ulysses aloud. Certainly, he would have had a unique voice for every character. Obviously he would have brought out the comedy in it, and probably added his own as well. Perhaps his talents would have been more suitable for a performance of Finnegan's Wake, which blows beyond the boundaries of language as vigorously as Williams explored and celebrated new, previously unexplored regions of verbal comedy. Jonathan Winters (his idol) may have been the first on the moon, but for Williams the moon was merely a diving board he used to launch himself into deep space. There was no one like him. 

I don't know if Williams actually read Joyce -- certainly, he was intelligent enough to do so -- but I do not think it too much of a stretch to say Joyces art helped make the artistry of a force of nature like Robin Williams possible. All artists must stand on the shoulders of those who came before them.

Too soon, Robin. Way too soon. Thanks for the laughter.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Who's Talking?

Okay, I may be getting a little carried away, but hear me out. 

Having warily circled Scylla and Charybdis for a few days now, I finally dived in this afternoon armed with my headphones, laptop, the Gabler edition, and four highlighters -- yellow, pink, green and orange, the latter of which is drying up. Oh yes, and a pencil. 

For more than an hour, I crawled through the text in fits and starts, frequently stopping the audio, going back, listening again, checking the text, etc. 

I am highlighting (and underlining) the spoken dialogue. Which is to say, I'm not touching the 1) narration, or 2) interior dialogue. Stephen is yellow. George Russell is pink. Lyster the librarian is orange (fortunately he hasn't talked much so far) and John Englinton is green. I'm underlining dialogue spoken by Mr. Best, the assistant librarian. Buck Mulligan hasn't appeared yet, but I'll need to get another color for him.

I can't figure out what they're saying unless I have a clearer idea -- a visually clearer idea -- of who's saying it. 

It's a mad project, I realize, but then this entire enterprise is: Moby Dick, Clarissa, Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, War & Peace, Middlemarch and Gravity's Rainbow. I suspect that after I finish with the markers (I don't plan to do this in any other chapter) I'll probably find that someone has already pulled out the dialogue and made it available online for free, in the form of a play script. But that's okay; I wouldn't want to read it on a screen anyway. I need to do this. I need to figure it out for myself, and make a physical connection with the text -- me, my marker, the page. 

Yes, I guess I'm a Joycean. 

Onward ...

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Feeling Better about Feeling Intimidated

I didn't "do" Ulysses yesterday -- either the book or any of the voluminous supplementary material I've scraped together. Part of it was exhaustion; I'd just completed the fifth day of solo daddy duty, whilst my wife was on a work trip halfway across the country. Part of it was the heat. And part of it, honestly, was being distracted by a highly unusual and disturbing goings-on in my neck of the woods: A thirty-something woman, wife and mother of two, appears to have vanished off the face of the earth about a week ago now. Jennifer Huston. I really wasn't paying much attention to it until a friend (and fellow parent) told me she'd gone to school with her. And then I read that she and her husband were on the eve of their tenth wedding anniversary, which is true of my own this year as well. According to media reports, she ran some errands, withdrew a "small amount" of money from her bank, got gas and -- it turns out, thanks to the pervasive existence of video cameras in our collective lives - visited a Rite-Aid to buy trail mix, Gatorade and a reportedly "non-lethal" dose of sleeping pills. And then, less than an hour after leaving her home ... she's gone.

It's inexplicable. Where is she?

Is it a crime? Or just a terrifying mystery?

I normally don't follow stuff like this, but this is pretty local, pretty close to home. I can't even imagine what her family is going through. Talk about stream-of-consciousness. Shit like that goes down, and I'd think the dam would break.

It's in that context that a wildly difficult novel -- a Clarissa, a Moby Dick or a Ulysses -- functions as effectively as "escapism" as a book by James Patterson, Jo Nesbo, or George S. Martin. It becomes a retreat, a refuge.

A couple of nights ago, still feeling -- for the first time, really -- intimidated by Ulysses, I sought refuge with Anthony Burgess and his 1965 book ReJoyce, motivated by his "desire to help the average reader who wants to know Joyce's work but has been scared off by the professors." I'd read the forward and the first two chapters but hadn't picked it up since I started reading the novel. I turned to the chapter that corresponds with the one I'm currently parked in (Scylla and Charybdis) and took solace in his concluding paragraph:

This is a difficult, subtle chapter, as befits its central character, its symbol and the art it glorifies. It draws on more literary forms than anything we have met so far -- the lyric, the dramatic (both verse and prose), and an interior monologue that contains (like a whirlpool) concentric layers of reference, touching on the very verge of consciousness. The vocabulary is immense and the Shakespearean scholarship formidable. An apparently simple theme -- the drawing together of the brain and heart and senses in a father-son symbiosis -- is dealt with on various interlocking levels, some of which seem to contradict each other.

Makes you want to just dive right in, doesn't it?

"Formidable" Shakespearean scholarship. Think about it. Burgess knew his Shakespeare well enough to write a biography of the man -- though it is no less speculative than anything that's currently out there. I actually put down Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare about 150 pages in because I grew weary of: "And then he could have ...." "It is highly likely that ...." "He might very well have ...." "Suppose for a moment that he ...." "Consider the possibility that ...." And so on. 

Here's a possibility I love to entertain: That someone discovers a dusty old chest or crate buried in the dark corner of a basement of a London church or museum, and it contains a previously unknown memoir or journal in Shakespeare's own hand that's at least as voluminous as Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle.  Imagine! The literary equivalent of the first moon landing. 

Burgess wrote ReJoyce when he was in his late forties. He'd first discovered Ulysses as a teenager, and had been reading Joyce (and as much as he could find about Joyce) ever since. Anthony Burgess, best-known as the author of A Clockwork Orange ... novelist, critic, composer, poet, playwright, translator, linguist --  he finds this particular neighborhood of Ulysses (which references, by my rough count, 22 of Shakespeare's 38 plays, plus Venus and Adonis) difficult, formidable and contradictory.

That makes me feel a hell of a lot better. I intend to park here in Scylla and Charybdis for another couple days, read it again, pick it apart. So stay tuned, because in my next post we will get into Stephen Dedalus' grand theory of Hamlet.

And, since it's my blog, I also feel obliged to trot out my theory of Hamlet.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Struggling with Shakespeare

Not much to report today. I'm about 400 lines into Scylla and Charybdis, and frankly am struggling with it. Which surprises me, really, because the entire episode comprises a discussion about Shakespeare, a writer whose works I know reasonably well. It is difficult to follow a discussion when it is interrupted, with no indication by the punctuation, by the thoughts of one of the participants -- Stephen Dedalus, in this case. And I have to wonder: Is Joyce even giving us the entire discussion? Or just snippets of it? At times, I've found myself agreeing with virtually everyone who is talking, even though they're arguing. Which leads me to believe that 95 percent of it is beyond me. And yes, it makes me feel stupid. Well, maybe that's too strong a word. Inadequate as a reader. I did read the corresponding section in The New Bloomsday Book, but for the first time, it's not helping a great deal. I still know what is "happening" in Ulysses, I understand the story thus far, but the book itself is sprinting ahead of me. It's frustrating.