Friday, November 21, 2014

Reading Around: In Lieu of 'Ulysses'

I'm within striking distance of completing a first read of Circe, but I've held off. Backed away. There are two things going on here ...

First, I want to complete the episode in a single sitting. I could do it in 90 minutes or so or -- if I listened to the RTE radio production -- little more than two hours. But in a household with a 5-year-old boy, 90 minutes is an eternity. And yet, somehow, it is an eternity that does not allow for a completion of all the chores that pile up in a household with a 5-year-old boy -- laundry, dishes, etc. 

So the issue is finding that 90-minute window. Circe isn't something I want to chip away at. Ulysses, I can see now, is something that can be dipped into and sampled in tiny bites after you have already read it once. But this is my first time through. I need some continuity. 

Secondly, it needs to be a 90-minute or 2-hour window that I have sufficient energy to actually do it in a meaningful way. On those occasions (and actually, there have been surprisingly few) when I do find myself just dragging my eyeballs across the line, not really processing or thinking about what I'm reading, I go back and do it again with a greater degree of consciousness brought to bear. The episode in which this happened the most was Oxen of the Sun.

However, as has been the case in all instances when I put down whatever Everest book I've gotten myself into, I continue to read. Below is as near-complete-as-I-can-make-it snapshot of what I've been reading this last week:

Even today, two millennia after the collapse of the Roman and Mayan empires, historians, archaeologists, and synthetic-failure paleoanalysts have been unable to agree on the primary cause of those societies' loss of population, power, stability, and identity. The case of Western Civilization is different because the consequences of its actions were not only predictable, but predicted...

THE COLLAPSE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION: A VIEW FROM THE FUTURE, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

I actually managed to finish this one, but hey -- it's less than 70 pages long. More of an essay, really, but a fascinating one all the same. "A chilling view of what our history could be," one reviewer states. Actually, it was the blurbs by Kim Stanley Robinson and Elizabeth Kolbert that prompted me to pick this one up. I read it in about an hour. Short of that 90-minute window. 

If extinction is a morbid topic, mass extinction is, well, massively so.

THE SIXTH EXTINCTION: AN UNNATURAL HISTORY, by Elizabeth Kolbert

Ah, you see a trend developing here, don't you? I'm trying to knock off a chapter per day. It's pretty manageable. Just finished the chapter on frogs in South America. Or rather, the lack of frogs. Scary.

I'm sure now that I saw him in the mouth of the pipe as we drove across the bridge. I could only see his legs sticking out. They were tempting me, inviting me to come down and look for him...

TRAPPED, by James Moloney, illustrated by Shaun Tan

A young adult novel, which I read in its entirety. I picked it up only because it was illustrated by Tan, whose short story The Lost Thing has been a source of fascination for my son this last month.  I've been toying with writing a short essay on Tan for a couple weeks now, but ... no time. 

Shaun Tan's book (The Arrival) offers a new synthesis that doesn't result in anything like what we've been calling the "graphic novel" up to this point... 

KRAZY! THE DELIRIOUS WORLD OF ANIME + COMICS + VIDEO GAMES + ART, edited by Bruce Grenville

Again, I picked this one up primarily because of the material on Tan -- a short essay by Seth and Art Spiegelman on the remarkable book The Arrival, which I read last year. A wordless story about the plight of immigrants. It's a big hardback. I'd like to throw a couple copies at John Boehner and Ted Cruz.  

My audiences seemed to identify with my outlaw attitude, to be inspired by my propensity for venturing off the beaten path. They asked me to elaborate on my "grammar of creativity," and even the tech geeks I spoke to were hungry for more of this self-confessed Luddite's primer on self-teaching and self-discovery...

CREATIVITY: THE PERFECT CRIME, by Philippe Petit

I'd never heard of this, wasn't looking for it, but I do know who Petit is -- the artist extraordinaire who walked between the World Trade Center towers back in the 70s -- and I saw the wonderful film about him (Man on Wire) so I couldn't resist taking this home for the library. It's entrancing. Stylistically, it's a little like David Lynch's book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity, which I read a couple years ago. 

Nonetheless, even as I turned out poem after poem, I also wrote article after article and book after book of my own about other writers. "Why are you doing that?" the poets asked. And I had to say to them, "I don't know." Because I knew I was looking for something, but I did not know what. Now, I think I know ...

WHAT IS A BOOK? by David Kirby

The excerpt above is from one of the essays in this collection, entitled "What is a Writer?" I have read it twice. I have studied it, jotted down notes. I've been thinking about it as I process a fascinating rant I saw on Twitter a few days ago by Seattle writer Ksenia Anske, whose tweets crack me up. She ran into a published writer who insisted -- because Anske self-publishes -- that she is not a "real" writer. I actually went so far as to copy and paste her tweets into a single page so I could read it as an essay. The issue I'm obsessing over regarding both this exchange and Kirby's essay is the way the unnamed author she countered and Kirby define a writer: As someone who is a published writer. Which is to say, published by a "real" publisher, and read widely (and, presumably, adored). Once again, it's an issue I was already grappling with (largely, but not exclusively, because of this) and one I intend to write more on at some point.

But like I say ... it's a matter of finding time. 

So much to read, so much to write ...


Friday, November 14, 2014

'Circe' - First Impressions

Circe is the longest episode of Ulysses, written in the format of a play script. It runs 150 pages and nearly 5,000 lines. For some literary context, consider that Hamlet comprises roughly 1,000 fewer lines, and an unabridged production (which I've seen) runs little more than three hours. It took the RTE radio production more than four hours to read Circe. So there you have it -- in the final third what is arguably the most ambitious novel ever written, Joyce inserted a play both longer and vaster than Hamlet

Joyceans will chuckle when I say that I went into it thinking it wouldn't take long. After all -- it's a play. Just dialogue and stage directions. Plays read faster than novels. Unless the play is part of the Ulysses universe. It became clear within a few pages that it isn't just a play. I've noted this before: Ulysses is difficult, but it's difficulty varies from episode to episode. Proteus is difficult, yes, but not for the same reasons Circe is difficult -- and neither are anything like the bizarro world of Oxen of the Sun

Circe comprises, primarily, a dreamscape -- hallucinations experienced by Bloom as he chases a drunk Stephen into Dublin's red light district. Well, no. That's not exactly right. Stephen is tanked, but Bloom is not. He's lucid, has his wits about him. So he is not literally hallucinating: These fantastic, increasingly epic visions are presented to us by ... Joyce. 

I do not mean this as an insult or even a criticism, but Ulysses is, to a large extent, a genius writer showing off his literary and linguistic chops, and if that's the case, then Circe is the biggest show of them all. We see, among other things, the End of the World. A trial in which Bloom is called to account for his sins, and then a celebration that elevates him to ... I'm not sure. King? It's an episode with a cast of thousands, occasional scenes of gruesomeness (a person carrying someone's head) and even some gender bending -- at one point, Bloom has a vulva. At another, someone squeezes his testicles "roughly." 

In the reality-based world, Stephen has vanished inside a brothel, and -- near as I can tell -- Bloom is talking to a couple of prostitutes right outside. 

I read from page 350 to a little past 400, then put the book down for a while -- too long, I found, to pick up where I left off. I returned to page 350, this time listening to the first hour of it as I read. Now I'm on page 446. 

Burgess talks of the "musicality" of this episode, and to be sure, that's evident while listening to it. The sound effects are pretty cool, too. But the thing that came to my mind as I read thus far was the fantastic variety of imagery. And it occurred to me that Circe would probably work as a film -- albeit a very long "art house" film that few people would see. I envision a 4- to 5-hour epic, directed by Peter Greenaway, whose films are to a considerable degree inspired by Baroque and Flemish painting. Recall The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Circe would be an art designer's dream. Costume designers (and you'd need a lot of them) would have a field day with it. And here's a plus: The script is already written. 

I'd like to finish my first journey through Circe this weekend if at all possible. I'll probably plug in again and listen to the audio as I read. I have a birthday coming, and I really, really want to finish this book before then. 

Note: My web site (which, curiously enough, seems to be more popular than this blog) now includes a tip jar, for anyone who cares to chip in a buck or two for this insane project. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Reading Everest: The Crisis of Confidence

Considering that I put Clarissa down for more than a year, it's some measure of progress that it's been only six weeks or so since I put Ulysses down for a spell. I didn't intend to stop, but I ran aground and have been stuck in the mire since September. The episode is "Circe," which at nearly 150 pages is the single longest chapter in Ulysses.

In the interest of documenting the full Reading Everest experience, I suppose some explanation is in order -- since this wasn't an ordinary case of procrastination. First there was the beginning of school, which for our 5-year-old means Kindergarten. I assume this would free time up to read and write, not anticipating that Silas would loathe and dread the experience. Acclimation to the routine and the new environs took 2-3 weeks, and was stressful for everyone concerned. I briefly had visions of becoming a home-school parent for the next twelve years.

Also, I was cast in a play, so there was a stretch there where the only book I spent time with was my script. It's a small part, but a great one, and a nice outlet for my creative and artistic energies. The cast is fun, and I know my lines now, so I can practice them anytime -- walking, in the shower, etc. 

The larger issue was, unfortunately, a crisis of confidence. 

Again, it's some measure of progress that the one thing I did not lack confidence in was my ability to actually read these books, which is what this ultimately is about. Rather, it was in my ability to forge a post-newspaper writing career. The last year has been supremely difficult. I expected rejection and denials, of course. Had no illusions about that. What I did not expect was to be ignored. Unanswered emails. I expected (initially) that queries and submissions would be rejected. I'm sorry, this isn't quite right for us, but thank you for considering our publication. Or even: Candidly, this sucks. Learn how to write, fool. I actually looked forward to my first rejection letter. I intended to frame it, figuring that someday, as I basked in the glory of a bestseller, it would be a source of pride and amusement. 

It never occurred to me that pitching, submitting and querying (and even polite efforts at networking) would be largely ignored.

I spent a couple of months in this pit, angry and depressed about it all, which is a place all everyone who writes checks into at some point in their lives, if not repeatedly. And I'd just about emerged from it when I read a piece about writing and publishing that was unquestionably the most depressing thing I've read about this crazy profession all year. I think, at that point, I actually did give up. Seriously. The only real question in my mind, at that point, was how to quit with some shred of dignity, how to bow out gracefully. 

That lasted a week or so.

I don't think there was any one thing that allowed me to move beyond it. Certainly, there was the encouragement of friends, both my "real-time" friends, and online colleagues. There was a piece in Poets & Writers that resonated. Also, I actually heard from an agent -- a pretty well-known one, actually -- who called the Reading Everest project "cool and monumental." And there was getting a piece published by The Millions.

More than anything, there was the realization that I can't quit. I'm so deep into Reading Everest and all that it represents, quitting it at this point would be like severing a limb. And I like my limbs where they are. I like using them. 

So without giving away my entire strategy, it's enough to say that this delay in the Reading Everest project is over. I have some new ideas. I may actually launch a second blog to accommodate other projects I work on when my attention isn't directly on Reading Everest. And although I had mixed feelings about it from a philosophical standpoint, I put a tip jar on my web site -- something I never, ever thought I would do. I was inspired in part by another writer, one far more prolific than I am, who reminded me how essential it is that writers and artists (and those who enjoy their work) support each other to the extent that they're able. That's a topic for a future comment, because it's so bound up with the state of culture at this disorienting and unsettling moment in our history. I have a lot of thoughts about the subject, but need more time to work through them.

So, on with Reading Everest. I'm halfway through 'Circe' and will surely be a bit further by the end of the day. My running commentary on the epic experience of reading Ulysses will resume tomorrow. For now,  I #AmReading.


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. 

Onward! 

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.