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. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Staggering through The Lestrygonians

Honestly, I staggered through The Lestrygonians

I took my time with Telemachus, cruised through Nestor, Calypso, The Lotus-Eaters, Hades and even Aeolus, and I deliberately lingered with Stephen on the beach in Proteus, but the eighth episode of Ulysses slowed me down. I was not in charge. The text was in charge. The longest episode so far, a warm-up, I suppose, for the 150-page marathon that is Circe.

I began July 25th, having already gone carefully through The New Bloomsday Book. I opted to not use the audio, just dived in. And it dawned on me again, the first time since Proteus, that what one generally does in a first ascent of Ulysses is to find islands -- the tangible, easily describable events on which one finds reasonably firm footing before wading back into the sea of Bloom's (or Stephen's) consciousness.

So what "happens" in The Lestrygonians

On page 124, "a sombre Y.M.C.A. young man ... placed a throwaway (a religious pamphlet) in a hand of Mr. Bloom." On the next page, Bloom crumples it up and throws it into the water off the O'Connell bridge, noting that the seagulls are savvy enough to know immediately that it is not food. 

Over on page 128, Bloom runs into a fellow Dubliner, Mrs. Breen. They engage in small talk for more than two pages before parting. It was to the end of this conversation, which took me to the 310th line, that I read aloud. As "Mr. Bloom walked on again easily," I returned to my interior voice, the "normal" way to read. And, of course, Bloom returns to his.

Finally, ten pages after encountering Mrs. Breen, page 138 of the Gabler edition, the central event of The Lestrygonians takes place. He enters the Burton restaurant and is aghast by the overwhelming sensory experience of gluttony -- the smells, the sights, the sounds. Men eating meat. Not a pretty thing. 

Perched on high stools by the bar, hats shoved back, at the tables calling for more bread at no charge, swilling, wolfing gobfuls of sloppy food, their eyes bulging, wiping wetted moustaches. A pallid suetfaced young man polished his tumbler knife fork and spoon with his napkin. New set of microbes. A man with an infant's saucestained napkin tucked round him shovelled gurgling soup down his gullet. A man spitting back on his plage: halfmasticated gristle: gums: no teeth to chewchewchew it. Chump chop from the grill. Bolting to get it over. Sad booser's eyes. Bitten off more than he can chew. Am I like that?

I suppose we are like that. Animals. Even someone with as expansive a consciousness as Hamlet eats, shits and picks his nose -- the latter two events having already been described earlier in the book. "The most obscene novel ever written!" Isn't that what someone said? I can hardly wait to read Kevin Birmingham's The Most Dangerous Book after I've finished this. Or should I start it now? Or would that be too confusing?

Out. I hate dirty eaters. He backed towards the door. Get a light snack in Davy Byrne's ....

A few lines after this, I called it a night. I returned to it the next night, determined to finish, but made it only two pages. Exhausted. The day with Silas (alone, my wife being gone that day on work) had worn me out. I toyed with the idea of starting a movie, settled for thumbing through Harold Bloom's The Western Canon. I like reading Bloom, though I've wondered if anyone has ever subjected his endless comparisons of the world's writers to methodical side-by-side analysis to determine if there are any inconsistencies: "Only Chaucer shares X with Shakespeare, unless we count Milton, who has more Y than either. But recall that Cervantes' ability to Z is on par with Proust, who rivals Shakespeare in his expansive Q. Dante approaches the latter, but not the former, in W, etc." And so on. I might try it sometime, just with one book. I'd do that before reading My Struggle. But I digress.

And so it came to pass that on the third night of The Lestrygonians, I finally picked up my crutch. I'd read a couple pages (and re-read the relevant Bloomsday Book section) but was still having trouble determining what Bloom was thinking about. On page 145, line 940, I found the same spot in the RTE broadcast, and finished it that way. Something about those Irish accents that bring it alive. 

All told, there was actually a lot in this episode that I enjoyed. The description of the scene in Burton restaurant is both funny and nauseating, and there's also a nice bit where Bloom assists a blind man across the street. But there are also his endless ruminations, some of which mercifully settle for half a page or so on a single topic: The pain of childbirth, falling in love with Molly, memories of the first kiss. On the bottom of page 134, Bloom descends briefly into an existential "What's-the-point-of-it-all? rant, although I suppose "rant" is the wrong word, because he doesn't say it. He thinks it:

His smile faded as he walked, a heavy cloud hiding the sun slowly, shadowing Trinity's surely front. Trams passed one another, ingoing, outgoing, changing. Useless words. Things go on the same, day after day: squads of police marching out, back: trams in, out. Those two loonies mooching about. Dignam carted off. Mina Purefoy swollen belly on a bed groaning to have a child tugged out of her. One born every second somewhere. Other dying every second. Since I fed the birds five minutes. Three hundred kicked the bucket.

Concluding with:

No-one is anything.

On to Scylla and Charybdis.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Global Community of 'Ulysses'

For more than four years, I was sequestered with Samuel Richardson's Clarissa Harlowe and Robert Lovelace, and there, in Clarissa, I read alone, in solitude. Actually, that's not quite true. I began with "Moby Dick," completed it in a few weeks, then ventured into "The Tale of Genji," which I threw aside not so much out of disgust but boredom. I wrestled with whether to replace it, finally opting for -- only a couple months ago, Gravity's Rainbow, which I'll read next year.

Few paid attention. Hits on my blog remained abysmally low. Few still commented on Twitter, where I had about 500 followers.

Then this summer, I started Ulysses.

Suddenly, I was no longer alone. I immediately picked up a small but faithful collection of Joyceans, a few of whom regularly leave thoughtful comments and questions. I'm picking up more retweets. As of this moment, I have 713 followers -- no, make that 714. Just picked an author of erotic fiction. There is, I've learned, a global community of dedicated Joyce fans who have had Ulysses in their heads far longer than I have. Even their accounts are Joycean: The James Joyce Gazette, LeopoldBloom, DigitalDubliners, Ulysses, etc. 

They have a holiday! Bloomsday! June 16. I'm already excited about next year. 

If you pick up Ulysses today, whether you are a student or otherwise, you will not be alone. There's help, and support. Aside from the astonishing ease of connecting with other Joyceans (I've actually already been called a "Joycean," although I'm reluctant to wear the hat until I at least finish the book), there is a vast collection of resources online to help.

You can visit the James Joyce Tower and Museum -- the tower where Joyce lived briefly as a young man that inspired the opening scene of the novel. You can read the original review of the novel in The New York Times. You can access any number of scholarly collections of Joyce materials, for free. You can read Ulysses line-by-line with Frank Delaney, who has hundreds of podcasts available free at his web site. Or you can listen to Joyce himself read from it. If you want to read it online, or merely check something, there's this exhaustively researched annotated version. While we're on the topic of audio, one should know that if you're not willing to read Finnegan's Wake, you can at least listen to it. And, of course, you can listen to Ulysses in its entirety, as produced by Irish radio in 1982.

This is just a sampling of the opportunities that await. 

This is remarkable. I did not expect this. 

But I love it.

And now I'm up to 715 followers on Twitter.