Ulysses by James Joyce

Ulysses deals with a single day, June 16, 1904, in Dublin, the principal characters being Leopold Bloom, a salesman; his wife Molly, an opera singer; and Stephen Dedalus, a part-time teacher: 

Since its publication, the book has attracted controversy and scrutiny, ranging from an obscenity trial in the United States in 1921, to protracted textual “Joyce Wars”. The novel’s stream-of-consciousness technique, careful structuring, and experimental prose—replete with puns, parodies and allusions—as well as its rich characterisation and broad humour, have led it to be regarded as one of the greatest literary works in history; Joyce fans worldwide now celebrate 16 June as Bloomsday. [Wikipedia]

I’ve begun reading it a few times but never got past the first few pages. This time I tried something different. Before reading a chapter (or “episode”), I read the chapter’s summary on Wikipedia. I thought knowing in advance what was happening would make Joyce’s novel easier to read. This turned out to be true. But it didn’t make it easy enough. 

There is probably an annotated Ulysses available, but given the number of annotations it would need, it might weigh 40 pounds. I ended up skimming chapters and skipping others. If it was a normal novel, with a plot and character development, I would have missed too much. But the book’s central character buys sausage, wanders around Dublin, has lunch, has a drink in a pub, attends a funeral, bumps into acquaintances, watches girls at the beach, and so on. Most of the conversations or thoughts he has are only semi-understandable. Here is a typical moment:

Mr Bloom, strolling towards Brunswick street, smiled. My missus has just got an. Reedy freckled soprano. Cheeseparing nose. Nice enough in its way: for a little ballad. No guts in it. You and me, don’t you know: in the same boat. Softsoaping. Give you the needle that would. Can’t he hear the difference? Think he’s that way inclined a bit. Against my grain somehow. Thought that Belfast would fetch him. I hope that smallpox up there doesn’t get worse. Suppose she wouldn’t let herself be vaccinated again. Your wife and my wife.

Mr Bloom stood at the corner, his eyes wandering over the multicoloured hoardings. Cantrell and Cochrane’s Ginger Ale (Aromatic). Clery’s Summer Sale. No, he’s going on straight. Hello. Leah tonight. Mrs Bandmann Palmer. Like to see her again in that. Hamlet she played last night. Male impersonator. Perhaps he was a woman. Why Ophelia committed suicide. Poor papa! How he used to talk of Kate Bateman in that. Outside the Adelphi in London waited all the afternoon to get in. Year before I was born that was: sixtyfive. And Ristori in Vienna. What is this the right name is? By Mosenthal it is. Rachel, is it? No. The scene he was always talking about where the old blind Abraham recognises the voice and puts his fingers on his face.

Joyce portrays the character’s minds as extremely busy, much busier than a normal human being’s. When conversations occur, it’s as if they were taken down verbatim, except with strong Irish accents and no context provided. But I did enjoy the language, and being privy to the character’s inner musings, and the lively portrayal of Dublin. 

Selections from Ulysses would be enough for most readers. But one chapter I did read word for word was the last. That’s the famous chapter in which Molly Bloom considers her life and expresses her passions while lying alone in bed. Some of her sexual thoughts are very explicit, which must have been part of the prosecution’s case in the obscenity trial. Unfortunately, Joyce decided not to include punctuation in Molly’s soliloquy. That makes it hard to tell when one thought ends and another begins. But getting to know Molly from the inside was still a pleasure. 

The Stream of Consciousness in “Ulysses” and Elsewhere

I’m making another attempt to read James Joyce’s much admired novel Ulysses. So far it’s working. Since the meat of the book is a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, I skipped the first three chapters or episodes. They’re about Stephen Dedalus. I’m also reading Wikipedia’s brief summary of each episode before I begin the next one, on the assumption that brief previews will make the story easier to follow. Never having finished more than a few pages before, I’m now on episode 6, Hades, in which Bloom attends a funeral.

So far, I’m having trouble with Joyce’s stream of consciousness technique. It’s hard to take seriously. Here’s an example. Bloom is standing next to Molly, who is still in bed, and she asks him about a word in a book she’s been reading:  

—-Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.

—-O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.

He smiled, glancing askance at her mocking eye. The same young eyes. The first night after the charades. Dolphin’s Barn. He turned over the smudged pages. Ruby: The Pride of the Ring. Illustration. Fierce Italian with carriagewhip. Must be Ruby pride of the on the floor naked. Sheet kindly lent. The monster Maffei desisted and flung his victim from him with an oath. Cruelty behind it all. Doped animals. Trapeze at Hengler’s. Had to look the other way. Mob gaping. Break your neck and we’ll break our sides. Families of them. Bone them young so they metempsychosis. That we live after death. Our souls. That’s a man’s soul after he dies. Dignam’s soul . . .

—-Did you finish it? he asked.

Either Bloom’s mind moves more quickly than light or Bloom and Molly are having a very leisurely conversation. Reading Ulysses, it feels like Joyce’s description of Bloom’s stream of consciousness involves cataloging every thought Bloom might conceivably have at any given moment. Reading such passages leaves the impression that his conscious mind is a torrent of thoughts, memories and literary references. He seems to suffer from a terrible sort of attention deficit disorder. He can’t focus.

Another literary character who can’t focus is Tristram Shandy, the subject of Laurence Sterne’s wonderful novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. One hundred sixty years before Ulysses, Sterne wrote a novel in which the principal character begins by describing how his parents conceived him and then takes 300 pages to get to his birth. I had no trouble accepting the stream of consciousness in Tristram Shandy, because it’s not to be taken seriously. My sense is that we’re supposed to take the stream of consciousness in Ulysses seriously, but that’s hard to do.

I bring up Tristram Shandy because I came across a brief article this week: “From Stem to Sterne: How a Yorkshire Parson Reinvented the Novel”. The author doesn’t mention Joyce or Ulysses, but she does reflect on what it means to depict a person’s stream of consciousness:

One of the most notable aspects of Tristram Shandy is its fixation with the book as a physical object. Where words fail—and often they do—the gap is filled with a diagram, symbol or a bibliographic joke. The black page is one such trick; a missing chapter is another (asterisks mark the “fragment”); so too is the use of blackprint font. Marbled pages are inserted in the middle of the novel where they would usually appear at the end….

[As one critic] points out, “you can’t say a footnote.” You can’t say a scribble either, nor a straight line, nor a font change. By breaking free from the restrictive confines of language, Sterne illustrates how Tristram’s mind works: what he really sees. A consciousness does not function merely as an internal monologue but also involves blank spots: blots and symbols where thoughts are unclear or imprecise, where language won’t do. There is a directness in the way the book attempts to communicate these symbols. The mad sound of Tristram’s brain echoes inside ours via the eccentricities of the printed page.

The big problem with capturing a character’s stream of consciousness in words is that it can’t be done. Sterne used his book’s format to help out, but getting it right would require an author to present all the elements of consciousness, the sights, sounds, tastes, etc., plus the conscious thoughts, in a realistic way. A virtual reality contraption might do it. Language isn’t up to the task, even the language of great writers like Joyce and Sterne.