The Books: “Ulysses” (James Joyce)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

ulysses67.bmpUlysses- by James Joyce.

“[Ulysses] is the epic of two races (Israel – Ireland) and at the same time the cycle of the human body as well as a little story of a day (life). The character of Ulysses always fascinated me ever since boyhood. I started writing it as a short story for Dubliners, fifteen years ago but gave it up. For seven years I have been working at this book – blast it!”

So said James Joyce of his massive book which – according to TS Eliot – effectively “killed the 19th century.”


Edmund Wilson had this to say about the book:

The more we read Ulysses, the more we are convinced of its psychological truth, and the more we are amazed at Joyce’s genius in mastering and in presenting, not through analysis or generalization, but by the complete recreation of life in the process of being lived, the relations of human beings to their environment and to each other; the nature of their perception of what goes on about them and of what goes on within themselves; and the interdependence of their intellectual, their physical, their professional and their emotional lives. To have traced all these interdependences, to have given each of these elements its value, yet never to have lost sight of the moral through preoccuptation with the physical, nor to have forgotten the general in the particular; to have exhibited ordinary humanity without either satirizing it or sentimentalizing it – this would already have been sufficiently remarkable; but to have subdued all this material to the uses of a supremely finished and disciplined work of art is a feat which has hardly been equalled in the literature of our time … Yet for all its appalling longeurs, “Ulysses” is a work of high genius. Its importance seems to me to lie, not so much in its opening new doors to knowledge — unless in setting an example to Anglo-Saxon writers of putting down everything without compunction — or in inventing new literary forms — Joyce’s formula is really, as I have indicated, nearly seventy-five years old — as in its once more setting the standard of the novel so high that it need not be ashamed to take its place beside poetry and drama. “Ulysses” has the effect at once of making everything else look brassy.

Carl Jung was so worked up and disturbed by the book that he wrote Joyce a long letter (wonderful to read) – and he said, in part: “It’s a miserable ritual, a magical procedure. . . a homunculus of the consciousness of the new world — our world passed away and a new world has arisen.”

Nora Tully wrote, “The response to Ulysses was immediate and extreme. Writer and literary critic Malcolm Cowley described it using the metaphor of a stone dropped into water: there was a moment of silence, the stone was dropped, ‘then all the frogs who inhabited the pool began to talk at once.’”

And they’re still chattering away today.

The story of the publication of Ulysses is almost as interesting as the book itself. It was banned everywhere. You couldn’t get a copy of it. People all over the world were sending orders to the small bookshop in Paris where it had been published – I’ve seen some of the orders – the panicked plea from Peggy Guggenheim to PLEASE send her one copy, etc. Ulysses had arrived. But it could not be read. You could be arrested if you brought it into the country. It pushed the boundaries of decency – and what it was felt you “could” say … It was one of those landmark moments in literature that come along once or twice a century. A book that made writers question their own talent (poor TS Eliot couldn’t get over the book, Faulkner bowed before it, Yeats hated it at first and then a week later realized: Holy shit, that book is going to change everything … The responses of writers to Ulysses are awesome, I love to hear about them). Finally – over 10 years after its original publication – Judge Woolsey, a judge in the US District Court, ruled on the “obscenity” of the book – a groundbreaking ruling, we are much in his debt. Read the entirety of the decision here. Not only is it a landmark court ruling, but it’s an insightful analysis of the book itself. My favorite sentence of the ruling is: ” In respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of his characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring.”

The funniest thing about all this brou-haha is Joyce’s comment which seems, to me, quintessentially Irish:

“The pity is, the public will demand and find a moral in my book — or worse they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honour of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it.”

hahahaha But he also made that famous remark: “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”

Which was quite prophetic. However, I think the first remark is also getting at the heart of the thing. Joyce never felt he was writing about “the extraordiary” – he didn’t believe writers/novelists should focus on that – “that is for the journalist”. He wanted to focus on “the significance of trivial things” – thoughts, stream-of-consciousness, sensory reality, dream-spaces, the way the world looks through a particular set of eyeballs … to be INSIDE the character rather than outside. This is why much of Ulysses can be quite challenging to read. There is no narrator. No one interjects himself and tells you, “Here is what is happening here.” It is a purely subjective book – and we are inside Stephen Dedalus and we are inside Leopold Bloom. We see and hear only what they see and hear.

But once you get that, once you stop looking for an objective voice … the whole thing is not only quite easy, but a ton of fun. To treat it like a big serious tome is to completely miss the point of the book – which is rather silly, most of the time … and has to do with what people eat, and how they chew, and what it’s like in a brothel, and the people you meet on any given day: windbags, sirens, patriotic nimrods, pious righteous folks, old tired teachers … whatever. It’s a cornucopia of personality. And I think Joyce was onto something when he said there’s not a serious line in it. I didn’t experience the book as a serious book at ALL. It’s an important book – yes. Its place in literary history and the history of the 20th century is pre-eminent. Nobody tops him. But the book itself is a rollicking jaunt through one day – June 16, 1904 – Joyce wrote it as a tribute to his wife Nora. They had gone on their first “date” (a walk thru Dublin – with probably a sexual encounter in a back alley) on June 16, 1904. He wrote to her later that on that day she “made him a man”. And so Ulysses was a tribute to her. And to that first day they shared together. Damn. Imagine someone writing a tribute to you and then having it turn out to be the greatest book of the 20th century. The funniest thing of all is that Nora said she never read it. hahahahaha Anyway. Like I said, the story of the book Ulysses is almost as fascinating as the book itself.

But now let’s get to the book. I’m going to excerpt a bit from each “chapter” – even though they are not labeled as chapters – which is another challenge. You have to figure it out. It helps if you have The Iliad and the Odyssey nearby. And there are also books that help you know the structure Joyce was working on … so you know the “episodes”. There are sites out there that give you that. There are so many levels of meaning in Joyce (each chapter has a color, a body part, and other elements that correspond to it …) The structure goes down to its very core, and then emanates up in concentric circles. You don’t need to know all that stuff, but it sure helps. For example, in the “lungs” chapter – which also takes place at the newspaper office – everyone chatters like a bunch of windbags … lungs … and it’s such a drastic difference from the chapter before that it might seem confusing until you know what Joyce is doing. In his journey through the human body, we are now at the “lungs” – so the printing presses wheeze, and it’s all talk talk talk – because of the air being drawn into the lungs … etc. Each chapter has a correspondence like that.

However, let’s not forget. The story of Ulysses could not be simpler. Stephen Dedalus, our hero from Portrait is now a college student. His father is kind of useless. So he, unconsciously, is looking for a father figure. Leopold Bloom, a Jew in Ireland, married to Molly – who is having an affair – is at a loss how to keep his wife happy. He feels Irish, but he’s also Jewish … which makes things complicated. Through the long meandering course of one day – Dedalus and Bloom keep missing each other through the streets of Ireland … but you get the sense that they need to meet. Leopold Bloom will be the father figure for Stephen. Finally, near the end of the day, they meet. They go to a brothel. They go out for a meal late at night. They walk home to Bloom’s house. They talk. Dedalus staggers home. Bloom wonders if his wife upstairs is awake. The book ends (of course) with the 40 page run-on sentence of Molly Bloom, lying in bed. All roads lead to the female. The female ends the book.

What I just described in that paragraph can barely be called a “plot” – and Joyce obviously wasn’t interested in plot at all.

Keep in mind that the book is simple – and Joyce said, “With me, the thought is always simple.” The structure is complex, but the thought behind it is simple.

Here’s an excerpt from the first “episode”. The “Telemachus” episode … it is early morning, June 16, 8 am.

We start off with the character of Stephen Dedalus – who was also the lead character in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ulysses doesn’t quite pick up the strand from where that book left off – but it’s close enough.

Stephen is rooming with a couple of friends in an old round square tower (“stately plump Buck Mulligan, et al). He awakens. He has broken his glasses. It is June 16. He starts off for work.

This is the opening of the book. One other clue as to what Joyce is doing: Buck Mulligan, his roommate, is shaving. He picks up the razor, stares at himself in the mirror, and says something in Latin. Those words are said at the beginning of the Catholic mass. Mass has begun. Joyce had turned his back on religion, and worshiped art. To him, “the mass” = “the book you are about to read”. Joyce didn’t really have a small ego, as should be obvious – although his last words before he died always tear at my heart: “Does nobody understand?”

EXCERPT FROM Ulysses- by James Joyce.

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently-behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

– Introibo ad altare Dei.

Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called up coarsely:

– Come up, Kinch. Come up, you fearful jesuit.

Solemnly he came forward and mounted the round gunrest. He faced about and blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding country and the awaking mountains. Then, catching sight of Stephen Dedalus, he bent towards him and made rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in his throat and shaking his head. Stephen Dedalus, displeased and sleepy, leaned his arms on the top of the staircase and looked coldly at the shaking gurgling face that blessed him, equine in its length, and at the light untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak.

Buck Mulligan peeped an instant under the mirror and then covered the bowl smartly.

– Back to barracks, he said sternly.

He added in a preacher’s tone:

– For this, O dearly beloved, is the genuine Christine: body and soul and blood and ouns. Slow music, please. Shut your eyes, gents. One moment. A little trouble about those white corpuscles. Silence, all.

He peered sideways up and gave a long low whistle of call, then paused awhile in rapt attention, his even white teeth glistening here and there with gold points. Chrysostomos. Two strong shrill whistles answered through the calm.

– Thanks, old chap, he cried briskly. That will do nicely. Switch off the current, will you?

He skipped off the gunrest and looked gravely at his watcher, gathering about his legs the loose folds of his gown. The plump shadowed face and sullen oval jowl recalled a prelate, patron of arts in the middle ages. A pleasant smile broke quietly over his lips.

– The mockery of it, he said gaily. Your absurd name, an ancient Greek.

He pointed his finger in friendly jest and went over to the parapet, laughing to himself. Stephen Dedalus stepped up, followed him wearily half way and sat down on the edge of the gunrest, watching him still as he propped his mirror on the parapet, dipped the brush in the bowl and lathered cheeks and neck.

Buck Mulligan’s gay voice went on.

– My name is absurd too: Malachi Mulligan, two dactyls. But it has a Hellenic ring, hasn’t it? Tripping and sunny like the buck himself. We must go to Athens. Will you come if I can get the aunt to fork out twenty quid?

He laid the brush aside and, laughing with delight, cried:

– Will he come? The jejune jesuit.

Ceasing, he began to shave with care.

– Tell me, Mulligan, Stephen said quietly.

– Yes, my love?

– How long is Haines going to stay in this tower?

Buck Mulligan showed a shaven cheek over his right shoulder.

– God, isn’t he dreadful? he said frankly. A ponderous Saxon. He thinks you’re not a gentleman. God, these bloody English. Bursting with money and indigestion. Because he comes from Oxford. You know, Dedalus; you have the real Oxford manner. He can’t make you out. O, my name for you is the best: Kinch, the knife-blade.

He shaved warily over his chin.

– He was raving all night about a black panther, Stephen said. Where is his guncase?

– A woful lunatic, Mulligan said. Were you in a funk?

– I was, Stephen said with energy and growing fear. Out here in the dark with a man I don’t know raving and moaning to himself about shooting a black panther. You saved men from drowning. I’m not a hero, however. If he stays on here I am off.

Buck Mulligan frowned at the lather on his razorblade. He hopped down from his perch and began to search his trouser pockets hastily.

– Scutter, he cried thickly.

He came over to the gunrest and, thrusting a hand into Stephen’s upper pocket, said:

– Lend us a loan of your noserag to wipe my razor.

Stephen suffered him to pull out and hold up on show by its corner a dirty crumpled handkerchief. Buck Mulligan wiped the razorblade neatly. Then, gazing over the handkerchief, he said:

– The bard’s noserag. A new art colour for our Irish poets: snotgreen. You can almost taste it, can’t you?

He mounted to the parapet again and gazed out over Dublin bay, his fair oakpale hair stirring slightly.

– God, he said quietly. Isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a grey sweet mother? The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea. Epi oinopa ponton. Ah, Dedalus, the Greeks. I must teach you. You must read them in the original. Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother. Come and look.

Stephen stood up and went over to the parapet. Leaning on it he looked down on the water and on the mailboat clearing the harbour mouth of Kingstown.

– Our mighty mother, Buck Mulligan said.

He turned abruptly his great searching eyes from the sea to Stephen’s face.

– The aunt thinks you killed your mother, he said. That’s why she won’t let me have anything to do with you.

– Someone killed her, Stephen said gloomily.

– You could have knelt down, damn it, Kinch, when your dying mother asked you, Buck Mulligan said. I’m hyperborean as much as you. But to think of your mother begging you with her last breath to kneel down and pray for her. And you refused. There is something sinister in you.

He broke off and lathered again lightly his farther cheek. A tolerant smile curled his lips.

– But a lovely mummer, he murmured to himself. Kinch, the loveliest mummer of them all.

He shaved evenly and with care, in silence, seriously.

Stephen, an elbow rested on the jagged granite, leaned his palm against his brow and gazed at the fraying edge of his shiny black coat-sleeve. Pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart. Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown grave-clothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes. Across the threadbare cuffedge he saw the sea hailed as a great sweet mother by the well-fed voice beside him. The ring of bay and skyline held a dull green mass of liquid. A bowl of white china had stood beside her deathbed holding the green sluggish bile which she had torn up from her rotting liver by fits of loud groaning vomiting.

Buck Mulligan wiped again his razorblade.

– Ah, poor dogsbody, he said in a kind voice. I must give you a shirt and few noserags. How are the secondhand breeks?

– They fit well enough, Stephen answered.

Buck Mulligan attacked the hollow beneath his underlip.

– The mockery of it, he said contentedly, secondleg they should be. God knows what poxy bowsy left them off. I have a lovely pair with a hair stripe, grey. You’ll look spiffing in them. I’m not joking, Kinch. You look damn well when you’re dressed.

– Thanks, Stephen said. I can’t wear them if they are grey.

– He can’t wear them, Buck Mulligan told his face in the mirror. Etiquette is etiquette. He kills his mother but he can’t wear grey trousers.

He folded his razor neatly and with stroking palps of fingers felt the smooth skin.

Stephen turned his gaze from the sea and to the plump face with its smokeblue mobile eyes.

– That fellow I was with in the Ship last night, said Buck Mulligan, says you have g.p.i. He’s up in Dottyville with Conolly Norman. General paralysis of the insane.

He swept the mirror a half circle in the air to flash the tidings abroad in sunlight now radiant on the sea. His curling shaven lips laughed and the edges of his white glittering teeth. Laughter seized all his strong wellknit trunk.

– Look at yourself, he said, you dreadful bard.

Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack, hair on end. As he and others see me. Who chose this face for me? This dogsbody to rid of vermin. It asks me too.

– I pinched it out of the skivvy’s room, Buck Mulligan said. It does her all right. The aunt always keeps plain-looking servants for Malachi. Lead him not into temptation. And her name is Ursula.

Laughing again, he brought the mirror away from Stephen’s peering eyes.

– The rage of Caliban at not seeing his face in a mirror, he said. If Wilde were only alive to see you.

Drawing back and pointing, Stephen said with bitterness:

– It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked lookingglass of a Buck Mulligan suddenly linked his arm in Stephen’s and walked with him round the tower, his razor and mirror clacking in the pocket where he had thrust them.

– It’s not fair to tease you like that, Kinch, is it? he said kindly. God knows you have more spirit than any of them.

Parried again. He fears the lancet of my art as I fear that of his. The cold steelpen.

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12 Responses to The Books: “Ulysses” (James Joyce)

  1. nightfly says:

    It is somehow comforting to know that Joyce required seven years to finish Ulysses. If he had knocked it out in 18 months or two years I think I would have to hate him for it.

  2. red says:

    Ha!!! Exactly!

    And he took 17 years to finish Finnegans Wake. He truly was his own man. Pretty wild.

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  12. BK says:

    Ulysses is uselyss in Finnegans Wake.

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