Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction
Ulysses- by James Joyce.
So here’s where we are at so far:
In The Odyssey the Lestrygonians are a tribe of cannibals who gobble up many of Odysseus’ crew. Joyce (as I mentioned somewhere before) had concentric circles of meaning woven into his book – each “episode” is completely different in style, tone, structure – than the others. The content fits the form, and vice versa. Each episode has a corresponding color, body part, and other elements … you can find these “keys” online if you’re interested in reading the book that way. You don’t NEED them, but sometimes it does help. I think I said this before – but the thing about Ulysses is this: Yes. Its reputation precedes it. It is daunting. You even look at the pages and it seems incomprehensible. You don’t see normal sentences and paragraph breaks. It seems like a big cloudy mystery and only YEARS of study will help you enjoy it. This is one of the problems with being a “big important book”. Other huge important authors suffer from the same thing, only never so much as Joyce. People feel they need to be “ready” to tackle Ulysses. I know I felt that way.
But then one day, I just picked it up and started. I did no research beforehand (although I’d read Dubliners, Portrait – and had also read Ellmann’s biography of Joyce – but I didn’t go online and read essays about the book, and how to read it, and what it “means”) … I just struggled through, and occasionally called my dad for some enlightenment. “What the HELL is he talking about here??” I’d read him a passage. The book is 800 pages long. My dad would immediately recognize the passage and say, “Oh. Okay. You’re in the Hades episode. Everything is about death.” The light would break over me. “Ohhh. Okay. Got it.” The book does not reveal itself in one reading, obviously – I have only read it once, and I do want to read it again, because I am sure I will be much more relaxed the second time … not so concerned about what it “means”. But again, I did no research, or preliminary studying – I just started. There were times when Joyce’s intent was opaque to me – I couldn’t get to it … but I knew that it was ME that was the problem, not him. I mean, you can just sense that. It reminds me of Faulkner’s quote about Ulysses – and how you should approach it as an illiterate Baptist minister approaches the Old Testament – with faith. Now lots of people have resentment about this kind of thing, and get all uppity and defensive about Joyce, and other “hard” authors. Those people used to show up on my site all the time, and make whiny defensive comments … It’s almost like they resented that someone else had decided that this book was “great” – and NO they weren’t going to read it, and WHY does a book have to be so hard? A book doesn’t have to be HARD to be GOOD … and this is just another example of the snotty Northeast elite telling the rest of us what we SHOULD do …(you see how those conversations always went. I can’t believe I had so many regulars who would show up and say shit like that – like: dude, do you realize what blog you’re reading? Don’t bring your “ain’t much for fancy book-learning'” resentment on this site! Look at what I write about! And I’m not writing about it because The New Yorker tells me that this book is good. Don’t insult me. I’m writing about Joyce because I love him. Go away.) Joyce can, indeed, be rather annoying – and many of his contemporaries were like: Bro. We’re all writers. Chillax with your OCD self. Katherine Mansfield was baffled by him – by all of his symbols and meanings and secret stuff … She didn’t like that. Virginia Woolf was very unimpressed. She was grossed out by him, too. Joyce is not an “intellectual’ writer, believe it or not, although he was a genius. He was obsessed with the body. Nothing should be left out. Woolf was disgusted. George Bernard Shaw was disgusted … and yet he also felt that maybe he was disgusted because he felt recognized. Perhaps he shouldn’t judge Joyce. Perhaps he should look in the mirror. Henry Miller, believe it or not, with his books full of “cunts” and “pricks”, was grossed out and called the book “masturbation”. But then Hemingway wrote, “Joyce has written a goddamn wonderful book.” The responses to it goes across the board.
So Joyce has always prompted fierce debates. The early 20th century was a great time for literature – the old forms breaking apart, new forms arising – many people were already moving away from the typical 19th century structure of novels … it’s just that Joyce went so much further, and his results were so much better that all the other writers around him were gobsmacked. He, Mr. Blind Irishman, was working on THAT? Gertrude Stein was openly envious, and announced that SHE had done what Joyce did – only twenty years before. Yeah but Gertie, if nobody READ the thing, then it doesn’t matter! Anyway, the debates themselves are fascinating – and I love them. It’s like Joyce threw down the gauntlet. So whatever happened afterwards HAD to include him. Ulysses was that kind of book.
So all of this surrounds the book to this day, and can make you afraid to pick it up. If I don’t know all that … will I be totally confused??
One of the things I think is important is to remember Joyce’s funny comment: “on my honour as a gentleman, there is not one serious word in it.”
I think he was exaggerating just a bit – but there is a lot of truth to what he says.
I think it would be wonderful if someone reading my blog decided to pick up Ulysses because of these posts. That’s one of the reasons I’m spending so much time on it. Not to be evangelical about it … but it’s obviously a book I love very much … and I was also afraid of it, and intimidated … but once I started it was a romp like no other.
Let’s go back to Lestrygonians. A complex chapter. There’s a lot going on here – and a lot of information is imparted that will be quite important later on. The writing itself, though, is … impressionistic, almost. There is no outside eye, it is Bloom’s detailing of his moment-to-moment experience … It is how the world seems to him. So thoughts are fragmented, there are very few full sentences … snatches of conversation are overheard … and they obviously mean much to Bloom … but can we decipher it? Can we successfully enter into Bloom’s mind so that we know what is happening with him? Joyce doesn’t ever write about big dramatic cathartic moments … I can’t think of one in any of his books. Catharsis, yes – or, shall we say, realizations … gaining deeper understandings … or losing faith entirely. Those moments, yes. But Joyce was way more fascinated by the everyday. You can look at a bar of soap and remember your entire life. You can hear snippets of conversation all around you on a busy street – and if you’re in a certain mood – it can seem like it is all about you. Joyce wrote in a letter to his brother Stanislaus:
Do you see that man who has just skipped out of the way of the tram? Consider, if he had been run over, how significant every act of his would at once become. I don’t mean for the police inspector. I mean for anybody who knew him. And his thoughts, for anybody that could know them. It is my idea of the significance of trivial things that I want to give the two or three unfortunate wretches who may eventually read me.
“The significance of trivial things.”
That is what Joyce is ALL ABOUT.
Bare bones of this episode: It’s around 1 p.m. (remember – the whole book takes place in one 24-hour period). Bloom has finished up at the newspaper offices. It’s time for some lunch (remember: cannibals). Because the “Lestrygonians episode” in The Odyssey is so disgusting … so, too, is this episode. It’s all about consumption, digestion, bodily functions, chewing, dribbling, masticating, swallowing … etc. Bloom refuses to go into one pub because he glances in and everyone there seems so slobbish and gross, they are chowing down, and they look disgusting to Bloom. He then finds a quiet “moral pub” where he can have a glass of wine and a cheese sandwich in peace. But Bloom gets no peace at all on this particular day. Mainly because he is haunted by the thought that his wife Molly is cheating on him … and the hour of her suspected rendesvous with Blazes Boylan, her lover, is approaching. Bloom tries not to think about it. But he can’t help it.
We get more information about their marriage in this chapter. 10 years before, their son Rudy had died. And since then the marriage has not been the same. They have not had sex (at least not completely) since Rudy died. Bloom has been pulling out – which kind of torments him. He knows he has not been satisfying Molly … but the fear of childbirth is also there (another element in this chapter is that a friend’s wife has been in labor for 3 days … this will come up later…) So … there’s an interrupted-intimacy thing going on between Bloom and his wife … he feels like they have totally lost touch with one another. And he doesn’t know what to do about it. In this chapter, he does reminisce about the good and beautiful times they once had (which will then be echoed in the famous final passage of the book, Molly’s “yes I said yes I will yes”, etc.) Bloom knew that Molly had had lovers before him. And that was never really an issue (another example of Bloom’s humanistic approach to life, his decency) – but now it is an issue – because they have grown apart, and he really fears losing her. But he feels impotent and helpless. This is why he imagines that everyone on the street is talking about him. He hears some priest talking about “Blood of the Lamb” – and at the first syllable: “Bloo ….” Bloom assumes that HE is being discussed. Bloom is paranoid and miserable, aware of his outsider status, and watching the clock compulsively, imagining what is going on with his wife in that moment.
There’s a lot more in the chapter – a ton more – but that’s the gist of it. The main images are one of digestion and swallowing. The disgusting nature of the human body. Flesh un-redeemed.
Here’s an excerpt. Just go with it. Maybe read it out loud – sometimes that helped me. The sense is often in the SOUND. A strange concept, but that’s what Joyce was all about. This chapter predicts the entirety of Finnegans Wake, in its language. Oh, and notice how – as Bloom has his glass of wine … it mellows him out, softens him … gives him that particular wine-buzz that can be so wonderful if you don’t overdo it. Joyce reflects that experience (he was a wine-drinker) in his writing. He never spells it out. You get it thru the sound, the images, the sensory elements. And this episode has, for me, the saddest line in the book:
Me. And me now.
EXCERPT FROM Ulysses- by James Joyce – the Lestrygonians Episode
Wine soaked and softened rolled pith of bread mustard a moment mawkish cheese. Nice wine it is. Taste it better because I’m not thirsty. Bath of course does that. Just a bite or two. Then about six o’clock I can. Six, six. Time will be gone then. She…
Mild fire of wine kindled his veins. I wanted that badly. Felt so off colour. His eyes unhungrily saw shelves of tins, sardines, gaudy lobsters’ claws. All the odd things people pick up for food. Out of shells, periwinkles with a pin, off trees, snails out of the ground the French eat, out of the sea with bait on a hook. Silly fish learn nothing in a thousand years. If you didn’t know risky putting anything into your mouth. Poisonous berries. Johnny Magories. Roundness you think good. Gaudy colour warns you off. One fellow told another and so on. Try it on the dog first. Led on by the smell or the look. Tempting fruit. Ice cones. Cream. Instinct. Orangegroves for instance. Need artificial irrigation. Bleibtreustrasse. Yes but what about oysters? Unsightly like a clot of phlegm. Filthy shells. Devil to open them too. Who found them out? Garbage, sewage they feed on. Fizz and Red bank oysters. Effect on the sexual. Aphrodis. He was in the Red bank this morning. Was he oyster old fish at table. Perhaps he young flesh in bed. No. June has no ar no oysters. But there are people like tainted game. Jugged hare. First catch your hare. Chinese eating eggs fifty years old, blue and green again. Dinner of thirty courses. Each dish harmless might mix inside. Idea for a poison mystery. That archduke Leopold was it? No. Yes, or was it Otto one of those Habsburgs? Or who was it used to eat the scruff off his own head? Cheapest lunch in town. Of course, aristocrats. Then the others copy to be in the fashion. Milly too rock oil and flour. Raw pastry I like myself. Half the catch of oysters they throw back in the sea to keep up the price. Cheap. No one would buy. Caviare. Do the grand. Hock in green glasses. Swell blowout. Lady this. Powdered bosom pearls. The Ã©lite. CrÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me. They want special dishes to pretend they’re. Hermit with a platter of pulse keep down the stings of the flesh. Know me come eat with me. Royal sturgeon. High sheriff, Coffey, the butcher, right to venisons of the forest from his ex. Send him back the half of a cow. Spread I saw down in the Master of the Rolls’ kitchen area. Whitehatted chef like a rabbi. Combustible duck. Curly cabbage Ã la duchesse de Parme. Just as well to write it on the bill of fare so you can know what you’ve eaten too many drugs spoil the broth. I know it myself. Dosing it with Edwards’ desiccated soup. Geese stuffed silly for them. Lobsters boiled alive: Do ptake some ptarmigan. Wouldn’t mind being a waiter in a swell hotel. Tips, evening dress, halfnaked ladies. May I tempt you to a little more filleted lemon sole, miss Dubedat? Yes, do bedad. And she did bedad. Huguenot name I expect that. A miss Dubedat lived in Killiney I remember. Du, de la, French. Still it’s the same fish, perhaps old Micky Hanlon of Moore street ripped the guts out of making money, hand over fist, finger in fishes’ gills, can’t write his name on a cheque, think he was painting the landscape with his mouth twisted. Moooikill A Aitcha Ha. Ignorant as a kish of brogues, worth fifty thousand pounds.
Stuck on the pane two flies buzzed, stuck.
Glowing wine on his palate lingered swallowed. Crushing in the winepress grapes of Burgundy. Sun’s heat it is. Seems to a secret touch telling me memory. Touched his sense moistened remembered. Hidden under wild ferns on Howth. Below us bay sleeping sky. No sound. The sky. The bay purple by the Lion’s head. Green by Drumleck. Yellowgreen towards Sutton. Fields of undersea, the lines faint brown in grass, buried cities. Pillowed on my coat she had her hair, earwigs In the heather scrub my hand under her nape, you’ll toss me all. O wonder! Coolsoft with ointments her hand touched me, caressed: her eyes upon me did not turn away. Ravished over her I lay, full lips full open, kissed her mouth. Yum. Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed. Mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweet and sour with spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy. Young life, her lips that gave me pouting. Soft, warm, sticky grumjelly lips. Flowers her eyes were, take me, willing eyes. Pebbles fell. She lay still. A goat. No-one. High on Ben Howth rhododendrons a nannygoat walking surefooted, dropping currants. Screened under ferns she laughed warmfolded. Wildly I lay on her, kissed her; eyes, her lips, her stretched neck, beating, woman s breasts full in her blouse of nun’s veiling, fat nipples upright. Hot I tongued her. She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed my hair. Kissed, she kissed me.
Me. And me now.
Stuck, the flies buzzed.