The Books: “Ulysses” – the Lestrygonians episode (James Joyce)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction

ulysses67.bmpUlysses (The Gabler Edition)– by James Joyce.

Episode 1: The Telemachus Episode
Episode 2: The Nestor Episode
Episode 3: The Proteus episode

Episode 4: The Calypso Episode
Episode 5: The Lotus Eaters Episode
Episode 6: The Hades Episode
Episode 7: The Aeolus Episode
Episode 8: The Lestrygonians Episode
Episode 9: The Scylla and Charybdis Episode
Episode 10: The Wandering Rocks Episode
Episode 11: The Sirens Episode
Episode 12: The Cyclops Episode
Episode 13: The Nausicaa Episode
Episode 14: The Oxen of the Sun Episode
Episode 15: The Circe Episode

Episode 16: The Eumaeus Episode
Episode 17: The Ithaca Episode

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 (The Gabler Edition)– 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 élite. Crème de la crème. 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 à 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.

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11 Responses to The Books: “Ulysses” – the Lestrygonians episode (James Joyce)

  1. Sharon Ferguson 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.

    Youre definitely intriguing me. I vaguely remember reading Joyce in high school, but I think by the time I got to it, I was worn out by an English teacher who was overly enthusiastic about William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. If I’ve complained about those authors on your blog before, I do apologize. The ecstasy that my teacher exhibited over Faulker rather ruined any budding interest in 20th century literature…especially as I was wholly in love with Tolkien, a 20th century author who still wrote as if he were in the 19th – as well as the more classical pieces. It was hard to let go of that. But that you are posting excerpts and giving context to it really intrigues me. If youve given Patrick O’Brian a try, I should certainly give Joyce a second chance!

  2. red says:

    Sharon – I think sometimes we need to be saved from our own education!! Like you with Faulkner – I had to come back to Melville on my own, because he had been ruined for me in high school – and now he’s one of my all-time faves! Maybe I wasn’t ‘ready’ for him at 15 (probably not) – but there’s also a rebellious thing that happens with the “canon” sometimes. Like, you feel empowered to say: NO. I DO NOT LIKE THAT. And obviously you don’t HAVE to like anything. I don’t like Edith Wharton and Henry James. I can recognize their skill and I don’t begrudge them their place in the canon – they’re just not my cup of tea.

    Joyce was never ruined for me – because my dad is such a Joyce fan, so I grew up knowing those stories, and they seemed easy for me to slip into.

    Have you read any AS Byatt, Sharon? Possession, for example? One great review of her books (which I love) said, “She writes as though Joyce had never existed.” Meaning: like you said about Tolkien: she’s strictly a 19th century writer. Her idol is George Eliot (whom I love as well). Her books have that rigorous intellectual feel that a lot of pre-modernist books have – and I really love them. Also, NOBODY criticizes post-modern academia like AS Byatt – NOBODY!! She thinks it’s ruined literature (and I have to say I agree) … so she’s all about going back not to the CONTEXT of books, but to the actual books … literature, beautiful and meaty and complex and eternal … not THEORY. I mean, she’s not dogmatic – but in book after book she makes these great points, I love her for that. She shows the silliness of such analysis – and yet she also shows that people who succumb to such analysis are not necessarily dimwits … It’s just the trend of the time. (Talk about needing to be saved from your education!) Anyway, I love her.

    But Joyce followed his own star. One of the things I love about him is that he felt he had no influences. Maybe Shakespeare, but that was about it. He certainly did not lack in ego – and the fact that he unashamedly spent 17 years writing Finnegans Wake shows that the guy was not in it for the fame, or anything like that. He said something like (maybe 10 years into writing Finnegans Wake), “I know this is a tiresome book but it is the only thing I can work on, blast it!”

    He never did anything because he had to. So his style and his concerns are uniquely his own.

    He’s quite an experience!

  3. Sharon Ferguson says:

    *jotting down AS Byatt* Thanks for the recommendation!!! What should I start with? :D

    He said something like (maybe 10 years into writing Finnegans Wake), “I know this is a tiresome book but it is the only thing I can work on, blast it!”

    HA HA HA!!!! Wish I could say that about my own writing. Can you say NaNoWriMo FAILURE?! I knew you could…

  4. red says:

    Possession is the one to read. READ IT. And come back to me with a full report. But no pressure.


    No but seriously – her short stories are awesome, etc. – but Possession is her most famous book, and rightly so.

    It’s about literature stripped from theory. Two post-modern scholars discover a treasure trove of love letters between two famous Victorian poets – who were never thought to be connected. Vast structures of scholarship have been erected about the two poets – people with multicultural axes to grind, and people who have something to prove. One of the poets was thought to be a lesbian (and she was) … so of course women’s studies have co-opted her completely … so to discover that she had had a love affair with a man … ROCKS the entire establishment. It would be like discovering a box in an attic somewhere with love letters between Emily Dickinson and – oh God, who was a contemporary of hers – Tennyson? Well, you get my drift. So entire DEPARTMENTS of literature would have to be re-thought – if it was discovered they were connected.

    And the two modern-day scholars, both entrapped in post-modern theory – have to re-think EVERYthing.

    Oh God, it’s one of my favorites!!

    And don’t even get me started on NaNoWriMo!!! I WISH I could commit to something like that – but my writing is so much more … bah. I guess I’m just not disciplined enough (my daily blogging notwithstanding.)

  5. red says:

    If you feel like it – but again, no pressure!! – here’s the excerpt I did of Possession.

    I’m obviously a fanatic, so please ignore me if it’s too much.

  6. Ian says:

    Been lurking around your blog for months, I love it. You’ve got me intrigued, too – I bought Ulysses and it is officially in my to-read stack.

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