Wednesday, 21 April 2010
James Joyce: Ulysses compared
Did I think that Ulysses was hard work? Yes, very much so.
Did I think that Ulysses was boring? I cannot say this of the book as a whole. There were some chapters which I thoroughly enjoyed (Aeolus, Sirens and Nausicaa, off the top of my head), and others which I did find very tedious (Scylla and Charybdis, Wandering Rocks, Circe). I had a similar experience with the Bible, another very irregular text which alternated sequences of great beauty and entertainment with real mud-ponds where movement was close to impossible.
I’d like to go back to that statement I made on people enjoying this novel intellectually rather than emotionally. Rash as it was and way off as a generalisation, I don’t feel like revoking it completely. I think what I was talking about was the way in which I enjoy novels. My favourite novels are usually brief or semi-brief ones which pack a powerful emotional punch. Animal Farm, A Broken Woman, Of Mice and Men, All Quiet on the Western Front, Portnoy’s Complaint, One Hundred Years of Solitude. These books made me cry, or they made the hairs on my arm stand on end, or they made me laugh out loud, or they sent shivers down my spine. Animal Farm made me visibly morose and depressed for a full week from the moment I put it down. (Notably, longer novels by the same authors, like The Grapes of Wrath or I Married a Communist are not quite so high in my estimation). Now the point is that I never got anything of the sort from Ulysses. My intellect was very much involved with the material, but there was never a scene where I wept, or laughed out loud, or felt my heart accelerating. At no point did the reading translate itself into visible signs on my body, other than a couple of erections in the Penelope chapter. Perhaps I’m just talking about physical reactions, but these are usually the result of extraordinarily intense emotional feelings, which are very rare when I read literature (less so with film, which appeals directly to the senses), and I didn’t get them from Ulysses. But then, I recognise that this is very subjective.
Of course, the reason why one may find Ulysses boring goes straight to the question of ‘the way in which we enjoy novels.’ Personally, I like novels which can turn me into a child again, and give me the sense of transport I experienced fifteen years ago when reading the adventure books by Willard Price or the thrillers by Michael Crichton. I want a novel to take me to far-away lands, or in distant epochs, or in the middle of bizarre and unusual characters, or at the crossroads of history. If I want more inspirational reading, stuff which makes me feel like an adult, usually I turn to poetry. Ulysses is about exactly the opposite of that type of novel. Of course the idea of adventure is in there by metaphor and intertext and reference, but the story itself (in terms of the contents of the actual diegesis), is the most mundane thing you can imagine. As one of my friends put it, “I read the novel as simply the best Everyman story there is. Leopold Bloom is even better than Homer Simpson.” This is an appreciation which I’ve heard and read many times, but alas, what works for some people doesn’t for others. I read novels to get out of the everyman and the everyday, not to revel in it. This is the reason I’m also quite indifferent to novels by Jane Austen or EM Forster, which also deal with very ordinary events. Or if a novel really has to be about situations in which nothing really happens, then I like it when it can do something like Fight Club or Nausea, and distil shock from flat waters. The funny thing is that the referent for Joyce’s novel, that is to say, the Odyssey, is the mother of all adventure novels, and one of my very favourite stories out there.
Stand me now and ever in good stead
But the fact that I’m indifferent to Austen and Forster doesn’t mean that I’m indifferent to Joyce. As I said, one has to take a stance. The only way to be indifferent to Ulysses is by not knowing it. This implies not having done the ‘preparation’ which is required to read the novel. Which brings us back to point ix: it’s unfair to criticize Ulysses for requiring hard work, because if you’re interested in reading Ulysses, then it means you’ve already undergone the hard work.
You can draw an interesting comparison between Ulysses and my own favourite novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Joyceans likely scoff at the idea that you could compare Marquez’s novel with the monumental work of Joyce, and there’s no doubt that the Irishman’s work is much broader in scope and technical execution. But both novels are kaleidoscopic attempts to tell a story that includes all possible stories. Both novels, too, have been enormously influential. ‘Stream-of-consciousness’ and ‘magic realism’ have become household items even outside academia, and traditions of ‘experimental’ and ‘historical’ novels have dominated the scene in the English and Spanish language respectively.
Of course, in terms of sheer complexity, Ulysses far outdoes One hundred years. In fact, the only work of literature I know which compares to Joyce’s novel for breadth of aspiration and achievement is the Divine Comedy, another ‘story to end all stories,’ also heavily and carefully structured, drawing all mythologies, real or imagined, into its single narrative. What binds these two texts is the teleological intent, the writing of a text that includes all possible texts, and is therefore final.