A Quick Look at a Frustrating but Worth the Frustration Novel
For those who may not know, and also for those who do, June 16th is the day we follow Leopold Bloom, the protagonist from James Joyce’s super-dense but super-rewarding novel Ulysses. Insufferable types like myself refer to it as “Bloomsday,” because, as I established in this sentence’s first clause, we are insufferable.
It’s probably the supreme example of stream-of-consciousness: we follow Bloom, along with his wife, Molly, and Stephen Dedalus (this is his literary side hustle in addition to his regular gig as the protagonist of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”) throughout the whole day, morning to noon to night, and we hear their every thought.
Whoa. I mean, I’ve got My Own Day to Get Through
That sounds exhausting.
And to be fair, at times it is. But it’s far less so when you catch on to what Joyce is doing: he’s capturing the way all of our minds work: an endless stream of tangential thoughts as we try to make our way through the day and make sense of what we encounter. Before him, most literature tidied up its characters thoughts, but Joyce had little patience for neatness (but plenty of time for precision).
Anyway, that idea made it easier for me. I tried reading it my senior year of high school, and man was I ever outgunned by the text. Tried it a few years later, and was still beaten black and blue, but got through it and knew that it was a great novel and also knew that most of it was way over my head.
That’s still true, though maybe (?) a little less each time I dive in. I’m now at the point where rather than being angry for reading something a little above my pay grade as a reader, I’m grateful for it (most of the time). Also, it’s easier to relate to one of its central points as we get older: as we move forward with our days, we constantly – sometimes without realizing – cast glances into our pasts, or as F.Scott Fitzgerald put it a few years later, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
In fact, Fitzgerald would not have been possible if not for Joyce, and Ulysses especially. Well, HE would’ve been possible, obviously, just not much of his best writing.
Now, the Good Stuff
Anyway, why am I writing when you could be reading Joyce! Here are some bite sized gems from Ulysses, some are profound, some are funny, and some just drenched in a palpable love of language, beauty, and for all of its daily indignities, annoyances, and boredom, life
So, here’s a few of its most famous bits:
“History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake”
“Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.”
“We can’t change the world, but we can change the subject”
“From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step”
“The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.” (Man, has there ever been a better description of a beautiful night sky in summer? That’s rhetorical. The answer is no.)
“Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes… Shut your eyes and see.” (That’s as transcendent, metaphysical, and flat out psychedelic as anything the hippies ever produced. Joyce would’ve loved the 60s)
This one’s for the Catholics:
“They believe in rod, the scourger almighty, creator of hell upon earth and in Jacky Tar, the son of a gun, who was conceived of unholy boast, born of the fighting navy, suffered under rump and dozen, was scarified, flayed and curried, yelled like bloody hell, the third day he arose again from the bed, steered into haven, sitteth on his beamend till further orders whence he shall come to drudge for a living and be paid.” (Joyce, like most Catholics, harbored a lot of, let’s just say, feelings about that condition)
“Who made those allegations? says Alf.
I, says Joe. I’m the alligator.”
And the famous closing paragraph, or at least a small part of it, among the more famous closings ever: it’s long and unpunctuated (but for a good reason, as opposed to being pretentious, like it would in the hands of almost anyone else):
“And Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
Has anything better captured the memory of one’s happiest moments of young love/lust? The memory of being richly, swooningly aware and alive in the way only youth can?Or more to the point: the FEELING of that memory?
Joyce thereby manages to leave everyone who’s braved the whole day with Leapold, Molly, and Stephen the best possible reward: the simple message of “Yes.” Not bad for a novel that continually wrestles with regret. At the end of the novel, at the end of it all, with all of his unique mountainous genius for English, he opts to end the novel, and it all, with “Yes,” and implicitly urges us to do likewise.
All of this is to say, have a Happy Bloomsday!
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4 thoughts on “Happy Bloomsday!!”
Joyce is a great writer. I think his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is probably the best book ever written about a protagonist in childhood and through a child’s point of view. (You’ve got me thinking that I need to revisit Joyce, Jack.) Speaking of stream-of-consciousness, there are days when the best I can manage is something akin to such a way of thinking. Your points about the story and Joyce’s craft are spot on. Thanks for reminding me about a writer I need to go back to.
For my money, the last pages of “The Dead” constitute the finest ending in literature.
You’ve made me consider attempting to read the entirety of Ulysses yet again. Thanks.
I found it easier once I decided it was OK not understand every bit of it. Part go over my head, just like part of my day tend to.