Saturday, 12 April 2014

Ulysses - James Joyce


In reviewing the world (through a charity shop in Exmouth) the question is where to begin? Where to start? The answer is of course to start at both the beginning and the end, and from the centre then move out. To start everywhere at once. And how do you do that? Well, you start with a review of Ulysses, James Joyce's modernist classic tale of life, the universe and everything as played out on a single day in Dublin, 16th of June 1904.

Now, the main problem with this is that Ulysses has a reputation that goes before it, that reputation being that not only is it one of the greatest books ever written but that it's also one of the most difficult to read. There’s little point in arguing against this as there seems to be a universal consensus on it. However, just because you're told something is difficult shouldn't mean that you must automatically agree and adopt that stance also. Just as when you're told that something is great art, it doesn't mean that you should again automatically agree. Art is, after all, subjective and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That said, I happen to agree that Ulysses is indeed one of the greatest books of all time, if not the greatest. I also agree that it's not exactly easy reading but I hasten to add that it's not an impossible read. I also hasten to add that Ulysses is extraordinarily enjoyable and even a life-enhancing experience that will leave its mark on a reader forever.

For what it's worth, the story focuses on two people - Stephen Dedalus, a young writer and teacher who could be Joyce himself; and Leopold Bloom, a Jewish advertising salesman. There are other characters too, not least Leopold Bloom's wife, Molly, but these two gentlemen - who could almost be father and son - are the main protagonists. The journey of Leopold Bloom through a single day echoes that of the hero Ulysses in Homer's epic poem The Odyssey which in itself conveys the idea that there are no new stories under the sun. Everything has been done before and only the scale changes. Or rather, only the perception of scale changes because ultimately Leopold Bloom's drift through the city of Dublin over a day is just as epic as Ulysses' mythical voyage to Ithaca over 10 years.

So does this mean that everything in life echoes through eternity, recurring an infinite number of times? On one level, yes, this is what Joyce's book suggests but more importantly the book also suggests that there is another life going on beneath the surface that is far more interesting than any possible earthly adventure. A shifting, complex life unique to each individual that is banal yet utterly profound. It is this 'lake of dreams', this 'sea of rains', this 'gulf of dews', this 'ocean of fecundity' that Ulysses is really about. The external world is finite and can be captured and contained by words if nothing else but the internal world is without end. Just 'Shut your eyes and see', as Joyce says.

Ulysses soars and dives and stutters and glides and turns linguistic somersaults in a bewildering display of absolute genius. Words are the tools used to set language free to reveal the subtext of everyday living and the life extraordinary alike. Only one other writer has come close to revealing the hidden meaning in language and that's William Burroughs through his use of cut up and a healthy heroin habit. For James Joyce, it took 7 years of living in poverty with nothing but sheer intelligence and will power to assist. To this day, however, Ulysses stands head and shoulders above just about any other book and is a testament to imagination unbound. Feted for its streams of consciousness, there is a richness even in the tiniest of observations that leaves the reader in awe at the wonder of the English language:
'Poets in the delirium of the frenzy of attachment... the condensation of spiral nebulae into suns... a new luminous sun generated by the collision and amalgamation in incandescence of two nonluminous exsuns... out of the vaulted cell into a shattering daylight of no thoughts... love loves to love love... your head it simply swurls, those pretty little seaside gurls... '
On and on it goes, ad infinitum for approximately 727 pages until we get to Molly Bloom's soliloquy where for the last 50 pages punctuation is dispensed with entirely as she reminisces, ponders and dreams before finally remembering the time she first gave herself to Leopold, her husband to be:
'... 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.'

As an aside, in November of 1966 John Lennon attended an art show preview at the Inidica gallery in London. On entering, the first exhibit he saw was a step ladder that had to be climbed to get near to a blank canvas attached to the ceiling from which a magnifying glass hung. Lennon climbed the step ladder and through his rimmed glasses peered through the magnifying glass at a word written very small upon the canvas. The word was 'Yes'. This was Lennon's first encounter with the art of the then unknown Japanese artist Yoko Ono and the significance of that encounter was immense.
In Ulysses, Joyce chooses to end his book with that same, single, life-affirming, orgasmic (on the lips of Molly Bloom), heartening, positive word: Yes. It is the final word. The final firework exploding into the heavens ('The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit') and illuminating the universe, the mind and the imagination for ever more.

Ulysses is always there. It is in this world and yet it contains this world along with all others. There is no escaping from it. It is there waiting like a fat Buddha at the centre of all things for the reader to come to it. It exists as a reminder of what is possible, reasonably demanding the impossible. It will not go away and until it has been read will tug at the back of the mind, gently nudging, gently whispering, gently extending an invitation to something very, very special.

To something more.

To something other.

  If Marilyn Monroe read Ulysses then so can you
John Serpico

No comments:

Post a Comment