One doesn’t read “Ulysses”; one merely experiences the words
by Gregory C. Eaves
Today over lunch I finished Chapter 9 of “Ulysses” (1918), taking me to page 218. The novel has 18 chapters, totaling 783 pages. So I’ve read half the chapters, but only 28% of the book.
To compare it to a less grandiose work of art, Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung” is only four-operas long, and takes only four nights at the theater and about 15 hours to enjoy; and, it has a plot and character arcs. “Ulysses”, on the other hand, will take about three months to read, and eats up many, many lunch hours.
It’s an amazing oeuvre to experience, but it’s definitely “to experience” rather than “to read” or “to read for pleasure”. There’s no real plot. The main character — Leopold Bloom — wanders around Dublin, musing on this and musing on that. He walks, he goes to a funeral, he eats, he runs into people on the street, he gets a letter from his potential new lover, he thinks about this and about that, he moves artifacts from one pocket to another pocket, he solicits a bit of business, and so on. There’s no character arc and no character development. Scriptwriting 101 posits that each scene must have a physical action and each dialog must move the plot forward. “Ulysses” chapters have physical action and dialog, if you can discern it through the dancing myriad of words, but — at 28% in — there’s yet no discernible plot that moves our hero forward. He simply is. Each chapter has movement through time and space, but no actual moving. He simply is.
The artistry is in the doing of nothing. Each of those kinetic doings-of-nothing is really, amazingly, insanely, beautifully, verbaciously and vocabulistically created and crafted. Like finely whittled walking sticks or ever-more-intricate rice grain carvings, the 18 chapters come alive. It’s like having 18 Gaudi architectural creations all in a row along a street; or trying to appreciate 18 abstract Picasso cubist paintings all hanging in a row along a wall; or listening to 18 Mahler symphonies one after the other in one sitting at the concert hall. That is “Ulysses”, and in that sense it’s very modern… and it’s almost 100 years old.
If it is so incomprehensible, with such fanciful descriptions of kinetic nothingness, why is it considered a classic, you might ask. Where is my clear Dickens or my well-plotted Dumas?
What Joyce did is fun for the writer. He very clearly had fun writing this, cackling maniacally into his tumbler of Irish whisky while sitting in a Paris bistro. Each passage is very creative and verbally acrobatic: firework arches of acrobatic sentences and wordplay shoot up into the air, bursting into color with invented words and plays on words. We word people can see what he did with each passage, read each chapter and appreciate it for the craft. Then if we use a “Ulysses” guide book, as I’m doing, we might even manage to understand what’s going on. It may not be cuddly and welcoming like a kitten, but we can appreciate what Joyce has done.
I’m only a quarter or so finished, with more ahead of me than behind, but “Ulysses” seems to be 18 very modern, abstract chapters all loosely linked together to echo Homer’s story about Odysseus going home; very, very loosely linked, and the echo is very faint. I mean, this past chapter, Chapter 9, is called the “Scylla & Charybdis” chapter. Instead of Odysseus sailing between a rock and a whirlpool, we have a group of secondary characters discussing Shakespeare and analyzing “Hamlet”, with one analysis of “Hamlet” in the first part of the chapter being Scylla and a second analysis of “Hamlet” in the second part of the chapter being Charybdis. The main character, threading a needle between the two, shows up in the middle to divide the chapter into two, popping in and then leaving again. So, yes: Joyce includes two complete “Hamlet” analyses in his chapter about weaving between two difficult things. Each analysis is a multi-person conversation, in slang and invented words, with no modern punctuation in the text, with plenty of nicknames for each other, risqué jokes, weird formatting, plays on words and obscure references, and it’s ostensibly about Odysseus sailing home or Leopold Bloom walking home. As I said, only loosely linked to Homer.
Nonetheless, it’s tremendously well-crafted. It’s a wonderfully interesting pleasure to experience the words in this novel. You don’t read “Ulysses”, as much as you merely experience the words of “Ulysses”. Like a Picasso cubist painting, it’s not pretty in the conventional sense, but it’s certainly skillful, and with aides can be appreciated for what it is.
I look forward to the remaining 72% of the book.