Thursday, June 16, 2011


June 16th is Bloomsday, the day (in 1904) in which the novel Ulysses by james Joyce takes place, all in one day, in Dublin. Ulysses, the iconic Modern novel (along with a few others, such as Virginia Woolf's The Waves) that changed modern literature for all time, by presenting the interior monologue stream-of-consciousness of its main character(s).

STATELY, PLUMP BUCK MULLIGAN CAME FROM THE STAIRHEAD, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently-behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

-- Introibo ad altare Dei.

Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called up coarsely:

-- Come up, Kinch. Come up, you fearful jesuit.

Solemnly he came forward and mounted the round gunrest. He faced about and blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding country and the awaking mountains. Then, catching sight of Stephen Dedalus, he bent towards him and made rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in his throat and shaking his head. Stephen Dedalus, displeased and sleepy, leaned his arms on the top of the staircase and looked coldly at the shaking gurgling face that blessed him, equine in its length, and at the light untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak. . . .

So much has been written about Ulysses, from scholarly analyses and "decryptions" to popular fandom praise, and so much modern novelistic literature has swarmed from this novel's artistic wake, that it seems pointless to add to the fray. The novel is quoted and referenced often, in modern art and literature, cited and parodied and paid homage to. All I really can add to the many voices already chiming in on Bloomsday is my own appreciation, my personal experience with reading Joyce, with reading Ulysses and the rest.

I first read Ulysses when I was 17 years old, starting it in the autumn, and finishing it after I had turned 18 that following winter. It did take me several months to read. The novel blew my socks off. I read it, modeled as it is on Homer's Odyssey, each section written in a completely different literary style, with deep pleasure, and with no real difficulty. It all makes sense within its own internal logic.

One of my favorite chapters is the "Sirens" chapter, constructed as a musical symphony in words. It begins with an overture that compresses the action into short poetic lines, followed by the full symphony, complete with musical themes and variations. The overture begins:

Bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyringing Imperthnthn thnthnthn.

Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips.

Horrid! And gold flushed more.

A husky fifenote blew.

Blew. Blue bloom is on the.

Goldpinnacled hair.

A jumping rose on satiny breast of satin, rose of Castile.

Trilling, trilling: Idolores.

Peep! Who's in the... peepofgold?

Tink cried to bronze in pity.

And a call, pure, long and throbbing. Longindying call.

Decoy. Soft word. But look: the bright stars fade. Notes chirruping

O rose! Castile. The morn is breaking.

Jingle jingle jaunted jingling.

Coin rang. Clock clacked. . . .

Our modern-day hero, Leopold Bloom, navigates a long day and night, past many dangers and through many trials, to arrive home at last, to be greeted by his Molly. The last section of the novel, told in Molly's voice, is a tour de force of stream-of-consciousness writing, in some ways setting the standard.

The novel ends with what I still feel is one of the great erotic monologues in all of literature:

. . . and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses 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 Jo 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.

Reading Ulysses began my fascination with Joyce. At one point I had probably 30 books about Joyce in my library, as well as editions of all his writings. I gave up some of the scholarly works at one point, but have retained the editions of the novels and other writings, and some of the better books about Joyce.

James Joyce

I've read all of the rest of Joyce's published writings at least once. I still believe that the story "The Dead," from Dubliners, is one of the greatest short stories of all time. (The film made from it, director John Huston's final work, is faithful to the story and quite beautiful in its own right.)

I seem to be one of those rare people who has actually read Finnegan's Wake. I read it in my 20s, sometimes after reading Ulysses, and joyce's poems, plays, and other fictions. In fact, I've read the Wake somewhere between one and three times; I'll leave that assessment fractionally vague. I figured out for myself that one way to read the Wake that makes sense of it, is to read it out loud in a thick Irish accent. A lot of the word-plays and altered language that seem so strange at first suddenly begins to make sense, when you read it that way. It's not something you read in one sitting; each section that you get through needs time to sink in and integrate; it is a Dreamtime novel, after all, with dream logic and psychological reality blended in.

Ulysses is still a lot more popular, and better known, than the Wake, as most people find it easier going. Joyce's avant-garde literary experiments did get more complex with each major work. A lot of readers stop at Ulysses where they can still make sense of most things.

But Joyce's works have permeated the culture. Everyone has heard jokes or parodies, or puns on Joyce's titles. Entire musical works, on both small and large scales, have been written from Joyce's texts. (John Cage has used Joyce texts for songs and other kinds of performances, and has used the Wake several times as part of a "writing through" sequence.) The Joycean novels still inspire, they still reflect modern life and attitudes, and I would argue they are still vital and relevant to contemporary literature, and life. Ulysses and annual celebrations of Bloomsday remain popular, vibrant, and joyous. The world was changed by Joyce, the world's consciousness, not just its literary tropes and fashions. Thus, these annual remembrances of Bloomsday, these annual rites of celebration.

Happy Bloomsdday! May your wanderings always bring you, at last, home.

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Blogger Jenny Woolf said...

Yes, Ulysses made a big impression on me when I read it aged about 20. I haven't opened it for many years but your post makes me decide to look again. When I was in Trieste I came across a life sized statue of Joyce standing on one of the main bridges in town. It was absolutely surrounded with cigarette butts.

1:42 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, thanks for the comment. It's great when we get inspired to go back and re-read like that. And thanks also for the image from Trieste—what a great mental image that gave me! :)

2:20 PM  

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