I read James Joyce’s “Ulysses”


Righteo, I read “Ulysses”, apparently that’s an achievement. Instead of writing a post full of your usual Joycean delving, probing or analysis, I thought I’d simply write about the reading experience. Let’s be honest, if you want to find out more about “Ulysses” there are thousands of places to go, classes, internet tools, books, clubs, you could keep yourself busy and increase your blood pressure for the remainder of your life and still walk away not 100% convinced you’ve understood a damn thing.

“Ulysses” has a reputation, one that precedes itself, “unreadable”, “life’s too short to read Ulysses”, and numerous other derogatory comments litter the reading websites, a demanding work obviously and numerous people just aren’t looking for focused concentration when they open a book, all of this myth had me concerned before I’d even opened page one.

First up I should mention the edition I chose to read. I’m sure every city has them, a chain of bookstores where remainders are marked, and then sold off at about a third of the recommended retail price. The shops that are littered with the next bestseller that actually never sold, thousands of copies of Jodi Picoult, Dan Brown et al. Occasionally I wander into these concrete caverns and browse, only to find some obscure out-of-print book that I’d long been looking for. On a recent visit they had one copy of the Gabler Edition of “Ulysses”, for $10 – bargain. In a nutshell the “Gabler” is a revised edition attempting to correct any errors made in earlier editions – there’s a decent “Foreword” and a large “Afterword” explaining the discovery process and the substantial effort put in to editing and publishing a definitive edition, that’s not for this post.

Before I go on, apologies to any Joyce scholars, or avid readers of “Ulysses”, below are my thoughts as I read the book, these are not in any way scholarly, nor have they been researched, do not take offence at a simple man’s views on what he thought whilst reading. If you disagree with anything, feel free to let me know, however I re-iterate that these are my thoughts, and plenty of times I have been known to be wrong.

Onto the book itself;

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:

Not that hard, Buck’s walking down the stairs with a bowl of lather, a crossed mirror and razor, about to have a shave….I actually made it through chapter one in a single sitting, undaunted, not overly perplexed, a chapter a day, be done in eighteen days. What’s the fuss? I’d started on a positive footing, a few google references required for some of the Latin quotes, a quick check of Homeric allusions, no guide required, I will be right. I had gone in blind, like heading out for a multi-day hike with some water, enough food, equipment, a rough idea of the terrain and hoping for the best. I’d managed to find the Linati and Gilbert “schema” on the internet, it gave a few pointers for each of the chapters (the map?) but I intentionally did not refer to the numerous multi layered guides, highlighting every nuance, dissecting every sentence.

At the highest level I understood Stephen Dedalus was trying to reconcile his blame for his mother’s death, I knew that Bloom was aware of Molly’s indiscretion, I figured out Bloom’s grief process for his young son, his father’s suicide, and of course the funeral. Surely you don’t read “Ulysses” for these broad narrative brushes!

Could I keep reading a chapter a day and be done in eighteen days? Of course I was wrong, I had underestimated the complexity, my resilience, in some cases the sheer length of some chapters (as well as my free time), a chapter a day was unachievable but it took me until Chapter Eight before I realised such….more struggles…and then I hit Chapter Fourteen “Oxen of the Sun”.

Complex, cryptic, but extremely rewarding, the gestation of the English language in a chapter about embryonic development, this section apparently mimicking the c14th travels of Sir John Mandeville, (I’ve added my simplified interpretation after each sentence):

And in the castle was set a board that was of the birchwood of Finlandy and it was upheld by four dwarfmen of that country but they durst not move more for enchantment. (A table with carved legs?)

And on this board were frightful swords and knives that are made in a great cavern by swinking demons out of white flames that they fix then in the horns of buffalos and stags that there abound marvellously. (Knives and forks with bone handles?)

And there were vessels that are wrought by magic of Mahound out of seasand and the air by a warlock with his breath that he blases in to them like to bubbles. (Glasses – glass blowing molten sand?)

And full fair cheer and rich was on the board that no wight could devise a fuller ne richer. And there was a vat of silver that was moved by craft to open in the which lay strange fishes withouten heads though misbelieving men nie that this be possible thing with they see it natheless that are so. And these fishes lie in an oily water brought there from Portugal land because of the fatness that therein is like to the juices of the olivepress. (A can of Portugese sardines in olive oil?)

And also it was a marvel to see in that castle how by magic they make a compost out of fecund wheatkidneys out of Chaldee that by aid of certain angry spirits that they do in to it swells up wondrously like to a vast mountain. (Bread?)

Basically a table with cutlery, some bread and a can of sardines!
Needless to say I got bogged down here and in the following “Circe” Chapter. But I soldiered on, sometimes vividly imagining the setting, other times simply reading the words, clueless as to what on earth was going on.

And then suddenly Bloom returns home, in the wee hours of the morning, Chapter Seventeen, “Ithaca” Odysseus returns, and then “Penelope”, Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness, back to a chapter a day.

Of the Homeric references, there would be plenty I missed, but I particularly enjoyed “Nausicaä” chapter Thirteen. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is shipwrecked on the island of Scheria (or Phaeacia), Nausicaä and her handmaidens go to the sea-shore to wash clothes (thanks Wikipedia). In “Ulysses” we have the readable, and controversial when it came to banning the book, chapter where Bloom masturbates whilst observing the flirting Gerty on the beach. But early on in the chapter we have the equivalent of the handmaidens’;

The three girl friends were seated on the rocks, enjoying the evening scene and the air which was fresh but not too chilly. Many a time and oft were they wont to come there to that favourite nook to have a cosy chat beside the sparkling waves and discuss matters feminine…

The washing coming in lines 173+

She had four dinky sets with awfully pretty stitchery, three garments and nighties extra, and each set slotted with different coloured ribbons, rosepink, pale blue, mauve and peagreen, and she aired them herself and blued them when they came home from the wash and ironed them and she had a brickbat to keep the iron on because she wouldn’t trust those washerwomen as far as she’d see them scorching the things.

Once completed I attended a seminar in Melbourne which was an “Introduction to Ulysses” and there were hints about what chapter’s to read in what order, pointers as to Joyce’s life, reflections upon certain sections (although not everybody has the same edition of course) and a few discussions about interpretation. A room full of people wanting to delve further and further into this iconic book. Me? I’ll dabble again, I’ll pick it up and dip in and out, I’m highly unlikely to read it from cover to cover again, and I’m even unlikely to attend another seminar.

Late last year I posted a list of works, from various sources, which have been referred to as the “Ulysses” of their country or language. I’d really enjoyed a number of books on that list, for their complexity, their boldness, their experimentation, and will slowly work my way through the majority that have been mentioned. A sort of quest, a challenge, yes, but an enjoyable approach to looking at world literature. Is there time to read Joyce again?





Slipping – John Toomey


Today another short review of another short book.

Whilst I do keep tabs on numerous literary awards, I must admit I had not heard of the Rubery Book Prize, an annual international award given to writers either self-published or published by independent presses. In 2017 the Fiction Award was won by John Toomey for his novel “Slipping”, published by the independent press Dalkey Archive, and it was through Dalkey’s news updates that I heard of the award and the winning novel.

This is not a spoiler alert, what I’m revealing here is replicated on the back cover, and within the first chapter. This is a book with a simple premise, Albert Jackson, a highly regarded teacher, murders his wife and being sentenced to the local psychiatric hospital he enlists the services of Charlie Vaughan, a young fiction writer, to help him present his side of the story. The novel is not simply presented as Charlie’s journey or struggles in writing Albert’s story, it also consists of Albert’s notes, Charlie’s interviews with witnesses, family members and Charlie’s meetings with Albert’s psychiatrist, Novak.

However it is not the simple narrative premise where this novel’s riches lie, it is a work that plays on the usual motivations and explanations found in the crime genre, and delves into the mind of a man who has become sick of his day to day existence:

People disgust me. To be honest. I long to be alone, away from them and their social pleasantries. Away from etiquette, as if anybody even knows what that means these days. Small talk, as I said, has always been a source of irritation to me but in recent times I’ve come to utterly detest it. To the extent that I almost fear it. Fear I might throttle somebody, or drop into a whimpering ball right there on the street, in abject exasperation at life’s triviality. I have contrived a number of ways to avoid meeting certain people on the street. I plan departures in advance of arrival. I anticipate and prepare for my exits – appointments, work, emergencies, illnesses. You name it I’ve used it. (p17-18)

Masterly constructed the book switches between writer Charlie’s impressions;

…we can never entirely absolve ourselves of first impressions, astute or petty; it is the tiny prejudices and proclivities formed in as long as it takes to say hello that condemn us to tragedy. (p4)

And the musings of an unreliable narrator, Albert – here a lecture about “The Great Gatsby”;

‘And then we get the sting in the tail – the unreliable narrator. Just as we arrive at our safe conclusion, we ask ourselves – Can we trust the story we’ve been told? The narrator is compromised. Does this change the conclusion or bolster it? Who can say? You can, my scholars. Make an argument, take part. Assume your views. Go forth and criticise!’ (p29-30)

And then we have the role of you the reader, as a writer the more Charlie understands, and the more information he uncovers, the more complicit in the crime he becomes, you then begin to question your voyeuristic role as a reader…

In facilitating Jackson and his story, surely I had aligned myself with the wrong camp. As well as which, for me there was still something missing from his assorted statements. And it haunted my impression of him. Told me I was wrong to talk with him. The emotional hollow, the thin precision, the soulless control. What essence of him could be redeemed if the deadpan brutality of his murderous account proved as faithful as Novak had suggested it was? (p104)

There is the added layer of the role of a fiction writer;

But the novel’s a different beast entirely; pliable; capable of shifting and rolling with the fluctuations of the human heart, of clinging to the coattails of otherwise elusive patterns of the mind. It has range, human capacity, like nothing else. (p109)

As I am not generally a reader of crime fiction it is difficult to rate this book as part of that specific genre, however it is an economical and well-constructed book, a lighter read that filled in a gap whilst I was having a break from James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. Whilst an easy read there are a few criticism’s I would like to highlight, the female characters are “victims” (obviously Albert’s wife) and it is not just the dead wife who is not explored in a lot of depth, in the case of the other two female “players” their roles in Albert’s life are explored however their motivations are not detailed in any way and they are merely play things for the male characters, our writer included.  As a light distracting read this novel is entertaining, whilst being unsettling and very readable, John Toomey has taken a simple tale and added several devices to hook you in, although some may be overblown (Albert referring to his wife as still being alive, pointing out the use of 3rd person narration are just two glaring examples) the overall effect is an enjoyable escape from some of the more detailed literary fiction I generally approach.