In the Heart of the Canadian Metropolis
It is now canonized in these pages;"Bloomsday," the day on which it takes place, merits an Oxford English Dictionary entry. But it also ranks high in surveys of unfinished books. Kevin Dettmar cleverly dubs James Joyce's Ulysses an "unread masterpiece."
Unread? Ulysses omits orienting background information about its characters but exposes their private thoughts seemingly unedited. Its parts don't relate to one another in any familiar way, and Joyce's techniques change repeatedly. Issues raised early on remain unresolved at the end.
Ulysses contains detailed references to The Odyssey, Hamlet, Don Giovanni, Plato, Aristotle and Catholic theology; untranslated passages of Latin, Italian and Hebrew; boldface capitalized headlines that make a section set in a newspaper office resemble a newspaper; seemingly endless, farcical lists ("Patrick W. Shakespeare" and "Brian Confucius" as "Irish heroes and heroines of antiquity") and wild swings between poetic writing and raucous adolescent humour, even fart jokes. Better: unreadable?
But immense rewards await readers who overcome the difficulties. The surprisingly simple story involves three Dubliners - 38-year-old ad canvasser Leopold Bloom, his 33-year-old singer-wife Molly and 22-year-old would-be poet Stephen Dedalus - on June 16, 1904. It's "the dailiest day possible" (Arnold Bennett's phrase) except, Bloom strongly suspects, Molly will make love with Blazes Boylan, her concert manager, and Bloom, whose baby son died 10 years earlier, follows and rescues Stephen, estranged from his alcoholic father.
The thin narrative supports an extraordinary picture of modern life, one exuberantly exploiting the language's expressive possibilities. Stephen is perhaps a young Joyce, or perhaps an ex-prodigy doomed to failure. His head stuffed with knowledge, he supplies much of the book's intellectual intimidation.
Molly, present briefly near the beginning and then fully in her closing unpunctuated monologue, lives immersed in her lusts and passions. She enjoys an afternoon of guilt-free adulterous sex and lives to tell about it.
Dear Dirty Dublin
A family man with a troubled home and a Jew in overwhelmingly Catholic Dublin, Leopold Bloom is both part of his native city and apart from it, a clever and resourceful outsider. He moves adeptly through technological and commercial Dublin's trams, telephones, typewriters, competing newspapers, posters and ads. He enjoys both literature and trashy novels, and magazines, opera and popular songs, classy stores, cheesy ads. Unlike his fellow citizens, he resists sentimental patriotism and other dangerous temptations, especially drink.
Bloom knows many things imperfectly, wonders why the city doesn't save space by burying people vertically, sleeps with his head at Molly's feet, and savours small disappointments and a desire for punishment. Inarticulate and prosaic when he speaks, he lives a rich and vibrant inner life, extraordinarily responsive to sensations around him. Empathetic and sympathetic, he imagines how the world looks to his cat and even to his anti-Semitic antagonists.
The Grandeur That Was
Bloom is amazingly resilient. He rebounds from the day's snubs and slights, even if bruised, and withstands Molly's infidelity. Finally home beside her in bed, he mentally slays her suitors as he kisses the "plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump." He slays the suitors in Molly's mind, too, as she gradually forgets Boylan and recalls the marriage proposal she coaxed out of Bloom 16 years earlier: "his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."
Is this "yes" locked in the past or an affirmation regarding the present and future? We can't be certain: No word follows it. Leopold lives in uncertainty, too, but untroubled that past and future, the woman lying next to him, and he himself are ultimately unknowable. All the erudition and Dublin arcana paraded in Ulysses, and its narrative tricks and disorientations, pale beside this ordinary extraordinary character, at rest after his day's long odyssey.
Michael Groden, Distinguished University Professor of English at the University of Western Ontario, is the author of Ulysses in Progress and general editor of the James Joyce Archive.
Next week: Das Kapital
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 the 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 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.
From Molly Bloom's soliloquy, Ulysses