As Bloomsday approaches, please welcome Lauren from the Mitchell Classics Book Group.
On Monday, May 14th, the Mitchell Classics Book Group met up to discuss James Joyce’s Ulysses. To assist us in our understanding of the novel, we invited Dr. Matthew Creasy from the University of Glasgow to join us. As part of the discussion, Dr. Creasy talked about the novel’s background, its setting, the reaction to the novel past and present, and provided us with new insights and information on both Joyce and Ulysses. The Classics Group would like to extend our sincere thanks and appreciation to Dr. Creasy for his time and for sharing his knowledge and expertise with us, for which we are very grateful.
The following review is a personal reflection upon my own reading of the novel:
‘Rrrpr. Kraa. Kraandl.
Then, not till then. My eppripfftaph. Be pfrwritt.
Ulysses, by James Joyce. Luctare: lucto; luctas; luctat; luctamus; luctatis; luctant. Luctavi. Lucto. I struggled. Now, I am struggling to try to express the feelings I experienced during the reading of this, in all senses of the term, incredible book. What can one say about the novel that has sparked continual debate and discussion since its first appearance in print? What can one add in this wee space about my own experience of the novel when it is universally acknowledged as one of the most influential novels of the 20th century, whose influence is acknowledged even by the leading writers of the 21st century? What can one write about Joyce’s opus that has already ignited thousands of research papers, theses, articles and books, not to mention films, plays and music, on just this one book alone? (‘Sing to me, Muse…’!). My thought is, and sincere advice to you, should you be tempted to read this weighty tome, follows Joyce himself – begin!
First, a bit about its publishing history. Ulysses made history in redefining the novel, indeed it became the vanguard of the Modernist movement in literature. It started to make waves right from its initial appearance in print. It was first published serially in 1918 in America, or more precisely the first five sections were published before printing was halted when the magazine in which it appeared, The Little Review, was found guilty of obscenity. The novel was then banned in the US until the decision was rescinded in 1933. It was first published in its entirety in Paris in 1922. Since that time, there have been numerous editions and variations published of which there is a good deal of debate regarding which edition is most faithful to Joyce’s manuscripts, as even the very first edition published in Paris had an estimated 2000+ errors. Myself, I read the 1922 text of the Oxford World’s Classics series, which I highly recommend.
Next, an overview of the organisation of the novel. The book is divided into three sections with a total of 18 chapters or episodes. Although not given in the text, each of the chapters are referred to by the name that Joyce gave them to help explain the underlying structure and symbolism within the book. For example the first chapter is referred to as ‘Telemachus’, the second ‘Nestor’, etc., which reference Homer’s Odyssey, upon which the book is based. Joyce, in fact, had to provide some help as the first readers of Ulysses quite simply just didn’t ‘get it’. To assist in its understanding, he provided two ‘schemata’ to his friends, which are now referred to as the Linati Schema, after Carlo Linati, and the Gilbert Schema, after Stuart Gilbert. These schemata include a guide to each chapter and give (among other categories) its associated organ, colour, symbol, and in the case of the Linati Schema – very helpfully – the underlying meaning of each chapter. Rather unhelpfully, the two schemata don’t match (thereby, in my view, leaving plenty of scope for one to make one’s own schema. Or not). My advice: don’t be put off by the thundering, deafening amount of detail and references – historical, cultural, linguistic, literary and otherwise – embedded throughout the novel, or even try to get your head around either of the two schemata at first, just crack on and enjoy the ride (…but if you’re stuck, then, yes, there’s always the notes at the back to help you out).
Then there’s the question of what the book is about – the plot line. The novel follows Leopold Bloom through an ordinary day in Dublin- June 16, 1904. We also follow Stephen Dedalus, a young aspiring writer (who Joyce borrows from his earlier novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), and Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife. In Joyce’s schemata, Leopold is associated with Odysseus, Stephen with Telemachus, and Molly with Penelope, again referencing The Odyssey. Over the course of the day, we experience the characters eating, drinking, defecating, meeting with friends, going to the shops, ogling ladies/gentlemen, masturbating, going to church, attending a funeral, going to the pub, meeting up with prostitutes/lovers, hallucinating and dreaming. On the journey, Joyce will shake up what you think you know to be a novel time and again, or more precisely, a total of 18 times (that’s just to start, really), with each episode taking the form of a different narrative technique and/or style. My advice: go with the flow and don’t be put off by all the shifting about – it’s part of what makes the novel the, at times, superlative surreal experience it is. You could also follow Dr. Creasy’s advice for first-time readers of the book which is to skip the first section, read chapters 4 to 7, then go back and read the first three chapters (thanks, Dr. C!).
Finally, my thoughts regarding this revolutionary book. It wreaked havoc with my sense of what a novel is/could/should be’, distraughtfully, happily so. I laughed, I was elated, enlightened, dare I say was emotionally transcended. I was also disturbed, repulsed, disenchanted, discouraged. And yes, indeed, I struggled. But my advice to you is read it. In my opinion, there is no other work of literature that will affect you as Ulysses will. If you haven’t read it yet, then go pick up a copy forthwith and discover what lies between its innocuous-looking covers, but please, don’t believe (all) the hype (even these few lines). Read it, (re)discover it, and decide for yourself and…
‘Then and not till then. Tram. Kran, kran, gran. Good oppor. Coming. Krandlkrankran. I’m sure it’s the burgund. Yes. One, two. Let my epitaph be. Karaaaaaaa. Written. I have.