Thursday, 20 December 2012

Once upon a time and a very good time it was...


"I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality."
  James Joyce on Ulysses

Me and James Joyce in Pula, Croatia
This is the first entry of my blog about my journey with James Joyce.   A journey that took me to Dublin, Galway, Trieste, Pula, Paris, Buffalo and Zurich.  A journey that opened my eyes to large swaths of literature, to Irish culture, to new music from centuries ago, to British and Irish history, to religion, to colonial politics, to the stories of Homer, Ibsen, Dante, Svevo and so many other writers and philosophers that I've lost count.  And a journey that gave me an all-too-crisp vision of what it was like to walk the streets of Dublin on a warm Spring day over a century ago: June 16, 1904.

It began in Toronto's Indigo bookstore at Yonge and Eglinton in 1999, when I picked up a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses.   I turned to the first page, and by the second sentence I was already lost (what was "Introibo, ad altere Dei"?).  Further down, I crashed into words I hadn't heard before (What was "Chrystostomos"?).  There were dashes in the place of quotation marks, and concocted words like "snotgreen" and "scrotumtightening."  What was I reading?

Until then I hadn't read a word by James Joyce.  Sure, I knew he was a great Irish writer.  I figured he probably wrote about the struggles of Irish families.   But the title of the book -- Ulysses -- led me astray;  I had an image of the book being about ancient travelers matching wits and weapons with angry Greek or Roman gods.   This was nothing that I expected.

I should have put the book down and walked away.  But as I leafed ahead I came across these words "I don't want to see my country fall into the hands of German jews either."   Well, I didn't see that one coming.   I flipped ahead again and there were more Jewish references, mostly negative.   As a 38-year-old Canadian Jew, I was fascinated, confused and decided to bring the book home and figure what this book was about.

I hadn't read anything like it before.

I made it through the first two chapters of Ulysses with an inkling of what was going on.  By the third chapter, I was submerged in the bizarre spiral of internal dialogue of Stephen Dedalus, and was sinking fast.   Then came chapter 4 and a light went on.  I had a better grasp of what was going on -- and a new character entered the scene:  Leopold Bloom.   OK, I could understand most of what was happening -- and Joyce was sharing not only what Bloom said, but what he was thinking.   Sometimes Bloom would think something and say something different.  Bloom would ask questions to himself that sounded an awful lot like the questions I ask myself.  As the story progressed, I could pick up some large tracts of what was happening -- but as Bloom left the funeral about a third of the way into the book, the story started to get away from me.  There was a musical chapter, that baffled me, and from there it got worse.  The book's style seemed to change with every chapter.   There was a chapter written wholly in play-like dialogue where the characters seemed under a hallucinogenic (I later learned they were all drunk).  A chapter written as a question-and-answer catechesim, where the questioner seemed to be an alien without a frame of reference struggling to understand the simplest human events.   And, of course, a 45-page chapter that had virtually no punctuation -- which I was later to learn was Molly Bloom's famous stream-of-consciousness monologue.

I put down my copy of Ulysses -- and though I read the book from cover to cover, I was totally unsatisfied.  For the first time, I'd read a book and didn't understand a quarter of what I'd read.  There seemed to be links, recurring themes and clues within the book...but who had time to go back and make sense of them? There was anti-semitism throughout -- and I gained a new, unwanted, window into the mind of bigots. Yet the book was also sympathetic to Jews; the main character was partly Jewish -- and the other characters tended to treat him as a Jewish outsider. Somehow Joyce was able to get into the mind of this secular Jewish character and express what he was thinking and feeling; it was as if Joyce himself was a Jew.

I should have put the book down and forgotten this spaghetti-like mix of words...but I didn't.

I started to solve this puzzle and I couldn't set it down; I had to figure out what Ulysses was all about.   Yet where do you turn?  Where do you start?

This blog is about that journey.

1 comment:

  1. A brave dive into Ulysses. Congratulations on making that first blind plunge.