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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Longest way round is the shortest way home.

Ulysses by James Joyce

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
So, I'm not entirely sure I can say with any certainty what "happened" in this novel. Here's my best assessment of events that actually happened/facts that I garnered. The book begins with Stephen Dedalus, a young man in his 20's, in Dublin, Ireland. He lives with his friend Buck Mulligan and another friend, Haines, in an abandoned castle. After they have a little breakfast, Stephen goes off to work. (He's a teacher.) We leave Stephen here and join up with Leopold Bloom, our true protagonist. Leopold Bloom has just woken up when we encounter him, and he goes out to get some food for breakfast for his wife, Marion. While he's out, we learn that he and Marion have a daughter, Milly, and that he's having an affair with a woman named Martha (or at least that's what he knows her by). He's using the pseudonym Henry Flower. (Haha, get it - Bloom? Flower?) Bloom then goes to a funeral - Paddy Dignam's - and meets up with a few friends, other middle-aged men from the city, including Simon Dedalus, Stephen's dad. We find out that Stephen and his father are sort of estranged (Stephen's mother has recently died of cancer, and for some reason Stephen feels responsible. I think he was in Paris when he found out she was sick, and didn't immediately return.) We find out later on that Stephen has several sisters, and that his family is very poor. Stephen does not live with them. We also find out at the funeral that Bloom's father, Rudy, commit suicide, seemingly after the death of Bloom's mother. Bloom also had a son, Rudy, who died. (I'm not sure how. Not sure whether we find this out or not.) Bloom also sells advertisements for a living. Bloom goes to work for a bit, then eventually we rejoin Stephen as he debates philosophy and Shakespeare with his pals. Bloom gets it on with a girl who is lame (Gerty) [note, lame as in physically disabled, not lame as in uncool] and may or may not have relations with a widow named Mrs. Breen. I can't say for sure. Bloom also goes out drinking, he has a wild and crazy dream sequence, and then he eventually makes his way home with Stephen. They talk and debate for awhile, and then eventually Stephen goes home. Bloom sleeps with his wife for the first time in over 10 years (since Rudy died) and the story ends with Marion's recollection of the day when Bloom proposed to her.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Caveat: Heads up, readers - this book was pretty bawdy, so I will be making some references and allusions that are not so kid-friendly. If you are of a sensitive nature, feel free to skip this entry.

Well, hello, blog enthusiasts of mine! Guess what? I finished it! I actually finished reading Ulysses! Now granted, I had a little help from nature, what with the 4 snow days I had last week, but still - this was no small challenge. I'd like to take a moment to thank all of the people who encouraged me to continue reading. This was definitely the hardest one to get through so far, and I couldn't have continued without the support of a few key people.

In terms of gut responses to this novel, I would say that I alternated between loving, hating, and being utterly confused by this book. I'm not sure what Joyce wanted us to get out of it, but I'm happy to share what I got out of it. Also, I want to recognize the fact that I did not use any additional sources (other than the occasional dictionary reference) to understand the book. I recognize that this limited my ability to understand it, but I also wanted to experience it as a "traditional reader" would. I know I missed some of the Ireland/Dublin political references, and I didn't even TRY to get the references to the Odyssey, because, let's face it, I just didn't think they were obvious.

Things I liked about this book:

- I loved the dream sequence. It was trippy as hell, and I really don't know what it was supposed to represent, but Bloom is accosted at various points by different women he sleeps with (including, at one point, a group labeled the "Sluts and Ragamuffins"), he's named King of Ireland at one point, he's put on trial by all of the women, and there's basically just an overwhelming amount of hilarity and completely bizarre occurrences. Bloom also undergoes frequent imaginary costume changes, which are extremely detailed and completely absurd.

- I enjoyed the "Budget for 16 June 1904" that he created. It includes all of his various expenses for the day, and also tells the story of the entire day from beginning to end.

- I loved the dialogue between author and reader at the end of the book, where the narrator started asking questions and answering them. He asks questions like, "What object did Bloom add to this collection of objects?" (Answer: a 4th letter received by Henry Flower) and follows up with questions like, "What pleasant reflection accompanied this action?" (Answer: That three women liked looking at his face that day (Mrs. Breen, Miss Callan, and Gerty, the lame one)

- I liked that Joyce used so many different literary forms to express the contents of one single day in the life of Leopold Bloom. He writes in stream of consciousness from Bloom's perspective, in play form, in question and answer format, in descriptive narrative, in lines of music, and in a completely uninterrupted stream of thought from Marion Bloom's perspective.

Things I did not like about this book:

- I did not like that it was so unbelievably difficult to understand.

- I did not like when he stopped using punctuation entirely in the last chapter. I suppose there was some purpose to this (letting us feel the complete flow of ideas from Marion as she, I'm not sure about this, but I've been told it's the case, orgasms) but I just didn't really get why he did it.

- I did not like that there were long sections of the novel where I understood what was going on only because my parents have cultivated an insane vocabulary in my brain, as well as provided me with an understanding of most allusions. I recognize that I am by no means "normal" in this regard, and I kind of resented understanding those passages, as my idea of a great author doesn't include trying his absolute hardest to make sure only the "academic elite" understand what you're trying to say. I'm all for elevating people's vocabularies, but I just felt like I was part of some "old boy's club" of Joyce's, and I didn't really enjoy the entry requirements.

- I did not enjoy the fact that much of this book is about a bunch of Irish men and their attitudes on life, and that their wives are often depicted as crazy, needy, or a lot obnoxious. This is a common problem in the classics I've read so far. Even the women writers tend to box our sex in - unnecessary! I am not to be defined by a few lines or a sweeping generalization, thank you.

Things I thought were intriguing/did not understand completely in this book:

- I thought that the deaths were intriguing (and really defined the relationships between people, in that the funeral was what brought Bloom in contact with Simon Dedalus and his other buddies) but didn't really get explained or probed in the book. Bloom lost his father and his only son, Stephen lost his mom, Simon lost his wife, and I still don't really know much about how any of those characters felt. I mean, we get glimmers here and there that reference moments or feelings, but I found that Joyce's writing style made character development difficult to comprehend as a reader.

- Like I mentioned before, I had a really hard time fitting any of the Odyssey onto this book. (1) I wasn't really sure if it belonged there. I know the book is called Ulysses, but it's also Joyce's book about Leopold Bloom. I didn't want to plop a huge allegory on the novel while trying to get a feel for Ulysses. (2) It's been a while since I read the Odyssey, so I'm rusty on the details. (3) I get that Leopold Bloom was on a "journey" through Dublin, and that he gets drunk and hangs with his buddies, and kind of comes home with his son (Stephen Dedalus isn't his son, but there's a paternal feeling toward him and he's about the right age to be his son, if a little old), kind of like in the end of the Odyssey when Telemachus and Odysseus initiate Odysseus' return to Penelope. And I suppose the whole not having relations with Marion for 10 years is like the 9 years that Odysseus spends away from Penelope, and the fact that she ultimately decides to remember when he proposed to her instead of thinking of leaving him (which she considers, as I think she's having an affair with Blazes Boylan, a friend of Bloom's).

I feel like I'm mostly just muddling further into the mire here, so I'm going to stop analyzing and wrap it up. Basically, I didn't hate it as much as I thought I would, but I still don't think that it's accessible as a novel AT ALL, which severely lowers it in my esteem. I don't think every person should be able to read every book, but I also don't think you should write books for a handful of people. It's snotty.

In closing, I would like to add that I don't believe I am suffering from "the deficient appreciation of literature possessed by females," Mr. Bloom, (and Mr. Joyce, for that matter) I think I'm appreciating literature just fine. I'm sure that I could read this book over and over and get more out of it, but this particular blog is about giving each classic their one shot. Maybe when I'm done with this challenge, I'll return to the ones that merit a re-read. Maybe not.

This was the other quote in contention for the title of this posting, but it was too long to fit. Onwards to the olympics and Wuthering Heights.

"Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves."

1 comment:

  1. Good for you! I tried to read this book, but gave up pretty quickly. Thanks for your synopsis, but after reading it, I still have no desire to try again.