A moment of sadness as I read page 1078 of the Everyman’s Library edition of Ulysses. My first reading of Ulysses is done. Sadness is swiftly followed by a Rockylike sense of victory. Not because Ulysses is so difficult, but its reputation is so daunting. To quote Rocky (a first on this blog, and I hope a last), “You ain’t so bad.”
Parts of Ulysses are tedious; there are depths and allusions I may never comprehend, but Joyce has, in the end, written a story of a man called Leopold Bloom. There is no plot, and the structure on which Joyce built Ulysses is complex. This book requires sustained concentration. It is not a bedtime book. On several occasions I read several pages, admiring the language, without understanding what was happening. The Circe dream sequence required three readings to begin to mine its depths. But over the many pages of this lengthy book, there is also such exquisite beauty. My notebook is filled with passages I want to remember. Bloom feels more real than people I’ve known for years, I probably know more about him.
This edition of Ulysses is introduced by Craig Raine, who makes the point that the “restless stream of consciousness” isn’t Joyce’s discovery. Joyce admitted taking the technique from French novelist Dujardin. Raines quotes John Donne rather wonderfully:
Joyce, however, applied with more thoroughness than any previous writer the principle enunciated by John Donne in a sermon of December 1626, on the subject of prayer: ‘a memory of yesterdays pleasures, a feare of tomorrows dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine eare, a light in mine eye, an any thing, a nothing, a fancy, a Chimera in my braine, troubles me in my prayer.’
When next I read Ulysses I will accompany the reading with one or two primers, to unlock some of the riddles that escaped me. But they are unnecessary to appreciate the finesse of Ulysses. I leave these thoughts with a favourite passage (also picked out in Raine’s introduction):
His face got all grey instead of being red like it was and there was a fly walking over it up to his eye. The scrunch that was when they were screwing the screws into the coffin: and the bumps when they were bringing it downstairs. Pa was inside it and ma crying in the parlour and uncle Barney telling the men how to get it round the bend. A big coffin it was, and high and heavylooking. How was that? The last night pa was boosed he was standing on the landing there bawling out for his boots to go out to Tunney’s for to boose more and he looked butty and short in his shirt. Never see him again. Death that is, Pa is dead. My father is dead. He told me to be a good son to ma. I couldn’t hear the other things he said but I saw his tongue and his teeth were trying to say it better. Poor pa. That was Mr Dignam, my father. I hope he is in purgatory now because he went to confession to Father Conroy on Saturday night.