For a novel that is jokey, playful and irreverent, that exalts the everyday, and is about as much fun as any book I can think of, Ulysses has a formidable reputation. It is, indeed, often seen as the ultimate in literary elitism, and claims to have read it – and, further, to have enjoyed reading it, and coming back for more – are sometimes regarded with scepticism at best, and, at worst, with downright incredulity, or even with open accusations of lying. For Ulysses is unreadable, isn’t it? Or, at least, excessively difficult. And can anyone really enjoy something that is at such a level of difficulty? Far from being an enjoyable reading experience, is it not rather the case that reading this novel – or, rather claiming to have read this novel – is a sort of admission ticket to an exclusive and highly elitist literary club, membership of which allows one to look down one’s nose at the plebs? And can there really be any reason for reading it other than to get oneself entry into this dubious and pretentious highbrow society?
It would be easy to laugh off such silliness were these claims not frequently made. But the worst thing about this kind of silliness is that one often ends up on the defensive when speaking about this novel. And one shouldn’t.
As everyone knows, Ulysses is set in Dublin on one single day – 16th June, 1904, known nowadays as Bloomsday – and it presents quite ordinary people going about their quite ordinary business. Modernism is often regarded as a radical break from what had come before it, but now, more or less a century after the beginnings of that movement, we should be able to see not merely its radical nature, but also the continuities with what had gone before. Joyce was, after all, by no means the first writer to attempt to find the extraordinary within the ordinary: throughout the 19th century, all sorts of writers have done just that – from Jane Austen to George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert to Anton Chekhov. Long before Joyce, the novel had staked out its ground: its focus was now no longer on kings and queens, princes and princesses, nobles and bishops – but on ordinary people, in ordinary walks of life. Even drama, for long a conservative bastion of kings and queens and high-flown rhetoric and verse, had come down the social ladder to report on middle-class drawing rooms. This meant that the epic form was, on the whole, eschewed. There are many notable exceptions to this, of course, as there are to any broad-brush observation on literary trends: it’s hard not to use the term “epic” to describe such works as, say, War and Peace or Nostromo; and writers such as Tolstoy or Henry James weren’t exactly averse to depicting nobility. But it was characters such as Anne Elliot, Emma Bovary, Arthur Clennan, Dr Lydgate, Gervaise Coupeau, Isabel Archer, Lily Bart, etc., who now occupied the centre stage rather than merely the fringes, and none of their their humdrum lives suggests the epic. It was up to the creators of these characters to discover the extraordinary within the ordinary – and this discovery seems to me to be among the finest achievements of nineteenth century literature. But the extraordinary – or the sublime, the grand, the magnificent – had to be found within the everyday: writers could no longer turn their backs on the quotidian in search of loftier matters.
Joyce followed in this pattern: like the nineteenth century novelists, he had no wish to turn his back on the everyday. And he sought, again like his nineteenth century predecessors, to find something within the daily grind of trivia that would invest the everyday with some sort of meaning, some sort of significance. He had achieved this at times in his short story collection Dubliners – but generally, despite moments of revelation (“epiphanies”, as Joyce called them, his Catholic upbringing never too far away), and despite even occasional moments of transcendence (such as in those unforgettable final pages of “The Dead”), the depiction is of little people leading little lives: one of the main images linking these stories is that of paralysis. Instead of depicting transcendence, these stories, in general, report on the failure to achieve it.
But then came Ulysses. Here, without turning away from the quotidian, the mundane, he invested the depiction of very ordinary people during the course of a very ordinary day with an epic grandeur, and a Homeric magnificence. It is an achievement that still takes the breath away.
And yet, this entire majestic edifice is built out of considerably less-than-majestic building material: it is endlessly playful and mischievous, and is full of silly gags, jokes, and irrepressible high spirits; there is even room for a bit of old-fashioned schoolboy smut. This is what makes all the more amusing the novel’s reputation for highbrow elitism: material less highbrow or elitist cannot be imagined. Yes – it is difficult: let us admit that right away. But the difficulties are to be encountered with a good-natured laugh rather than with a serious and furrowed professorial brow: Brendan Behan may have not have been entirely serious when he suggested that the best way to approach this novel is to treat it as a sort of joke-book, but he wasn’t, I think, too far off the mark.
And then, of course, there are all those Homeric correspondences. Each chapter – with a single, notable exception – recalls an episode from Homer’s Odyssey. (The exception is the Wandering Rocks chapter, which is taken from the myth of Jason and the Argonauts rather than from the myth of Odysseus: but then again, it is the whole point of wandering rocks to emerge unexpectedly, taking us by surprise.) The parody of Homer isn’t new either: the mock-heroic had been done before – Rabelais, Cervantes, Pope, Fielding – and while relating the everyday to the heroic has the comic effect of deflation, of bringing down the heroic, in Joyce’s hands it also served a more important purpose – that of elevating the everyday. Leopold Bloom may seem an unlikely Odysseus: he is an undistinguished middle-aged man, an advertising canvasser by profession; he is widely derided on account of his Jewish origins; and he is married, not to a faithful Penelope, but to a woman who is serially unfaithful to him. It almost seems as if Joyce had gone out of his way to find as unlikely a candidate as may be imagined for the role of Ulysses. But of course, as Cervantes knew well, the greater the discrepancy between the ideal and the real, the funnier it is. And also, and equally importantly, the more striking it is when this apparently pathetic parody of the heroic ideal does display what may be termed heroism. As, for instance, in the twelfth chapter, set in the pub. Here, Odysseus encounters the Cyclops Polyphemus – or, more prosaically, Bloom encounters the nationalist Citizen, holding boozy court with his cronies.
The chapter is narrated by one of these cronies who remains anonymous. Bloom, we gather, doesn’t particularly want to be in the pub: he is only there because he has promised to meet with his friend Martin, to help raise funds for the widow and family of the recently deceased Paddy Dignam. A charitable mission – the sort that perhaps wouldn’t have occurred to a real hero, such as Odysseus, the Sacker of Cities. But Bloom’s friend isn’t there yet, and he finds himself amidst unfriendly faces. Bloom, after all, is a Jew – he’s not “one of us”. And it is believed – wrongly, as it happens – that Bloom has won on the horses that day, and is too tight-fisted to say so and buy everyone a drink. As the evening progresses, the comments directed at Bloom become increasingly pointed: there is something not very pleasant in the air. Whatever Free Nation of Ireland the Citizen envisages, Bloom is not part of it. Eventually, Bloom speaks out:
– And I belong to a race too, says Bloom, that is hated and persecuted. Also now. This very moment. This very instant.
Gob, he near burnt his fingers with the butt of his old cigar.
– Robbed, says he. Plundered. Insulted. Persecuted. Taking what belongs to us by right. At this very moment, says he, putting up his fist, sold by auction in Morocco like slaves or cattle.
– Are you talking about the new Jerusalem? says the citizen.
– I’m talking about injustice, says Bloom.
– Right, says John Wyse. Stand up to it then with force like men.
But this is not what Bloom meant:
– But it’s no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.
– What? says Alf.
– Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred. I must go now, says he to John Wyse. Just round the court a moment to see if Martin is there.
So, having declared the Gospel of Love, he announces his own departure. In his absence, he is made fun of. Love, indeed! “A new apostle to the gentiles”, mocks the citizen, his sarcasm coming closer to the truth than he realises. The unnamed narrator goes off on a riff about love:
Love loves to love love. Nurse loves the new chemist. Constable 14A loves Mary Kelly. Gerty MacDowell loves the boy that has the bicycle. M. B. loves a fair gentlema. Li Chi Han lovey up kissy Cha Pu Chow. Jumbo, the elephant, loves Alice, the elephant. Old Mr Verschole with the ear trumpet loves old Mrs Verschoyle with the turnedin eye. The man in the brown macintosh loves a lady who is dead. His Majesty the King loves Her Majesty the Queen. Mrs Norman W. Tupper loves officer Taylor. You love a certain person. And this person loves that other person because everybody loves somebody but God loves everybody.
And at the end of this chapter, as Bloom is leaving the pub and the anti-Semitic taunts become ever more overt, Bloom stands up to the Cyclops:
– Mendelssohn was a jew and Karl Marx and Mecadante and Spinoza. And the Saviour was a jew and his father was a jew. Your God.
His friend Martin, eager to avoid a scene that’s threatening to turn violent, tries to bundle Bloom away, but Bloom is adamant.
– Whose God? asks the citizen.
– Your God was a jew. Christ was a jew like me.
The Citizen is incensed. In The Odyssey, Polyphemus threw a rock at the departing Odysseus: here, the citizen throws after Bloom a biscuit tin. But this is a chapter about politics and about rhetoric, and so everything is inflated to monstrous proportions. The impact of the biscuit-tin is immense:
The catastrophe was terrific and instantaneous in its effect. The observatory of Dunsink registered in all eleven shocks, all of the fifth grade of Mercalli’s scale, and there is no record extant of a similar seismic disturbance in our island since the earthquake of 1534, the year of the rebellion of Silken Thomas. The epicentre appears to have been that part of the metropolis which constitutes the Inn’s Quay ward and parish of Saint Michan covering a surface of fortyone acres, two roods and one square pole or perch. All the lordly residences in the vicinity of the palace of justice were demolished and that noble edifice itself, in which at the time of the catastrophe important legal debates were in progress, is literally a mass of ruins beneath which it is to be feared all the occupants have been buried alive. From the reports of eyewitnesses it transpires that the seismic waves were accompanied by a violent atmospheric perturbation of cyclonic character….
And so on, and so forth, the self-important journalese piling on with ever more outrageous comic absurdity. But through all this absurdity, we can discern heroism: not perhaps the sort of heroism of Odysseus, but a heroism that is perhaps even more remarkable – that of a man standing up for the values of simple human decency in the face of disdain and ridicule. Bloom may not have been capable of the heroisms of Odysseus, but then again, we wonder, would Odysseus have been capable of the heroism of Bloom?
But if, as I think, it is this simple human decency that is at the centre of the work, then the huge, unwieldy baroque structure Joyce constructed around it does tend to obscure it somewhat. I think this is intentional: Joyce was no minimalist. Indeed, he was quite the opposite – he was a “maximalist”. Like Dickens, he loved an overcrowded canvas bursting with vitality and with life, with clutter, with all sorts of little details and features and curlicues and arabesques that seem to exist merely for their own sake, thickening the narrative texture. And perhaps there has been no other author since Dickens who has so successfully conjured into teeming life an entire city in all its bewilderingly chaotic forms and sounds and smells and movements. Those seeking the elegance of a clear narrative line, or unity and purity of style, should look elsewhere: this novel is full of voices, sometimes competing against and jarring against each other in a mad cacophony. Different narrative voices weave in and out without warning, and we are never entirely sure to whom the narrative voice belongs at any given time. (Dostoyevsky did something similar in his major novels, but, as ever, Joyce stretches thing further than they have ever been stretched before.) The Cyclops chapter, for instance, is narrated by an unnamed character: he had not appeared earlier in the novel, and he promptly disappears once the chapter finishes. Immediately afterwards, in the next chapter, we find ourselves in the relative calm of a beach as evening is descending, and the narrative voice now is that of a dreadfully cloying and sentimental reader of cheap romantic novels:
The summer evening had begun to fold the world in its mysterious embrace. Far away in the west the sun was setting and the last glow of the all too fleeting day lingered lovingly on the sea and strand… etc. etc.
Or, later in the novel, we have the voice of a bad writer, penning the most atrociously constructed sentences. For instance:
Preparatory to anything else Mr Bloom brushed off the greater bulk of the shavings and handed Stephen the hat and ashplant and bucked him up generally in orthodox Samaritan fashion which he very badly needed.
I’ll resist the temptation to quote more such gems from this chapter, but the very idea of possibly the greatest master of the English language since Shakespeare deliberately writing prose so toe-curlingly awful does, I admit, have me chuckling.
Or there’s that famous chapter set in a maternity ward, where the narrative voices come and go, each voice speaking in the style of a particular period, beginning the alliterative style of medieval poetry (“Before born babe bliss had. Within womb won he worship”) and progressing, as the chapter progresses, to styles of later periods. This gives us a sort of potted history of English prose; and the development of the language within the chapter gives an impression of the chapter itself growing and developing, almost like a foetus within the womb. If all this sounds too dry and intellectual, not to say overly schematic, we needn’t worry: this is also one of the funniest chapters in the novel, with the narrators from past ages not quite understanding the modern world they are describing, and giving the narration their own spin. (I, personally, find myself laughing out loud when the heavily rhetorical tones of Edward Gibbon are employed to reprimand Bloom for his masturbatory habits.)
Sometimes, the narrative voice seems to disappear altogether, such as in the phatasmagoric Circe chapter, or in the penultimate chapter in which narrative is replaced by an impersonal set of questions, and an equally impersonal set of detailed answers, these answers seemingly unaware of the concept of relevance. And in the midst of all this cacophony of voices – or of non-voices – we have the famous, or notorious, “stream of consciousness”, the depiction of the seemingly random wanderings and workings of the human mind, following all its twists and turns wherever it goes.
I’d guess it’s not so much the use of stream of consciousness that gives Ulysses the reputation of difficulty, but, rather, Joyce’s refusal to point it out, to differentiate it in any way from the rest of the text. Joyce also refuses to explain some of the leaps the mind makes, or to give us enough information to help us understand why certain things occur to the mind. Only when one has read through the entire novel do certain details begin to make sense. Also, these characters’ minds pick up bits and pieces of all sorts of things – advertising slogans, bits from operatic arias, words half heard or half remembered, popular music hall songs, local events, etc. etc. Our minds, when not concentrated, are not structured machines, and any realistic depiction of the workings of the mind is bound to appear chaotic. And here lies a problem: art cannot be chaotic – it requires structure. Joyce may wish to give an impression of chaos, but it must be an impression only: for if the novel itself were to be chaotic, the centre would then not hold, and things would fall apart. It is to this end that Joyce devised carefully a plan that would give the novel a structure: each chapter would refer to a certain art or science; to a certain organ of the human body and its function; to certain colours; and, as is well-known, to a certain episode from Homer’s Odyssey. Accounts of Joyce’s scheme may be found in any of the numerous commentaries on Ulysses, but I don’t know that this need detain us here; this scheme was to help Joyce, not us. Joyce himself never made public his scheme: from the reader’s perspective, all that really matters is that each chapter should have a different feel to it: how the feel of each chapter comes about is best left to the Joycean scholar. Of course, the reader can look into this as well – Joyce’s technique is fascinating in its own right – but the main thing is that the reader feels: the intricate mechanics that cause the reader to feel, though fascinating, are but a means, not an end.
Perhaps too much has been made of the difficulty of all this. The “stream of consciousness” for instance – the very phrase promising a work penetrable only by learned professors of literature – is more than enough to put off most readers: it’s reputedly what makes this novel so very difficult. But it’s nothing particularly new. It is an attempt to express in words the often random and unexpected course taken by people’s minds, and one may find it used – though not as insistently nor as extensively as Joyce uses it – in the works of such authors as Fielding or Dickens. (See, for instance, the monologues given to the housekeeper Mrs Deborah Wilkins in Chapter Three of Tom Jones, or to the dialogue given to Flora Finching in Little Dorrit.) But in these books, it is clear that the stream of consciousness passages are spoken by (or thought by) a certain character: in Ulysses, the stream of consciousness can break in at any point, and, without warning, intermingle with the narrative voice. So, for instance, in the very first page, as Stephen Dedalus observes Malachi Mulligan (with whom he shares lodging), we get this:
He peered sideways up and gave a long slow whistle of a call, then paused awhile in rapt attention, his even white teeth glistening here and there with gold points. Chrysostomos. Two strong shrill whistles answered through the calm.
That single word “Chrysostomos” is a bit of “stream of consciousness” here: it’s what goes through Stephen’s mind when he sees the gold fillings in Mulligan’s teeth. It means, literally, “golden mouthed”, and refers to John Chrysostom, an Early Church Father of the 4th century famous for eloquence of speech. Stephen’s identification of Chrysostom with the cheerfully blasphemous Mulligan is comic, but unless one identifies it not as part of the narrative, but rather, as something that is going on in Stephen’s mind, then it will make no sense at all. Most importantly, it helps characterise Stephen: what sort of person is it who can be reminded of John Chrysostom on seeing gold fillings inside a friend’s mouth?
The Stephen we see is a somewhat sullen, truculent chap, with a bit of a chip on the shoulder. The lodgings he shares with Mulligan is a Martello Tower by the sea, and he resents his fellow lodgers – the extravert, flamboyant Mulligan, and the Englishman Haynes, who appears to be stopping by temporarily. Stephen steadfastly refuses to join in with anything, keeping himself apart with a cold reserve, and seemingly resentful of something he never quite articulates openly. He is Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, who, at the start of The Odyssey, goes in search of his missing father. Stephen, too, though he may not know it, is in search of a missing father: relations with his real father are not the warmest. And as for his mother, she weighs down oppressively upon his conscience: on her deathbed, she had asked Stephen to pray for her, and he had refused. And everything in the world seems belittled by this act of defiance: even the broad, wide sea before him, ringed by the flat horizon only, reminds Stephen of that white bowl by his mother’s bed into which she used to cough up her phlegm and mucus. Stephen is a young man who needs to be humanised. At the start, while he corresponds ostensibly with Telemachus, he seems to correspond also with another son of a Greek hero – Orestes, son of Agamemnon, murderer of his mother, and pursued by the Furies.
We spend the first three chapters with Stephen: Bloom – Odysseus, the father of Telemachus – appears only in the fourth. In the second chapter, we see Stephen teaching in a school, and speaking afterwards to the head teacher, Mr Deasy, who gives Stephen a letter – on foot and mouth disease and on the state of cattle farming – to give to his friends in the newspapers. (At every stage, this novel is rooted in the solid, in the everyday.) And in the third chapter, we are in Stephen’s mind as he walks on the beach, allowing his mind to wander where it will.
It is in this third chapter that many first-time readers tend to give up. This entire chapter is an extended piece of “stream of consciousness”. It is the interior monologue of Stephen Dedalus, who had been presented in Joyce’s earlier novel as a Portrait of the Artist as Young Man. However, I cannot believe this self-portrait is very accurate – or, if it is, one can only conclude that Joyce had changed very radically between youth and middle-age: Stephen is somewhat unlikeable, priggish, and overly serious; and, while possessing Joyce’s immense erudition and intelligence, he seems to have none of his creator’s sense of humour, or of mischief. His interior monologue is meditative and often deeply lyrical, but it is likely to fox the first-time reader. The best advice to such a first-time reader is possibly not to worry too much about it: move on, and, maybe, come back to this later. For it would be a shame to get stuck on Stephen’s monologue, and miss out on Leopold and Molly Bloom, to whom we are introduced in the next chapter.
For many, it is really with the introduction of the Blooms that the novel gets going. Not that what we had before is dispensable – far from it – but the vitality and warmth injected into the novel by the Blooms are much needed. As a person, Bloom is very different from Stephen, and the patterns of his stream-of-consciousness are also very different: instead of the long, meditative flow, peppered with erudite and often arcane allusions, we have instead a more punchy, staccato delivery, seeming at times almost like the speech patterns of Mr Jingle in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. And, again unlike Stephen, Bloom is no intellectual – although when his wife asks him what the word “metempsychosis” means, Bloom shows himself to be not entirely ignorant either:
She swallowed a draught of tea from her cup held by nothandle, and, having wiped her fingers smartly on the blanket, began to search the text with her hairpin till she reached the word.
– Met him what? he asked.
– Here, she said, What does this mean?
He leaned downwards and read near her polished thumbnail.
– Yes. Who’s he when he’s at home?
– Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. It means transmigration of souls.
– O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.
I’d guess that even the most devoted readers of Ulysses have sometimes echoed Molly Bloom: O, rocks! Tell us in plain words! But Joyce is too much in love with words, too much in love with words for their own sake, to tell us anything in plain language. Not sharing at least something of Joyce’s love of words is a serious handicap when reading this novel. But those who do love words – which, after all, are the basic building blocks of literature itself – can but revel in his delight in language, and in his virtually inexhaustible linguistic exuberance.
There is one word, though, that, at a crucial point in the book, remains unspoken. It occurs in the longest chapter in the novel, which is its climactic sequence. It is set in a brothel. Bloom, having observed Stephen (the son of his friend, Simon Dedalus) in a state of extreme inebriation and barely able to look after himself, has followed him there to keep an eye on him. Here, the correspondence with The Odyssey is Circe, the enchantress who turned men into pigs – an apt image when applied to the keeper of a whorehouse. We are now in the realms of magic: all the solidities break down, and structure itself – in this, the most intricately structured of all novels – seems to dissolve. There is no narrative voice: it is depicted in the form of a playscript. But the dialogue isn’t restricted to the characters: the bar of soap, the jet of gas, a moth, a fan, a fly-button – they all have things to say, even if what they say is utter gibberish: language itself seems to be on the point of collapse. Characters, real and imaginary, from history, from folklore, from the newspaper headlines, from the weirdest recesses of the mind, all wander in and out at random. Nothing is real. Men turn into women, women turn into men; and the wildest sexual fantasies intermingle with memories and desire, and play themselves out in forms increasingly grotesque. In The Odyssey, Penelope keeps her suitors at bay by telling them that she would only remarry once she has finished weaving her tapestry, but what she weaves during the day she unweaves at night. And here, we see just such an unweaving: all the accumulated details of the day here unweave, re-appearing pell-mell in a mad unstructured jumble. The unpurged images of day don’t so much recede, as intermingle with each other in an insane disorder: nothing can keep its shape. At the height of this mad frenzy, Stephen’s persistent nightmare intrudes; the ghost of his mother appears, and the stage directions describing her are fearful:
Stephen’s mother, emaciated, rises stark through the floor, in leper grey with a wreath of faded orangeblossoms and a torn bridal veil, her face worn and noseless, green with gravemould. Her hair is scant and lank, She fixes her bluecircled hollow eyesockets on Stephen and opens her toothless mouth uttering a silent word. A choir of virgins and confessor sing voicelessly.
Stephen wants to hear his mother speak one word. He pleads with her:
Tell me the word, mother, if you know now. The word known to all men.
But his mother refuses to speak the word. Instead, she tells Stephen to beware, to repent. She prays for Stephen, she says, from the other world. The word known to all men, the word Stephen longs to hear, remains unspoken.
There has been much scholarly controversy on what this word is that is known to all men. I am no scholar of these matters, but it seems to me obvious what this word is: Bloom has spoken it already, earlier that night in the pub, and had been ridiculed for it.
At this point, Stephen accidentally smashes the gaslight. “Pwfungg!” says the gasjet, and the very world – this world, not the other one from which Stephen’s mother prays for her son – seems to come to an end. The stage directions describe the apocalypse:
Time’s livid final flame leaps up and, in the following darkness, ruins of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry.
Outside the brothel, Stephen becomes involved in a fight with two soldiers. And Bloom is there to rescue him. This is the climactic point of the entire novel. For, if Stephen had been a son in search of a father, Bloom is a father in search of a son. At the end of the chapter, as Stephen lies in a heap on the ground, Bloom has a vision of his own dead son, not an infant as he had been when he died, but eleven years old, as he would have been had he lived, the woollen handkerchief that his mother had placed in his pocket before his funeral now miraculously resurrected into a living lamb. It is as moving and as tender and as wondrous a moment as I have encountered in literature.
After this, there remain three further chapters, mirroring the three opening chapters in which we had been introduced to Stephen. Here, Stephen has found his spiritual father in the unlikely figure of Bloom. Of course, in a traditionally narrated novel, the significance of this meeting would barely register: after all, nothing much exactly happens as such. A middle-aged man sees the son of a friend very drunk, and determines to keep an eye on him; follows him into a brothel and sees to him when he gets involved in a fight; takes him back to his own home, and helps him freshen up; and then they part. And that’s it. However, in this novel, in which the tiniest and most trivial of details can assume immense meaning and significance, even something so ordinary as this becomes extraordinary: the ordinary decency and gentleness of Bloom is transfigured into the most extraordinary thing in the world. The deflation of the heroic may be funny, but it is the inflation of the everyday that seems to me to be at the heart of the matter. For all its myriad complexities, this novel is about the everyday, the ordinary: it embraces all that ordinary life has to offer, never turns its back on anything for being to trivial or too low or too sordid; and it exalts what it finds.
The final chapter is given over to Molly Bloom. She has been at fringes of the novel till now, but in the final exultant pages – once Bloom, his epic journey finished, is asleep – she comes fully into the spotlight on her own. The pattern of her stream of consciousness is different again from Stephen’s or Bloom’s: it is some sixty unpunctuated pages, words and thoughts and feeling flowing one from the other in a mighty, unstoppable torrent. It is magnificent.
Of course, while the writing may be unpunctuated, the reading cannot be: we need to pause for breath. And so, we are forced to create our own stops and pauses, provide our own punctuation. And, as we do so, this rushing torrent takes on shapes of sorts, and Molly becomes the unlikeliest model for Penelope, perhaps even more unlikely a model than Bloom had been for Ulysses. But Penelope she is. We travel with her on a voyage through her past – her marriage to Bloom, the death of her child, her lovers – and, by the time we come to that exultant ending, Bloom, despite being a cuckolded husband, is triumphant: like Odysseus, he has vanquished his suitors. At the very end, Molly thinks back to the time when Bloom had proposed to her, and she had said Yes. And that word “Yes” rings through the closing pages like a triumphant bell. Twentieth century literature, on the whole, is pretty angst-ridden, but this is jubilant. There is nothing in all literature quite as joyously affirmative as this.
In a recent post, I tried to make the point that we must allow for literature not to be entertaining. But Ulysses is a work which, despite its formidable reputation, entertains: it is sheer fun, even when it is at its most serious, and it is a great irony that this of all books is associated with stuffiness and literary snobbery. It is an amalgam of everything: a single ordinary day in which ordinary people go about their ordinary business is raised to a level where it becomes a depiction of the whole of mankind, through the whole of eternity. But there is nothing self-consciously lofty or elevated in any of this: it is all rooted in the ordinary, the everyday. The achievement is extraordinary. This novel, and Proust’s masterpiece (which Proust left nearly but not quite complete when he died in 1922, the same year that Ulysses was published) carve out the novel between them: there have been fine novelists since, even great novelists, but none has attempted anything quite as insanely ambitious as these two works. All prose fiction since has been under the shadows of these twin peaks of literary achievement. It is all too easy merely to stand in awe before such achievements, but a better response would, I think, be to familiarise oneself with them. One may not understand everything at first reading – or even, perhaps, at the umpteenth reading – but let us not let such minor details get in the way: after a while, the difficulties, far from irritating, merely add to its unending fascination. If ever there was a work to be lived with, this is it.