It was Bloomsday this week – that annual celebration of James Joyce’s monumental novel Ulysses (1922), which (as everybody surely knows by now) is set in Dublin and unfolds over the course of a single day: 16 June 1904. Joyce had no illusions about his literary genius, so I am reasonably sure he would approve of the way his most famous work still inspires acts of veneration by devotees from around the world, who dress up in costumes, hold public readings, wander around their cities in emulation of the novel’s perambulating hero Leopold Bloom, and perhaps in a few cases (taking their cues from the character of Stephen Dedalus) spend the afternoon getting rolling drunk.
It is appropriate that Bloomsday should be a celebration, for Ulysses is a celebratory book. Its initial reception was dominated and distorted by the question of its alleged obscenity, which resulted in it being banned in many countries (Australia distinguished itself by banning it twice) and made it the focus of one of the previous century’s more significant battles over the issue of censorship. It is now routinely cited as an iconic work of high-modernist experimentation. Yet neither of these reactions quite explain why such a singular and difficult book should continue to attract such a dedicated readership. At least part of the reason, I think, is that Ulysses is an extraordinarily generous book, not only in its virtuosic displays of linguistic exuberance, but in its forgiving vision of humanity.
In his influential study of modernist writers Axel’s Castle (1931), Edmund Wilson observed that there is ‘tremendous vitality in Joyce, but very little movement. Like Proust, he is symphonic rather than narrative.’ Many have followed Wilson in criticising Ulysses for its difficulty, its stylistic excesses, its longueurs. But it is precisely its lack of narrative momentum and its superabundance of interwoven details that makes it such a rich and durable work. Its palpable immersion in the grimy reality of early-twentieth-century Dublin, its anatomising drive – which does often overwhelm the narrative, and does tend to exhaustion – does not simply ground the novel’s formal innovations and contribute to its appealing earthiness; it is also an attempt to open up the microcosm of the city, examining its multifarious specificity such detail that it reveals its universality. As Marilyn French argued, Ulysses is an exemplary instance of ‘the book as world’. And in an odd way, this is the thing that makes it accessible, despite its notorious difficulty. Once a reader has grasped the basic contours of its very straightforward narrative of wandering and return, estrangement and reconciliation, Ulysses becomes infinitely approachable, endlessly explorable. As Wilson intuited, it becomes possible to ‘start in at any point, as if it were indeed something solid like a city which actually existed in space and which [can] be entered from any direction’. Perhaps the most astute observation in Wilson’s early assessment of the novel is that it ‘creates the illusion of a living social organism’.
It is true that another of Joyce’s aims in Ulysses was to vanquish once and for all a certain kind of Victorian prudishness. Over the course of the day, he describes Bloom farting, urinating, defecating, masturbating while a young woman with a crippled leg flashes her knickers at him, and kissing his wife on the arse. The novel also contains one of modern literature’s more memorable symbolic moments when Stephen Dedalus picks his nose after a walk along Sandymount Strand beside the ‘snotgreen sea’ and (having mislaid his handkerchief) carefully places the fruit of his nasal exploration on a rock.
One of the revealing aspects of the way Ulysses was initially received was that this explicitness was assumed to be misanthropic. Joyce was called a ‘perverted lunatic’ and his novel a ‘libel on humanity’. No doubt there was an element of defiance and perhaps wilful naughtiness at work: a rebellion against the stifling influence of his Irish Catholic upbringing, about which Joyce also wrote with characteristic aplomb. The first time I read the outlandish hellfire sermon in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), in which the young Stephen Dedalus and his cohorts are threatened with all manner of lurid eternal torments should they succumb to the temptations of the flesh, I interpreted it in my innocence as a hilarious exercise in comic bombast; my wife, a recovering Catholic, assures me it is straight realism.
But the further we get from the social mores that led Virginia Woolf to turn up her nose at Joyce’s ‘underbred’ writing (the work of a ‘self-taught Dublin working man’, she sniffed), the clearer it becomes that the earthy aestheticism of Joyce’s writing – its explicitness, its sensuality of both language and detail – is deployed in a spirit of ingenuous affirmation, and that the ultimate tenor of his vision is not only comic, but joyously so. Everyone remembers Molly Bloom’s three famous Yeses, which bring the novel to a close. No less important is Bloom’s final kiss, which confirms the mutuality of their reconciliation, and which inspires one of the novel’s more memorable outbursts of mellifluous wordplay:
He kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump, on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative mellonsmellonous osculation.
Ulysses is encyclopedic in its technique and inclusive in its vision, but it is intimate in its themes. Declan Kiberd has also argued strongly for the democratic implications of Joyce’s epic of ordinary life, and proposes that its aims are ultimately transformative:
[Joyce] acted on the brazen assumption that his book would not defer to the current taste of the public but serve to invent a new sort of reader, someone who after that experience might choose to live in a different way. He wanted to free people from all kinds of constriction, among them the curse of passive readership.
Joyce is famous for his uncompromising virtuosity and his difficulty, but it has always seemed to me that one of the most admirable things about him as a writer is that his generous view of humanity did not darken or sour as he grew older. Quite the opposite, in fact. His grimmest book is his first, Dubliners (1914); his most comically exuberant is his last, Finnegans Wake (1939). Ulysses’ methods may be elaborate, but that is part of the fun; its underlying themes have a profound simplicity and a deep archetypal resonance. ‘With me,’ he said, ‘the thought is always simple.’
Sydney Review of Books this week features essays by Paul Carter and Lisa Gorton. In ‘Crossed Tracks’, Carter reviews Martin Edmond’s Battarbee and Namatjira. Edmond’s dual biography explores in detail the relationship between these two significant Australian artists. Carter find value in the book’s careful documentation of the various encounters and chance meetings that shaped the two men’s lives, but argues that larger questions about the nature of the influence that passed between them are left unexamined:
Some books are more curious than their authors. They hint at secrets or deeper plots that the writer either sidesteps or seems not to notice. Martin Edmond’s Battarbee and Namatjira tracks the lives of its subjects in considerable, circumstantial detail, but what might be called the map of their shared spatial histories is largely left undrawn.
Our second essay is Lisa Gorton’s perceptive essay on the poetry of Philip Hodgins, which ‘is alive with strange images, jolts of perception, sudden beautiful cadences’. Hodgins’ poetry, she argues, is frightening. Its sense of fearfulness conveyed in its recurring images of machines and metal, which suggest
something that goes back to The Iliad: a terrified precise feeling for how metal and flesh meet. ‘And the bronze lancehead hammered through his flesh,’ goes The Iliad in Robert Fagles’ translation: ‘the shaft splintering bone as he pitched face-first, pounding the ground …’ Homer’s description is frightening for its plainness. It says: whatever feeling might like to say about all this, this is what happened. That is also the sense of reality in Hodgins’ poetry. Metal brings to it that sense of finality: plain fact.
From the Archives this week is inspired by the recent announcement that, three decades after his death, Philip Larkin is to be honoured with a memorial stone in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey. This seems like a good enough reason to revisit Guy Rundle’s excellent long essay on Larkin’s life and work from earlier this year. Larkin was a great poet, but he was also, as Rundle explains, ‘One Unusual Dude’.