By one measure I am halfway through, having read 9 of the 18 sections of Joyce’s novel about a day in Dublin. By another measure, I have a long way to go, as I am now on page 218 of the 704 pages of this edition. So why am I plodding on if I have to count pages to encourage myself?
To prepare myself. Dr. Mark Schenker of Yale gives lectures in various Fairfield County libraries and senior centers. It was because of his series on the literature of war that I recently read All Quiet on the Western Front and The Things They Carried. In November he is going to speak on James Joyce’s Ulysses, a literary classic I have avoided until now. I am somewhat prepared, having read Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the past and, more recently Homer’s Odyssey, on which Ulysses is based.
I have a guide as I follow Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom through Dublin’s busy streets in 1904. The Bloomsday Book by Harry Blamires provides an explanation of people, places and allusions. After I read each section in Blamires, I read the corresponding episode in Ulysses, with much less bewilderment than I would otherwise have. Yet something just is not clicking for me. Joyce is a clever writer and this is a clever book. I enjoy the wordplay, the weaving of past and present in the minds of Stephen and Leopold. I see them, I hear them, but I just don’t care about them much.
I want to care. I didn’t expect to care about the fate of Homer’s Odysseus, that self-confident ruler of Ithaca who left his wife to deal with things for 20 years, but I was enchanted with the Odyssey. Odysseus dodged and fought and lied his way around the Mediterranean and a great time was had by all, including this reader. The travels of Dedalus and Bloom about Dublin are much less compelling. Maybe they will avoid Scylla and Charybdis and maybe not; if not, too bad.
Maybe my shift in attitude reflects a shift in expectation. We expect Odysseus to be a sexist warrior but hope for something better from 20th century Dubliners. Joyce is, if anything, more sexist than Homer. Homer brings us Penelope and Nausicaa with delight in their beauty and dignity and also some sense of their feelings. Joyce trivializes women with slighting names: Molly, Milly, Dilly, Boody. Stephen knows he is arrogantly entitled to his own education and opinions, but when his sister buys a book,
He took the coverless book from her hand. Chardenal’s French primer.
- What did you buy that for? he asked. To learn French?
She nodded, reddening and closing tight her lips.
Show no surprise. Quite natural.
But he is surprised by this evidence of female intellectual aspirations.
Better incidents surely like ahead, but at this half-way point I want to record an honest reaction to Ulysses: it is clever but irritating at times.