James Joyce, Ulysses. On a June morning in 1904 in Dublin Leopold Bloom brings his wife Molly breakfast in bed and then goes out to wander about Dublin all day and into the night. Sometimes we understand what he is up to, but often we don’t.
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway. On a June morning 20 years later in London Clarissa Dalloway leaves her house and goes out to buy flowers for her party. Her passage through the city is more purposeful than Blooms, but also admits of the unexpected.
Richard Russo, Nobody’s Fool. On a Thanksgiving morning some 60 years after that in Bath, New York, Donald Sullivan (“Sully”) hobbles down the stairs on his bad knee, uses a stolen snow blower to clear the sidewalk and goes out to look for breakfast at Hattie’s, followed by an off-the-books sheetrocking job. Later he encounters his ex-wife and other family members. It proves to be a long day.
Literature expands our view of the world by letting us spend a minute or day or hour in another person’s head, experiencing life as he or she sees it. These three books gave this reader three very different experiences.
I loved Sully. I’m not sure why and probably would not if I met him, but I loved how he takes life as it comes, mostly calmly and with good humor, but not always. He travels his day aware of the demands on him and choosing which ones to take seriously.
Maybe sheetrocking wasn’t one of Sully’s favorite jobs, but like most physical labor, there was a rhythm to it that you could find if you care to look, and once you found this rhythm it’d get you through a morning. Rhythm was what Sully had counted on over the long years – that and the wisdom to understand that no job, no matter how thankless or stupid or backbreaking, could not be gotten through.
Sully does the work, but he is a person, not the work. I enjoy experiencing that with him.
I go back and reread Mrs. Dalloway every ten years or so because I always find it has something new to offer me. The first time around – when I was much younger – I wrote her off as a society woman, shallow, concerned only with surfaces. But what surfaces!
She would not say of any one in the world now that they were this or were that. She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. Not that she though herself clever, or much out of the ordinary…. She knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a book now… and yet to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this….
Here is a woman who lives in her moment and other people’s moments and lets me share them with her. It is not surprising that she mentions recovering from a serious illness. Illness will do that for you: make clear the preciousness and wonder of an ordinary life, not a clever one.
James Joyce puts us into and out of the consciousness of Leopold Bloom (and Stephen Dedalus) on the June day in Dublin, but I am never in their lives as I am with Sully and Clarissa. I experience a tangle of words in which I don’t always know whose consciousness I am in, nor can I distinguish between thought fragments and perception fragments. Sometimes I receive a simple sensory report, sometimes conclusion or comparison, sometimes a memory, at other times a description of external events. All have approximately equal weight – it is up to me to sort them out.
You can regard this as very clever, but I react to it as Joyce toying with the reader. Look how I can make you uncomfortable with an absence of boundaries. Look how I creatively expose you to 18 different styles in 18 different sections. Look how clever I am! I finished the book, something I challenged myself to do. Now I need to let it settle. Maybe in a few years I’ll go back, maybe I’ll see it differently then.