Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ulysses / by James Joyce

Born to a middle class family in Dublin in 1882, James Joyce was the eldest of ten (surviving) children had by his father John, a city rate
collector, and a mother who'd originally come from one of Dublin's wealthier families. Always a good student with an early astuteness in writing, Joyce's education was predominately concentrated within the surrounding Jesuit Catholic institutions, especially after his father's drinking and mismanagement of family funds deteriorated the family's situation. Upon graduating from University College Dublin in 1903, Joyce emigrated to continental Europe where he would spend most of the rest of his life. Dropping out of medical school in Paris, he lived periodically in other parts of the continent, namely France and Switzerland, where he made several unsuccessful stabs at publishing his writings. It wasn't until 1914 that his first major success, Dubliners, a short story collection chronicling citizens of Dublin, was released to great acclaim and speculation, sentiments echoed upon the publication of his first major novel, Portrait of An Artist As A Young Man, in 1916. His crowning achievement, Ulysses (1922), a serialised novel chronicling a day in the life of a Dublin man named Leopold Bloom whose story mirrors that of Ulysses (Latin for Odysseus) from Homer's Odyssey was and is seen as one of the pinnacle works modernist literature, its "stream of consciousness", intricate structure, allusory style and experimental prose considered a groundbreaking dénouement of the time. With its success came boatloads of controversy including several obscenity trials on the then explicit content, bannishments of the text in the US and elsewhere, harsh criticism of the book's theoretical innacuracies and charges of misrepresentation of Ireland's Catholic majority. Still, Modern Library has consistently named it the #1 English-language novel of the 20th century and the the date of June 16th, the day the novel takes place, is celebrated in Ireland and worldwide in various literary circles as Bloomsday, something not a lot of works of literature can claim.

"Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead."

June 16, 1904 is a normal day in Dublin. For Leopold Bloom, it may as well be any one on the calendar. Even though he knows his wife Molly is having an affair with a colleague, he has neither the initiative nor the inclination to do much about it and his job as an advertising agent, though decent, isn't getting him anywhere. Ever since the death of his young son Rudy some years back, his life has been one of quiet soul searching and dissillusionment. His actions mirror his thoughts as depressive, largely escapist manners and habits including long breaks from work, strolls along the nearby waterfront, drinking, daydreaming and occasionally lusting after women in view. Meanwhile a younger man named Stephen Daedalus is fledgling writer and part-time school teacher whose struggling to find his place in the world. He lives in a house with two other boarders and has family in town though his mother has recently died. A connoisseur of many things cultural and someone who can be opinionated, Stephen shares much of the same quiet longing as Leopold and lives with the same paradoxical sensitivity, "[fearing] those big words which make us so unhappy". As the day passes and characters mix and mingle, both Leopold and Stephen (only vague acquaintances) interconnect and interact with the life of Dublin, a city in the early twentieth century on the verge of so much yet held down by maddeningly inauspicious circumstances.

Even for a masterpiece, Ulysses is not an easy book to digest. Especially when you consider the multiple implications each section--three parts subdivided into eighteen individual episodes correlating to portions of each of The Odyssey's adventures--carefully and intricately contributes to the novel's larger whole. Add to that the connection between the novel and the epic poem not to mention the reflection of the work on Joyce's own life, Stephen Daedalus viewed as Joyce's literary alter ego, and it's not hard to see why the book's many merits still come under scrutiny. The fact stands though that as a novel, Ulysses is a seminal work of English-language fiction, not only groundbreaking as a novel in both format and focus but as a conjunctive artform at a time--post-WWI, post-Easter Rebellion, rise of avant-gardism, introduction of self-consciousness in art, etc.--which would prove most pivotal in the cultural evolution of the 20th century. The day of the novel's plot can even be seen as a crucial player in this interwoven tapestry, the date itself being ample evidence of literary self-consciousness--June 16, 1904 was the day of Joyce's first "stepped out" with his future wife, Nora Barnacle--and therein a tip-off to the abstraction within the work. Perhaps of foremost importance, and therefore the element of the book of which can be attributed with the most critical precedence, is Joyce's use of the "stream of consciousness" narrative. Prominently featured throughout the book and highly concentrated in the final section Penelope, in which Bloom's wife Molly contemplates the previous day, is this soliloquy-styled inner voice privatized in the mind of each individual character. Among the first English-language novelists to use such a device in fiction--Shakespeare's soliloquized bits in such plays as "Hamlet", "Romeo and Juliet", "Othello", "Julius Caesar", etc. as well as Proust's A La Recherche du Temps Perdu's first installment Swann's Way had utilized it previous--Joyce showcased his talent by indwelling his world with the loosely connected interior monologues of his characters, their public and private lives very much isolated through their internalizded meanderings and yet equally bonded together by such a 'stream' of waking conciousness. It can be said the nothing in the novel makes much sense upon a first reading of the considerably lengthy (nearly 800 pages in the Modern Library's small-print edition) work. There's a lot of it which seems disjointed and confusing, anecdotal passages associated with vaguely identifiable characters compounded by multiple run-on sentences with no clear direction. But to the reader who invests the time and energy to extract from the novel what the author is really saying, it is indeed one of the greatest novels of all time. (FIC JOYCE)

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