Wednesday, January 30, 2008

ULYSSES by James Joyce (part II)

On this 6th or 7th reading of Ulysses (I've now reached the point at which I've lost count of my readings, a sign of true Joyceanism), the early chapters impress me with their compression and tightness. Later chapters are more slack. "Wandering Rocks" could afford to lose a scene or two, and "Nausicaa" spends too much time beating beyond death Gerty's cliche-constructed consciousness. I wouldn't have "Cyclops" a bit shorter, though.

Another thing that stands out on this reading is Joyce's absolute mastery of the English sentence. The man can and does achieve anything he desires between a capital letter and a full stop. There's the great last sentence of "Cyclops" in which three different voices are joined; there's a sentence in "Sirens" where the reader's reception of the sentence is anticipated and mocked within the sentence itself (a case of the text reading its readers); and let's not forget the narrator's pissing sentence in "Cyclops," a formal parallel of Bloom's earlier shitting scene in which the act of reading commercial fiction is paralleled with defecation and Bloom ends by wiping his ass with part of the story. Talk about a roman a these.

On this reading I conclude that "Oxen of the Sun" is a failure, a high concept experiment in which Joyce falls in love with his formal idea (a chapter that recapitulates through multiple pastiches the history of English prose) and forgets his obligation to further the novel's themes. It's a triumph of style over substance that seems finally less substantial, less pregnant with significance, than the much shorter, earlier chapters such as "Proteus" and "Lotus Eaters." "Oxen" is the most tedious section of Ulysses (an unforgivable fault), displaying Joyce at his most self-indulgent, flogging his ideas into the ground--and then flogging the ground. It's the same tendency that weakens "Nausicaa," where Gerty's consciousness is displayed in tiresome detail. Fortunately, "Circe" enters to save the second half of the book, while the brilliant "Cyclops" bookends the other side of the two-chapter weak patch. Without "Circe" even "Penelope" would not suffice to raise the second half beyond tedium... It's remarkable (to me, at least) that it took me this many readings to see the weaknesses here, to understand them, to gain a more balanced view of Ulysses as a novel that's not nearly as consistently excellent as many other canonical Modernist works, but which, at its highest points, leaves the others far behind--or better, contains them. Ulysses, at its best, contains and anticipates much of what is most impressive in Modernist literature. It's a far from perfect performance but still the quintessential one, the defining Modernist novel. And even when it sucks, it sucks well.

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