Wednesday, January 30, 2008

ULYSSES by James Joyce (part III)

Ulysses does feel seriously lopsided to me on this reading; it's severely backloaded. The first half moves along at a nice, modern, urban, peripatetic pace, a speed attuned to the Hibernian metropolis. But the second half slows down, stretches out, goes inward, becomes a bit (or a lot) too enthralled by its own techniques. (I'm speaking more of Joyce than the book now. After "Cyclops" Joyce has a tendency to become an Edison in love with his multiple inventions, irritatingly forcing the reader to stare at his electric light, listen to his phonograph, etc.) This tendency slows down all of the later chapters. (Contrastingly, Joyce's earlier inventive forms in "Aeolus" and "Wandering Rocks" speeded things up--perhaps because those forms were put to 'public' use, while the later ones are more 'private.') "Nausicaa", "Oxen" and "Eumaeus" are prime examples of Joycean overkill. "Okay, I get the point already," I wanted to cry out to the elongated Irish spirit hovering among the cobwebs near my ceiling. (Note to self: Must buy broom soon.) Only the surreal circus of "Circe" and Molly's monologue save the second half; in these two sections form neither irritates the reader nor overpowers content. Tedium is held at bay by constant metamorphosis and a rapidly flowing stream of consciousness. These two chapters have much more going for them than merely a highly original style, and that makes the difference between groundbreaking success and relative failure.

Now that I've finished it, I have more reservations about Ulysses than on my previous readings. Perhaps I can see the book more objectively now; I'm no longer blinded by aesthetic/intellectual hero-worship and am now able to both admire (enormously) and criticize (at certain specific points) the craft of the book. I've developed enough independence from Joyce to intelligently critique some of Joyce's choyces. Interestingly (dialectically, even) the book itself has made me expert enough to criticize it, for reading Ulysses again and again is surely one of the things that has made me a better reader. Joyce has taught me enough to take a few good eminently defensible swipes at him. But all of this aside, Ulysses remains the defining Modernist novel, as well as the Rosetta Stone of 20th-century literature, the key to understanding it all. (Joyce went Casaubon one better, creating a Borgesian key to a mythology [Modernism] that did not yet exist.) There are many more perfect Modernist works (one by Joyce [the Portrait]), but none is greater. Here ends my unnecessary defense of what's now received opinion.

There's no need to waste time arguing that Ulysses is the greatest novel of the 20th century. Everyone who hasn't read it is already convinced of that, thanks to an excellent PR campaign ca.2000 and the indefatigable (if almost entirely unread) work of the academic Joyce industry. Rather, what strikes me now is the dialectical movement I have undergone through multiple readings of Ulysses: the book has made me a good enough reader to see its faults; my reception of the text has altered because the text has altered my receiving self. (Of course, the fact that I've written a novel--such as it is--since my last reading is probably a more decisive factor. I'm now much more alert to the craft of writing, to the nuts-and-bolts from which art is built. So I shouldn't load the dialectical/critical theory idea with more weight than it can bear.)

And oh, by the way, did I mention that Ulysses is funny as all hell? Most commentators, critics and profs tend to forget this--yet another example of the literary critical profession's deeply ingrained bias against comedy. (But that's a subject for another post...)

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