Monday, January 26, 2004

Finally, some thoughts about James Joyce's Ulysses as an entity.
I take as my text: “Begob he was what you might call flabbergasted” (12.337).

Shortly after I started my blog, my friend M.K. said to me, "Ulysses?"
He couldn’t understand quite why I wanted to read it. He argued and insinuated that the book is over-hyped and pretentious; too difficult and not really worth the effort. This argument—like most of its ilk—might have carried more weight if he’d already read the book himself. Now, M.K. is a good reader, and I value his input. His unstated question was really, “why now?” and that’s a question that does deserve an answer.

So much of the fiction that I love—and here I’m thinking especially of Robert Kroetsch’s work—is by people for whom Ulysses was a touchstone. That it afforded them new ways of thinking about how novels can work, how language can work. Ulysses is a book of options.

Those options tend to mean that it’s an overwhelming book. In many senses, it tries to include everything and the kitchen sink: details, styles, plots, characters… And while James Joyce sews everything together, the reader is asked to spend a lot of difficult thought trying to make sense of this universe. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that the book presents a universe. Frye even agrees with me, to an extent; he wrote that Ulysses is nearly unique as novels go, in that it “is a complete prose epic with all four forms [Frye’s four genres: epic, romance, confession, and anatomy] employed in it, all of practically equal importance, and all essential to one another, so that the book is a unity and not an aggregate” (AC 314). I think that Frye’s description can be extended beyond genre, to include… everything. And because of Ulysses’s comprehensiveness, we’re not sure what, as readers, we should take away with us from a reading, despite the privileged (though suspect) points of entry that are Stephen and Bloom. That makes Ulysses hard to pigeon-hole; that difficulty, in turn, if nothing else, proves that it’s one hell of a good book.

Mark commented that I seem to be taking a “long refractory period to recover from the Joycean jouissance” that is Ulysses, and he’s not wrong. It takes time & effort to absorb a universe that vast; it’ll take a number of rereadings to even begin to feel comfortable there. Those rereadings are going to have to wait, though. Despite being awed by the brilliance of the book, and enjoying its playfulness & its world, I’m not going to reread it anytime soon. I read it because I thought it was one of those things that I should read. Like a mountain to climb because it’s there, perhaps; more like, though, an Eliot-esque statue in a field of Tradition that is important to know, because of how it asks me to read forward and backward. I will reread it, to get to know that statue and individual talent better. But I’ll need some time reading other things, first. It really did flabbergast me, and it'll continue to ask me to think for quite a while.

For the record? The best book ever? I don’t know. It’s brilliant, sure. And I enjoyed it. For now, that’s enough. I’m not all that willing to entertain comparisons of that sort, in any case.