Did James Joyce write the most scandalous and pornographic novel ever written? Or is Ulysses the Mount Everest of modern literature, perhaps the finest work of fiction written in the 20th century?
Published in 1922 by Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Company, a famous bookshop in Paris, the novel was quickly banned in England and America. The US postal service burned copies that arrived from Europe as it had done earlier in 1918 with the serialised version that had been published in the New York magazine, The Little Review. Interestingly, today a copy of that first printing will cost one a quarter of a million dollars!
Ezra Pound called Ulysses a “super novel” while French novelist Valery Larbaud, who gave the first-ever talk on Ulysses in 1922 in Paris, called Joyce a literary equal of Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein.
The fact is that if one compares Ulysses with today’s “obscene” fiction, it would look quite tame. But in the 1920s, the authorities were disturbed — not by the vulgarity of Molly Bloom’s interior monologue at the end of the novel, or even by the Nighttown sequence which was graphic and emetic — but the subtle scene on Sandymount beach where the middle-aged Leopold Bloom touches himself while staring at teenager Gerty MacDowell.
In these pages of Dawn (10 June 2007) I explained how I came to grips with this literary masterpiece with the help of Dartmouth College professor James Heffernan, a lifelong teacher of Joyce’s work. I now stand mesmerised and obsessed with this mega-genius called Joyce who produced this inexhaustible work of art. The icing on the cake is when one listens to the 22 CDs, produced by recording label Naxos, where Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan narrate the novel, capturing the accents, cadences and intonations of the streets of Dublin, enabling one to admire the spellbinding verbal loveliness.
As one gradually comprehends this multidimensional work, it no longer remains completely obscure. The novel is a tale of a single day — 16 June 1904. It spans about 18 hours penned over 800 pages. The hero, Leopold, is married to sexpot Molly and they have one daughter. Just as the mythical Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey wandered the Aegean Sea, Leopold (Ulysses) and young Stephen Dedalus (Telemachus) separately roam the labyrinthine streets of Dublin till they finally meet around midnight.
Both characters cross paths with teachers, journalists, priests, acquaintances, friends, a woman in labour, barmaids, drunks, a pugnacious Irish jingoist euphemistically called a “citizen,” anti-Semites, the adulterer Boylan, the mourners in the cemetery and hustlers like Bella Cohen of the phantasmagoric Nighttown. Leopold is avoiding going home since Boylan has been invited by Molly, ostensibly to discuss the musical tour she is embarking on, but actually to seduce him. At the same time, Leopold follows Stephen because he wants to be his surrogate father. After rescuing him from a brawl at the bordello, Leopold invites Stephen to his home where Molly, having had her afternoon fling, is falling asleep and delivers one of literature’s greatest interior monologues.
This climactic ending has no parallel in world literature, both in its use of breath-taking language and the context in which it is delivered, and its stylistic brilliance. Chapter 18 is structured like a loom. There is weaving and unweaving going on similar to Penelope’s mythical loom in Homer’s work. The chapter consists of 36 pages and only eight sentences - like an eight-legged spider because it has almost no punctuation. Molly weaves her tale to unweave, to say lewd things and to unsay them. To move forward she has to go backward. To become a virgin, first she has to be an adulteress. Her deceptive, obscene outpouring of all the clandestine relationships she has ever had, we discover, is merely “to make him (Leopold) want me.” She really wants her estranged husband back.
The last words of the novel are her recollection of Leopold’s proposal of marriage in Gibraltar and with it one of the most beautiful prose arias in English literature comes to an end, “And how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes again yes (...).”
This most carefully written novel, though modelled on Homer’s Odyssey, is not its replica. It is more of a reincarnation, loosely updating Greek mythology for modern times. That is why some have called it “Ulysses on the Liffey.” (Liffey is the river that runs through Dublin.) The novel speaks to its reader in myriad voices — from poetry to banality, from profundity to cliché — where the narrative style has been replaced by the mythic. The language sings throughout, whether the 200-page chapter is written like a play rivalling Shakespeare (“I gave it to Molly/ Because she was jolly/ The leg of the duck/ The leg of the duck”) or as mind-boggling erudition (Chapter 3: “My soul walks with me, form of forms”), or in the unfeeling language of journalism and pompous comic headlines (Chapter 7: “Dear Mr Editor, what is a good care for flatulence”), or the gloriously written musical English of Chapter 4 which Vladimir Nabokov once described as one of the most beautifully crafted sentences in literature. Other chapters are written as sports journalism or mock catechism where questions abound, and some chapters end as pure gibberish.
“His writing is not about something,” wrote Samuel Beckett, “it is that something itself.” Joyce tried to make language become what it describes. When the sense is trotting, the words trot; when the sense is water, the words deliquesce, as critic Adam Thirlwell put it. In Ulysses, Joyce attempted to write a total taxonomy of the world’s phenomena. Hence, it has a full range of the world’s objects as well as the full range of its styles.
Much of Ulysses takes place in Leopold’s mind. He is the most completely imagined character in world literature. And yet we don’t know what happens to him and Molly at the end. What happens to Leopold and Stephen is also not clear. Joyce leaves all kinds of possibilities dangling at the end. In the last paragraph of her monologue Molly recalls a love affair she had 16 years earlier. This imaginative recreation recalls Marcel Proust’s À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). Like Adam and Eve, it is paradise lost, for as Proust says, the only true paradise is the one we have lost.
The writer is a retired diplomat and a former editor and bureau chief at the national press club in Washington, DC.