Friday, 11 September 2015

A book I have not read

Ulysses, James Joyce.  Penguin, London, 1969. First published in Paris in 1922. pp 719 SB.

This review was written on January 13th 2012

(Editors Note - I am truly baffled as to why some of the print in the following blog is lager in parts - or smaller. I have tried my best to rectify this but in the interests of my own sanity and that of my family, I am accepting that which I cannot change. I'm afraid that what you see is what you get. In any case, I am assuming that you are primarily here for the content, not for the display.)

I bought this book for 6.00 Euro from Greene’s second hand book list on 28/10/2011. It is a paperback. It had no name of the previous owner and was in good condition. It may well have not been fully read in the past. I never had Ulysses in my library nor was there one in my father’s library. It is highly unlikely that my father would have read Ulysses or indeed to have acquired it. It is also unlikely that I shall read it in full or even in part as I failed to get through more then a few pages on the one or two occasions I tried in the past. In fact I recall some years ago borrowing a book from my brother Seán which was published to explain Ulysses. And which was itself difficult to understand in parts. I never finished this either. And this is the first time I have attempted to review a book without having read it.

Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin) in action
The last 17 pages at the end of the book, written by Richard Ellmann as an introduction, are worth reading and give an excellent background to the history of Joyce’s masterpiece. Ellmann states that Joyce as a boy had described Ulysses as his hero. Joyce was apparently searching for a mythical prototype in a Dubliner. Ellmann postulates in his introduction that Joyce’s wanderings on the Mediterranean Coast reminded him of Ulysses. He refers to Joyce’s meeting with Nora Barnacle in the first days of the new century and about the same time occurred his quarrel with St. John Gogarty and their sojourn in the Martello tower in Sandycove.

Although Joyce intended to write his biography while still a young man in Dublin, its composition did not start until 1914, ten years later. It was a year of great productivity for Joyce. In that same year he had drafted his play Exiles, published Dubliners, wrote his prose poem Gracious Joyce, and completed the last two chapters of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

There were many other incidents during his early days in Dublin which are incorporated in Ulysses. Speaking of Bloom, Ellmann states "Making the central Dubliner an Irish Jew, a man not entirely accepted in the city of  which he is so much a part, reflected Joyce’s ambiguous feelings about his own role in his native city". I was hardly through three or four pages of Ellmann’s review when I had the impression that Joyce showed symptoms of paranoia and that this trend was associated with an understandable degree of ambition. He was using Ulysses’s travels around the Mediterranean as a model for his hero Bloom’s peregrinations around Dublin.

Many Homeric elements are described by Ellmann as perils which are allegories of events for those in the Dublin of the early 20th century. There are many parallels between events in Dublin to those which are described in the Odyssey. He started to write his book after he had studied Homeric scholarship in   great detail and in several languages (he had studied Greek while in school) and he kept in close touch with Dublin and his family in his obsession that all details of the city were correct in his narrative.

By 1917 the first chapters of the book were written and were presented to the editor in London, Harriet Shaw Weaver, who had great difficulty in finding a publisher willing to accept the commission. Ellmann gives details of the many difficulties encountered by Joyce and his supporters in dealing with printers and with the authorities, particularly  in the United States, difficulties which were compounded by the banning of the book in  that country.

The first full printing of the book was arranged by Sylvia Beach, an American who had befriended Joyce in Paris in 1920 and who had established the Shakespeare Bookshop in Paris. She arranged the printing of 1000 copies, a limited de luxe edition, which, although those which reached the UK and the USA were immediately impounded by the authorities, received tremendous praise by a number of well-known writers and literary people in France and England. Valery Larband, "the most informed French critic of English literature" was struck by its merit and later wrote "I was raving mad about Ulysses. Since I read Whitman when I was 18 I have not been so enthusiastic about any book --- it is wonderful! As great as Rabelais! Mr Bloom is an immortal as Falstaff." Many others were equally enthusiastic although there were some who were baffled.

Having read the many reactions to Ulysses and such praise by eminent literary people, it occurred to me that I ought to have the appreciation and the insights to understand Joyce and to read Ulysses without the response of utter bewilderment which I received in the past on starting the first few pages. It is possible that the Valery Lablands, with their wider knowledge of literature and of Greek and Greek legend than I, had greater insights into Joyce’s mind. Certainly, now that I am in my ninety first year, it is unlikely that I would succeed where I had failed during my earlier and more perceptive years. I am reminded of the Irishman speaking to the Austrian in Vienna who was enthusing about Ulysses. "What did he see in it. It was only a story about Dublin". "Ah no" the Austrian replied "It was about Vienna".

Perhaps if I were to read it now and to enjoy it at the age of 91 years it would be an acid test of my surviving cognitive abilities! I am left a feeling of shame that I never  read Ulysses because I cannot avoid the sense of having missed one of the great works of my own countrymen. Certainly my six years in Coláiste Muire with its intensely patriotic and Catholic ambiance, would have been without its self-indulgent patriotic library or its curriculum nor would I have expected to find it among my father’s bookshelf.

29th July 2013.

I had found the Penguin second hand copy of the edition of Ulysses in my study yesterday and it occurred to me that my yearning to have read Ulysses still existed.  The comments I made in 2012 were largely based on the addendum in the book by Edward Wilbane who provided 17 pages which I considered worth reading at the time and which gave an excellent background to the history of Joyce’s masterpiece.  On the 28th of July, 15 days after my 91st birthday, I was inspired to read the book as one of my last efforts and despite the fact that my  reading had greatly deteriorated.  I determined on that day to read at least 25 pages every day and hopefully to complete the book later in the year.  It includes in all, 919 pages of relatively small print, including the addendum by Richard Elman.  On the 28th of July, I read the first 30 pages and was determined to read at least 20 pages every day until the book was finished.  It was to be a form of prayer, which, as a child, we were instructed to practise and convunicate to Our Lord every day of our lives.  Surprisingly I found the first 30 pages quite amusing and entertaining and I enjoyed the mixum gatherium of the conversation which took place between Buck Mulligan, Steven Daedalus and the English man Haines.  These first pages take place in the Martello Tower in Sandycove and by the end of the first 30 pages they had arrived close by in Sandycove swimming.  When I talk about a mixum gatherum I mean that it was full of apparently irrelevant words and phrases, of Latin tags, of fractured pieces of Dublinese and irrelevant references and yes, there was a thread about the first 30 pages, which gave me the sense of meaning without being absolutely sure of what I understood.  I had read 30 pages on the first day and that was the end of my reading. 

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