July 2008

Elizabeth Bachner

features

Doom and Bloom: Reading Ulysses, New York 2008

“If you live in New York, even if you’re Catholic, you’re Jewish.” – Lenny Bruce

Ulysses is the quintessential exilic novel. Written in exile, tightly and loosely based on The Odyssey, smuggled over borders at great risk, widely banned, and teeming with outsider characters, it would be a great book to have at the bottom of your rucksack if you were stranded somewhere, or if you were traveling the world by force or choice, or if you were homesick. It can be performed, painstakingly studied, dipped into at random, reread straightforwardly, or used for divination. It’s eternal and cyclical but the action takes place over one day. It can be used as a Rough Guide to Dublin, or for that matter, a Rough Guide to any other city in the universe.

The way you read Ulysses is sort of like the way you eat an Oreo cookie -- it says a lot about your innards, although I’m not quite sure what. Do you read it like a normal book, or unscrew the top and lick out the center? Do you dip it in milk? Do you have one cookie, or grossly eat the whole package? I read it haphazardly, without annotations, the same way I read Ezra Pound. (Oreos are a terrible metaphor -- I should be invoking cakes that smell of lemon wax, or pig’s cheek and cabbage, or thick giblet soup, or nutty gizzards, or a stuffed roast heart, or liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, or fried hencods’ roes, or grilled mutton kidneys which give to the palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine, or rashers and eggs, or cocoa, or pineapple rock, or a gorgonzola sandwich with a glass of burgundy.) It’s no wonder New York City theatre people -- Catholic, bacon-eating Jews all -- celebrate Bloomsday (the day all the action, such as it is, takes place in Ulysses) every June 16.

I get why everybody makes a fuss about Ulysses, what with all of its maddening and spectacular qualities, and with James Joyce’s shameless (and, to me, satisfying) arrogance about his own work. But I’ve never really gotten why people find this funny, dirty novel so hard to read.

I’ve picked up -- and put down -- The Corrections, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, various books by Paul Auster, Middlesex (even though I loved The Virgin Suicides), The Shipping News, Tipping the Velvet, Memoirs of a Geisha, She’s Come Undone and Cold Mountain. I couldn’t get into them, even by cheating and flipping through to sections later in the book that might be more interesting. They seemed like slogs. They may well be great books. Everyone says so. I just can’t get into them or through them. So it’s not like I’m a reader with epic stamina. It’s not an issue of length, either, although it always seems less horrible to slog through a book you’re not that into when it’s nice and slim. Maybe reading Ulysses is like meditating? (Meaning, if it’s easy, you’re doing it wrong.) I don’t understand every reference in Ulysses, but then, I don’t understand every reference in most novels I’ve enjoyed reading. Certainly Ulysses is a novel the way New York (more than Dublin) is a city -- it’s different every time you visit it.

In terms of Ulysses’ greatness, even when it’s well-deserved, hype about a work is invariably off-putting, sometimes nauseating. This has probably been a contributing factor in my inability to read The Corrections or get into the novels of Paul Auster.

I was invited to the 27th “Bloomsday on Broadway” celebration this year -- an annual tradition in which New York writers and actors read long sections of Ulysses at Symphony Space on 95th Street. I’d never really thought about Bloomsday before, but the whole idea of celebrating an imaginary day -- or rather, a real day in an imaginary world, or, actually, a real day in the real city of Dublin, but peopled by imagined characters and events -- appeals to me a lot. In Dublin they celebrate the anniversary of June 16, 1904 (the day, in real life, of James Joyce’s first date with Nora Barnacle, a walk to Ringsend) with a five month long festival, a costume parade and a lot of Guinness and kidney breakfasts. In Melbourne they stage events (like a mock trial of Joyce) in Dublin-esque historic neighborhoods.

I’ve read Ulysses three times. The first time, when I was fifteen or sixteen, I got it because I was excited about Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. That time, I was mostly struck by the wild language, and by the images of bodies and sexuality in the text. I learned what hypospadia is, and for that I’m sorry. The second time, I was in my mid-twenties and obsessed with exiled artists and writers, metaphors of exile, modernism, Jewishness and the idea of self-exile. I read Hélène Cixous’s Exile of James Joyce and the Art of Replacement and Christopher Hitchens’s Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere and spent too many hours doing Internet research. I got interested in Joyce’s biography then -- his massive family with two siblings who died of typhoid, his love of brothels, his daughter Lucia’s diagnosis as a schizophrenic (which becomes creepy in conjunction with the sexualization of the teenage Milly Bloom in Ulysses), his views on humanity, and his struggles to get published. I learned, reading Edna O’Brien’s excellent new bio from the Penguin Lives series, that Joyce’s mother wrote stream-of-consciousness letters, and it suddenly seemed crystal clear that Molly Bloom was based less on Joyce’s wife than on his mother. This makes every kind of sense in Ulysses’ Oedipal, Hamlet-obsessed family romance.

This year, in preparation for Bloomsday, I dig out my ex-boyfriend’s yellowing Ulysses from the bottom of a narrow stack of books by the radiator, where it was underneath Mark Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, the book we accidentally both gave each other for Christmas one year in a cheap motel in Montana. I remember the months he was trying to read it in college. He had long legs and black hair and a scar under one eye, and he had written a requiem for himself. He had just spent a year in Ireland, selling his original paintings and his copies of Escher prints on Galway street corners. The whole book is unmarked, except for three sentences underlined in red: “Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.”

This time, I’m near Molly Bloom’s age circa June 16, 1904, and it’s her nighttime monologue at the very end of the book, stretching into the wee hours of June 17, 1904, that really reels me in. I notice that Ulysses isn’t really an odyssey at all, most of the time. Actually, everyone in the book is trapped in a small space, in small lives, in a single, interminable day, and in the nightmare of history from which they are trying to awaken. Homer’s Odyssey of the ancients is filled with genuinely long journeys, and unknown lands, and living gods. In modernity, you can experience exile, and lose your father, and lose yourself, and (maybe) come home, all without crossing an ocean. If Ulysses represents the apotheosis of high modernism, what would an odyssey be like for our new century? Maybe, to be right, it would have to not be written at all.

On the night of June 16, 2008, I head up to Symphony Space with a friend and pick up our “Bloomsday on Broadway” tickets. There’s a crowd outside, and a woman with long, knife-like pupils that cut clear through the bottom half of her irises points us, not in a friendly way, to the end of the line that snakes partway around the block. She’s scary. I almost never go north of 23rd Street. The crowd is what you’d expect -- mostly white, mostly dowdy. The bathroom is filled with ladies who probably smuggled Ulysses home to the Bronx after a trip to France once, and their literary agent friends, and scatty ladies with too many cats and grey curly hair cut into topiary shapes who are 108 and have never left the Upper West Side, and some students. A couple of Joyce fans are popping colorful pills out of the “Thursday” compartment of the plastic boxes from their oversized purses, maybe to pump themselves up for a long night.  

Tonight, a large crowd of New Yorkers will be reading the entire Ithaca episode of Ulysses, with flashbacks to Cyclops, Nausicaa, Calypso and Lestrygonians. After that, there’ll be a brief interlude of soprano Judith Kellock singing a few of Joyce’s poems, and then actress Fionnula Flanagan will read the entire “Penelope” monologue, ending the evening with Molly Bloom’s famous final “Yes.” “Ithaca” is set to last from 7 till 11:45 -- “Penelope” will end at 2.

In the first hours of “Ithaca,” I start to finally, vividly experience the Ulysses so many of my friends have described -- the one that’s incredibly, frustratingly hard to read. Many of the readers are monotoned and uncharismatic, with no element of performance, and the idea of listening to them in this dark, cold room for four hours and forty-five minutes makes me want to crawl out of my skin. It would be one thing if this were on the radio (and for most listeners, it is -- it’s simultaneously broadcast on NPR) -- then you could do other things during the five hours, Joycean things, fucking and eating kidneys and wrestling with monster toenails and drinking creamy cocoa, anything but just sitting there. And then -- here’s the rub -- some of the readers are so brilliantly charismatic that just looking at them is entertaining, and they bring Joyce’s prose vividly to life, and the moments that they will approach the microphones at center stage are totally unpredictable (unless, presumably, you’ve been going to “Bloomsday” since the eighties and you can connect the random lists of names in the unannotated program to the people onstage), so there’s a water-torture element to the proceedings. You don’t know when you’ll be entertained, and when you won’t. It’s like reading the book if you were a slow reader who felt you had to understand every reference and give every sentence equal time. I realized that Ulysses is unfrustrating for me because I fly through the parts that don’t interest me, and read the life-changing sections twice. Those categories flip around with each reading, of course, but here at Symphony Space there is no changing speeds.  

My friend makes it till nine (“The title of your piece should be, ‘It’s more for them than for us,’” she suggests), and I walk her out and buy some sour candy and rant about how nothing should be four hours and forty-five minutes long, not a great adventure movie, not the world’s best play, nothing. What is the rationale for the marathon aspect of this experience? Why not replace the dull readers with more stage time for the awesome ones, like David Margulies and Niall Burgess? The entire first “Cyclops” flashback, with a whole pile of great readers (including cute host/Symphony Space artistic director Isaiah Sheffer) is hilarious and riveting -- the whole thing could be that good! Or even, Isaiah Sheffer could just replace each of the boring readers. He’s there the whole time anyway. As I think about this, I realize that this is the argument many friends have made to me about the book itself. Why can’t it just be made up of the riotously great parts, and/or the parts that easily make sense?

I think about not going back in there after my friend leaves. I peer in a diner window at some layer cakes. I could go home and listen to the rest on the radio. I could sit in that diner and order a bit of spinach pie and write something. I go back inside, though, and I listen to the rest of “Ithaca,” and parts of it are boring, and parts of it are thrilling, and during the boring parts I watch the scary pupil-lady slip in and out of her dirty, plastic sandals. I catch sight of an attractive man a couple of years younger than me who’s there all alone, watching earnestly, pushing his dark, curly hair off of his face. That’s kind of hot. It reminds me of a time when I was eleven and visiting Mexico and had to go with my host family to church, and I would pass the time by finding cute boys in the pews and staring at them until they blushed or gaped and then ignoring them. This would be less like church if they had someone discreetly walking up and down the aisles with booze, and if they had little biographies in the program of all the readers, so that when someone was boring, you would at least know why they were there. The program could also use a couple of lines of background about Joyce, Ulysses or Bloomsday.

I decide to stay until Fionnula Flanagan comes on stage and then slip out after fifteen minutes of her Molly Bloom monologue and listen to the rest of it via the radio recording tomorrow, so I can get a sense of the look and feel of the monologue, but I don’t end up awake all night and having to get downtown alone at 2 am. But as soon as this woman comes onstage and puts her bare feet up and starts reading, I can’t leave. She is Molly Bloom, or not even that. She’s both more and less than Molly Bloom -- it’s like she’s doing something better than acting -- she’s the full embodiment of Molly’s internal world, the stream of her thoughts. I stay there in the dark for hours and hours, with my legs folded over the edge of my seat and my chin on my knees, just listening to her, not quite completely awake and not quite falling into sleep. She has a giant stack of pages that she drops on the floor one by one, and the stack never seems to get smaller, and it gets later and later and I’m body-surfing on Molly Bloom’s thoughts, all of us in the audience are just there in that bed with her, in bed and wakeful and thinking of nothing and thinking of everything as it turns into June 17. Two a.m. hits and the stack of pages isn’t any smaller, and I start to get the strangest feeling: homesickness. It’s unmistakable as anything else. Molly utters her final yes and drops the final page at just before three a.m., and as I weave out into the Upper West Side night, I can imagine coming back for this monologue again, for the whole marathon, even, in a couple of years. That’s Joyce’s great, eternal contribution to literature. Homesickness.

Why celebrate Ulysses in New York City, 2008? It’s the ultimate modernist novel, but it’s just as much ancient and medieval as modern. It is the most celebrated book in the English-language canon, but it’s ill-at-ease and queasy in that canon, it doesn’t fit and it never will. It actually explodes the need for a canon, which is probably why T.S. Eliot envied it so much, and why William Faulkner approached it with faith and love. Ulysses, like all of the best novels, is about the practice of poetry and the experience of being a poet. James Joyce tried to make it transgress the page. As he wrote it, with piles of amendments in his illegible hand, he was going blind like Homer. He was sickening and maddening himself, he was voracious, and the book is voracious that way, and shameless. But it should not be confused with a modernist experiment. Portrait of the Artist, like Picasso’s blue period, shows that Joyce could work the old-fashioned way, and in fact do it so well it would make you want to cry. There’s nothing new to say about this book, and the point of literature isn’t to say something new -- it’s to turn the lived world inside out and then right-side up, and to do that again and again and again.

The day before his twentieth birthday, in an essay on the poet James Clarence Mangan, Joyce wrote: “Every age must look for its sanction to its poetry and philosophy, for in these the human mind, as it looks backward or forward, attains to an eternal state. The philosophic mind inclines always to an elaborate life -- the life of Goethe or of Leonardo da Vinci; but the life of the poet is intense -- the life of Blake or of Dante -- taking into its centre the life that surrounds it and flinging it abroad again amid planetary music.” He went on to write that the ancient gods die and come back to life many times.

Joyce was, by many accounts, an unpleasant man -- a man who exploited his patrons, was impossible to live with, and kept a certain distance, emotionally, from other human beings. “Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create?” Asks Edna O’Brien. She thinks that they do -- that as they “wrestle with language to capture the human condition they become more callous, and cut off from the very human traits which they so glisteningly depict.” I don’t think I agree with her. I think writers come in luminous variety, some of them all too engaged with their own humanity, drunk on emotion, raw and sacrificial. But, there is something monstrous, demonic and daemonic, about the creation process -- the entry into the otherworld, the usurpation of ancient and modern gods.

At this bookless moment, when writers are forced to be salespeople, to show humility to their patrons and to butcher their work as a demonstration of amiable patience with an Oprah-addled, Barnes-and-Noble-shopping, Huxlian public, I’m happy to commemorate Joyce on a summer’s day. Poets understand that their work is made in a fury, from some god or other or, for the secular, some matterless void or impossible refiguring of molecules. They understand that it comes out the way it should, and if they have any craft at all, they know -- as Joyce did -- that “a man of genius makes no mistakes.”

“The only demand I make of my reader,” said Joyce, “is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.” There are whole lives contained on June 16, 1904 or June 16, 2008. Joyce wrote in a climate that was hostile to Ulysses, and utterly uncomprehending of the darker, trickier Finnegan’s Wake. My wish today, the day after Bloomsday, is that the real poets who are still living will write some real work, however torturously. Work that might sprawl over thousands of pages and change style eighteen times, or work that pierces the heart of a life in a few short phrases. They should go on that odyssey even if it means madness, or blindness, or never returning home.

(Note: For reference, I’ve used Yes I said Yes I will Yes: A Celebration of James Joyce, Ulysses and 100 Years of Bloomsday, edited by Nola Tully, and James Joyce, by Edna O’Brien.)