Thursday, September 10, 2009
Still Best of the Best? Read On...
Eight days ago I finished Ulysses—I still have two chapter highlights to deliver to you (whether you like it or not) but felt I should remark on this book while the memory is still a bit fresh.
Ten years ago Ulysses astounded me and kept me astounded up until now. The whole thing was way, way over my head and most of the time I just read it for the words. As I began to study the book after reading it I came to hold the opinion that the book really wasn’t that difficult (especially after reading Finnegans Wake), I just hadn’t tried hard enough. The trick, it seemed to me, was to always be aware of who was speaking. If I could tell that, I could understand the book. This little rule served me well on this anniversary reading, only two chapters losing me often: Oxen of the Sun and Scylla and Charybdis.
But is Ulysses still my favorite book? Is it still the book I hold in highest esteem? I don’t know. It might not be any more.
If literary art is the goal, Ulysses definitely stands amongst the greatest masterpieces of all time. The inventiveness of language and constant ingenuity is stunning, the capacity of a single human being to produce this work was for me, at times, nearly impossible to fathom. I don’t feel qualified to make such a statement, but let me state it: no better writing can be found in any other book produced in the 20th Century and the only other work (produced by the hand of man) to have impressed me as much with the talent of its author was Paradise Lost.
However, if the point of a novel is to tell a story, I don’t know how highly I can esteem Ulysses. The “story”, a tale of father and son who aren’t father and son finding each other, isn’t so compelling and there isn’t much of a moral lesson or reward for the reader when this happens. I don’t feel that was Joyce’s point. If asked what Joyce’s point was, I would answer: “To show us that he could write like a demon.” And at this his succeeds. And I’d add, “Oh, and he also wanted to recreate Dublin in a book.” And I suppose he succeeds at this too, I don’t know, I’ve never been there. It’s a little disappointing to consider all the moments of profound gravity from Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and look to Ulysses and find so few (practically none, really [or I don’t know, maybe they’ll reveal themselves to me when I read this a third time?])
Also, the characters of this book, our heroes, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, it’s hard to love them, and I think that’s part of the idea. Joyce renders them so fully that their negatives become a overpowering, Bloom is absolutely creepy and despicable at times and Stephen just someone I can’t imagine putting up with.
So, there, there it is: I don’t know if Ulysses is my favorite book anymore. But Joyce is certainly still the first name that comes to mind when I’m asked who my favorite author is and I’m looking forward to assembling my last two posts of quotes because we still haven’t looked at my favorite chapter of the book (Ithaca) and I have a great analogy to make about the book’s famous final chapter, Penelope. I’m not going to sweat this possible fall of Ulysses, I’m going to keep reading books (I’ve already finished one and 5/8ths books(!) since Ulysses), hopefully books worth appreciating and thinking over that will increase my character, understanding, and discussion-having abilities.
Please, someone, let’s have a book discussion.