Ulysses on British Rail
Been wrapped up in a cyclone of work lately.
My heart sank fathoms when I got my schedule for this summer. 25 filming days through August! No dreamy, green-hazy days at the Hampstead Ponds, no sunstruck cycling through the dusty Summer streets of London, no barbecues, no yoga in the back garden, no long brunchy parties for all my sunkissed friends.
As usual – fantasy fear proved more pernicious than the actual experience. Infact, (schadenfroh gespürt) August has been a washout of gargantuan rainstorms and blue-green algae has closed the Ponds — and my Odyssey around the South and SW of the UK has been pleasant and easeful. A lovely crew, great punters on the show and snatches of Exeter, St Ives, Torquay, Eastbourne, Kent and Bristol… A seaside summer after all.
Plus there’s been some great long train journies which have allowed me to answer my mail periodically and – most significantly – read Joyce’s Ulysses.
Obviously, as an English graduate, I was meant to have read it during the week allotted to Jocyce in the Tripos. But since the likelihood of a 19-yr-old student reading an 800 page modernist novel in a week (alongside Dubliners, Portrait and Finnegans Wake) was zero, of course I didn’t.
But I’ve always had a thing for the book since I reverentially picked up an pale, pale green Faber edition in a bookshop in Winchester when I was about 16… I remember getting Harry Blamires’ Bloomsday book to guide me through it and being fascinated by all the symbolisms and hidden structures… Needless to say any attempt to actually read it was doomed. What does a 16 year old know about anything?
Anyway, since I’d read Robert Fagles version of the Odyssey earlier in the year and been delighted to have actually read the text that inspired so many others — and also been delighted to find so much human earthiness in Odysseus – I felt drawn to Joyce’s version.
And I’ve been totally delighted with it. It’s not half as scary as I had it pegged. Each time I get to the end of one of those massive chapters I think: “well, that wasn’t so bad, I understood the most of it, I even enjoyed it… But surely this next one is going to fox me.” But infact each one has charmed me in a different way. And I definitely feel that is a measure of some kind of maturity…
It’s an immensely unpretentious book wierdly. Joyce is constantly debagging the high falutin’ in favour of the basically human. Whereas Stephen Dedalus is a bit of a poseur and a frankly immature ass, Leopold Bloom is a wonderfully normal, big hearted adult = with all the weakness and foibles that make a great man human. Just as Odysseus is a bit of a liar and wily, Bloom is a bit of a perv and can be a little dweebish at times. But his viewpoint is so all inclusive and attentive that Dublin comes alive around him, whereas, filtered through Stephen’s over-Aristotelian eyes, it becomes incidental.
I’m in the penultimate chapter “Ithaca” at the mo, and I’m loving the ludicrous detail of the answers Joyce gives himself in that section. As if a gelatine print from 1904 were suddenly to turn colour, the mass of qualia that Joyce floods the book with, makes it almost unreally real… Did people really do all that stuff in the 1890s and 1900s? Make cocoa, bet on the Gold Cup and hang out their knickers to dry? Of course they did… Just as horses dropped globes of turds on the Dublin streets in the middle of the night, and phoney sailors made up stories in Cabman shelters.
I really liked the lunatic excess of the Nighttown sequence…. It’s quite schoolboyish at moments. As if Joyce couldn’t help himself from running and running with a certain train of thought till the ejaculation was over and the next image arose. The same is true of the “Cyclops” chapter.
And I loved the ugly symmetry of the “Naussica” section where one half is in Gerty’s purple prose and the second is in Bloom’s telegrammatic monologue. And I loved the tri-phonic audio of the “Sirens” where three scenes are narrated as one pool of sound (since sound is not bound by place) and for once we can experience three things at once..
I loved everything so far. And I’ve still got Molly’s Penelope to come… Roll on the next long journey.