Sunday, July 22, 2012

Only this, and then much more... (Sundays With The Classics)

So I made a decision today, and first the why before the what.

The why is the exchange in the comments last week about why it was that Ulysses had to be bound to the mast to get past the sirens in The Odyssey, brought on by my pointing out that Joyce's Ulysses is supposed to be loosely based on The Odyssey, which I was pretty sure I'd never read and which I was pretty sure didn't make sense.

The other why is that yesterday I splurged and bought a book on impulse, something I almost never do, but I'd just read about John Cheever's The Swimmer and I wanted very badly to read that story and so I went to look it up on my Kindle and they had it in a collection of 61 other Cheever stories.  I bought the book, and I almost never do that because I don't like having a stack of books waiting to be read; it distracts me from the one I'm reading.

I have enough of a backlog of reading, as it is: right now, waiting for me to read them, I have not just Ulysses,but also The Red House, by Mark Haddon, which I'm almost done with, and a book called Phone Kitten about a girl that becomes a phone sex talker (is that the right word?) and then learns about a murder but has to solve the crime herself because her boyfriend is a cop and she doesn't want to admit to him that she's a phone sex talker.

Plus I have my weekly subscriptions to Entertainment Weekly and The New Yorker, let alone all the websites and blogs I have to visit.

So I didn't intend to add a whole 'nother book but I really wanted to read that story, and I did, and it was worth it, as it turns out that Cheever is a heck of a writer, at least in the single story I read by him last night after the boys went to bed.

The Swimmer is, as advertised, about a guy who decides while at a party that he is going to go home by swimming through swimming pools; he is at a party and realizes that he could go home not by road but by cutting through people's yards and swimming in their pools, making his way home pool by pool by pool.  The man, Neddy, has a contempt for men who ease themselves into pools, we're told, and so he does not ease into this: he sets off by swimming the pool at the party he's at and moving on to the next one, announcing his journey to nobody at the party where he began (although he tells people he meets on the way.)  As he swims, he moves from comfort to discomfort, and richer to poorer, having to cross the highway, and as he travels, too [SPOILER ALERT!] there is a thunderstorm, briefly,  and fall seems to have set in, and he reflects as he walks and swims and gets more tired, alarmingly more tired, on whether he did not know about things like a neighbor having surgery or whether he is simply so good at ignoring the bad news in his life that he was told and did not remember it at all, and when he arrives home, having been pre-warned, mysteriously, by some people, he is old and tired and can barely climb out of the pool and his house is empty, his family gone, and the locks rusted, all in an afternoon, or was it?

Was it?

The decision Neddy makes -- to travel home by not only an unusual route but an unheard-of route, a route nobody else would really imagine (he thinks of the pools as a river named after his wife, a river with some portages, but they're not connected) -- has a profound effect on his life, changing it irrevocably from an afternoon where he drank to much the night before but is in good spirits today, to one where he has nothing left: he is poor, he is tired and broken, and alone.  At first, I thought it was his decision to take the unusual journey that led to his ruin, and had he gone home the regular way his life would still be his life, the story in my mind being kind of a cautionary tale to counter The Road Not Taken, but then I thought about the couple of times in the story where Neddy thinks of his ability to ignore the bad in life and focus on the good and I began to wonder whether the beginning of the story wasn't the unusual part, whether he had not decided to swim in the imaginary river only he could see, named after his wife, in an effort to take a route he had not taken before to try to get back to a house (and a life) that no longer existed.

And then I thought maybe he really did travel a lifetime in an afternoon, because he took a path that caused time to flow differently.

And any of those interpretations were both sad and amazing.  I can't believe I'd never heard of this story until yesterday.

Today being Sunday, then, classics day, I was going to switch from Ulysses to Cheever to finish all the other 60 stories of his I have, but that felt like giving up on Ulysses, which I don't want to do, and so instead I bought The Odyssey and added to the number of books I have to read, doing that because I really love reading Ulysses but I really want to get all the meaning out of it and see if it does add up to The Odyssey and, if I'm being honest with myself, sometimes I want a break from Ulysses on Sundays.

So I told myself that if reading Cheever was giving up on Ulysses then reading The Odyssey would be like doubling down on Ulysses, and I bought it and I'm going to alternate Sundays: this Sunday was The Odyssey and next will be Ulysses and so on.

Today, I got into the introduction of The Odyssey, which has been translated into blank verse for the version I have, and I find that kind of annoying because I have to remember to read it not like a poem, pausing at the end of each line, but going on until I hit punctuation, but beyond that, The Odyssey is actually far easier to understand than Ulysses, so far, at least.  All I've gotten through is the part where at the beginning of the story, Odysseus, Ulysses, has not come back from Troy and the gods are all talking about how terrible it is that Ulysses is trapped on some island with a nymph apparently as a result of Poseidon/Neptune having a grudge against Ulysses stemming from the way Ulysses killed the Cyclops, and so the gods are going to have to do something about it, they figure, because it's a shame to not have Ulysses come home.

And that thing they do, at least so far, is send Athena to talk to Ulysses' son, Telemachus, who is trying to hold off all the suitors that are besieging his house: In Ulysses' absence, Telemachus is stuck with his mom, who will not tell the men who want to marry her to go away, and will not marry one of them, either, and so Telemachus, who would rather his dad be declared dead than in this limbo, complains to Athena (who is also called Pallas, and when I read that and read the footnote I couldn't help but remember the pallid bust of Pallas from The Raven: I never knew until today that Pallas = Athena, and I keep thinking man, what did I even learn in school?) that his inheritance is being squandered by the suitors who apparently are just mooching off his mom this whole time.

So in other words, the beginning of The Odyssey is absolutely nothing like the beginning of Ulysses, so far as I can tell.


Andrew Leon said...

Hmm... I may have to read Cheever. But not soon, probably, as I'm way backed up on books, too. And, actually, I want to read Ulysses.

I have my own ideas about The Swimmer from what you've said about it, but, since I haven't read it, I'll keep them to myself.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I could imagine Michael Phelps swimming home.

As far as Ulysses goes, a lot of the book is written for people that James Joyce new and associated with and who have context for the book that an everyday person is not meant to understand making it an exceptionally thick and difficult book to read.