Sunday, September 16, 2012

Was Joyce the first blogger? (Sundays With The Classics)

*sigh*.  I am not sure how much longer I am going to go on struggling through Joyce's Ulysses

It's not so much that nothing happens.  Nothing does happen, or perhaps that should be nothing doesn't happen.  Can nothing happen? That seems wrong to say, in one sense.  If I were to say "Not a thing happened today," that's one thing, but that's not exactly what I mean when I talk about the lack of events in Ulysses: in Joyce's book, quite literally, nothing is happening.

In the parts I read today, Bloom has left the funeral and the newspaper shop and is walking.  He sees some people, one of whom apparently looks hungry, or at least he thinks about how a kid once looked hungry -- it wasn't really clear -- and then he sees some seagulls and tosses a rolled up piece of paper into the water and notes that they don't try to eat that, and he's going to leave but he feels bad for them and so he goes and buys some rolls or something and throws that to the seagulls, reflecting for a bit on why saltwater fish don't taste like saltwater.  He walks some more and runs into a woman who has apparently aged badly and who has kind of a crazy husband, and then he walks some more and sees some pigeons outside the Irish parliament and muses on revolutions in the rambling way that I've gotten used to.

That was 40 minutes of reading.

Sometimes, the way Bloom thinks is entertainingly poetic, but today it was sort of like reading someone else's Post-It notes: rather than flowing words or wry musings, it was a lot of and then this and then this and then this, nothing much by way of entertainment.  I took to looking at phrases that caught my eye and wondering about them, phrases like:

He always walks outside the lampposts.  

Bloom says this when he's talking to the lady with the maybe-crazy husband, pointing it out to her about some guy who's walking by the two of them, and the woman asks who the man is, and Bloom tells her, and that's it for that exchange; it's banal to the point of boredom.

This one was more entertaining:

It was a nun they say invented barbed wire,

Which was what Bloom thought when he walked beside a convent, or at least thought of walking beside one; I think he was musing about having sold advertisements to a convent, because he recalled that they claimed they couldn't pay him but, Bloom remembered, they always used butter for their frying rather than lard, which I took to mean Bloom thought the convent had money despite their claims of poverty, but all I thought was "What would a convent advertise?" And then I remembered the monastery that makes the beer that is supposed to be the best beer in the world, so I guess God supports the free market, is where I ended on that.

A nun did not, in fact, invent barbed wire.  I went and looked it up and according to Wikipedia, four guys are generally credited with coming up with a way to make durable, easy-to-use barbed wire.   Apparently, Bloom isn't an expert on barbed wire.

Then there's

He's a caution to rattlesnakes

Which someone says about someone else, I can't be bothered remembering who because honestly this book is terribly boring right now.  I took that, judging from the context, to mean the character was crazy, but it doesn't quite fit: being a caution to rattlesnakes would imply that someone is dangerous, not crazy; or are rattlesnakes generally regarded as crazy?  I never got that from anywhere else. 

Here's my theory, right now:  Back in the 1920s and 1930s when Ulysses was first published, this book was deemed to be a huge hit and very scandalous and all that.  But back then, showing a woman's ankle was pornography, and obviously tastes in writing (and pornography) have changed a lot, which is why I'm going on the record again as suggesting that we periodically scrap all these old "classics" and instead choose new classics so that people don't get tricked into reading something like Ulysses when, as far as I can see, there is no point to it.  I'm this close

[holds up fingers very close together] 

to scrapping it.

But also, there's more to it, because I'm reading The Odyssey on opposite weeks, and while the writing in that poem is equally boring and old-fashioned, the story is holding me in there and there's enough going on, both poetically and dramatically, that it's worth struggling through.  It's not as if all old writing is automatically terrible: I like reading Poe, and I'm reading the stories of John Cheever and I laugh out loud at Peter Bentley.

With Ulysses, though, it's just that there doesn't seem to be any point to this; I'm only 21% of the way through it and I can't figure out why I'm still bothering reading it.  If the idea was to give a slice-of-life view of Ireland through Bloom's eyes, that could've been done already.  With any lesser book (like, say, Stupid Dragon Stupid Tattoo or whatever that book was called) I'd have quit already, but because this is a classic I feel compelled to drudge through it the way I slogged through Anna Karenina (a/k/a "1000 pages of descriptions of tundra") and Moby-Dick (a/k/a God I Don't Even Know Why I Bothered.)

Making a book a novel suggests that you have a story to tell, or a point to make, or at least an interesting way of looking at things, and today, at least, Joyce lost me on all those points.  It's like reading someone's blog -- but not a good someone's blog.


Liz said...

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was required reading in my senior English class. After that, I swore of Joyce for life. (Don't ask me what it was about. I don't remember. All I remember is that I hated it.)

Andrew Leon said...

Wait! Are you comparing my blog to Joyce? I don't know how I feel about that...

Did you get the email I sent you earlier in the week? Just checking since I haven't heard back from you.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

Dear Briane,

I finished "The After" and it is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read.

I'm going to feature the five star review on my blog tomorrow.

Your characters are so moving.

Briane P said...


Your blog beats Joyce by a country mile. I didn't see an email but I'm behind.


Thanks. I'll go check that out now.


I'm about where you are.

Andrew Leon said...

I'll re-send it. Look for the "favor" in the subject line.