Monthly Archives: June 2012

Part II: The Odyssey — A slight relief sets in as I realize I am not going to be stuck with sulky Stephen for the whole 700-something pages.

Episode 4, CalypsoIn which we get a break from Stephen, and are introduced to the much more engaging Leopold Bloom, and his wife Molly. 

Oh Leopold, Leopold, where have you been for the past 47 pages? Episode 4 heralds in a brand new protagonist, Leopold Bloom, who I am immediately enamored of.  Call me a romantic, but the way he dotes on his cheating wife Molly is downright sweet.

The episode opens with Bloom going on his first of many errands of this interminably long day, to obtain some breakfast.  Right away he is distinguished from Stephen in his lust for life and embracing of it, and yet as we will find out over the subsequent 635 pages, there are also some parallels between the two.

We get our first glimpse of Dublin through Bloom’s eyes as he steps outside of his door, and yet curiously he is preoccupied with sensations of foreign places that he has never been to:

Somewhere in the east: early morning: set off at dawn, travel round in front of the sun, steal a day’s march on him. Keep it up for ever never grow a day older technically. Walk along a strand, strange land, come to a city gate, sentry there, old ranker too, old Tweedy’s big moustaches leaning on a long kind of a spear. Wander through awned streets. Turbaned faces going by. Dark caves of carpet shops, big man, Turko the terrible, seated cross-legged smoking a coiled pipe. Cries of sellers in the streets. Drink water scented with fennel, sherbet. Wander along all day. Might meet a robber or two. Well, meet him. Getting on to sundown. The shadows of the mosques along the pillars: priest with a scroll rolled up. A shiver of the trees, signal, the evening wind. I pass on. Fading gold sky. A mother watches from her doorway. She calls her children home in their dark language. High wall: beyond strings twanged. Night sky moon, violet, colour of Molly’s new garters. Strings. Listen. A girl playing one of these instruments what do you call them: dulcimers. I pass.

Probably not a bit like it really. Kind of stuff you read: in the track of the sun. Sunburst on the titlepage. He smiled, pleasing himself.

And a short while later, Bloom’s mind wanders again to a far off locale as he considers and re-considers the prospect of a land purchase in Turkey, advertised in a flyer, “Nothing doing. Still an idea behind it.”

I’m not sure if this sort of reverie is meant to mark Bloom as the foreign — a Jew with immigrant origins, dressed in black no less — but very much connected to the soon to be newly independent Ireland, or serves some other purpose. For as much as Bloom is rooted in the current, complete with saucy wife, a profession, a child, a grilled Kidney for breakfast …  he is also shown to be a bit dreamy in these passages. He is of the same vein as Stephen. Despite being grounded, or rather immersed in, the messy to-do of life he is also caught up with his own regret and sadness.  These passages remind me of the gentle fantasy-making of far off places and romance of exploration that most of us have at some stage or another, whether it be to replace the current doldrums or to take our mind on an adventure.

Joyce himself was writing his masterpiece amid the turmoil of the 19-teens, at a time of world war and revolution, yet set placidly 14-years earlier as the momentum for what was to happen in his own country was taking up steam.    In a book that is so specific upon every comma and made-up word choice, I have to think this return to the past had some significance.

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Sandymount Strand

Sandymount Strand

Flann O’Brien and friends, circa 1954 on Bloomsday

Episode 3, Proteus – In which Stephen thinks a lot, while walking along the beach.

Our group’s reading schedule is one-part ad-hoc, two-parts relentless. We meet every two weeks and for now are tackling two Episodes per meeting. Given this, we read Episode 1 on its own, as an introduction to the novel and to each other, and then met for our second discussion (with snacks) to discuss Episode 2 and 3 together.  This turned out to be a good pairing.

Episode 3 is the biggest challenge thus far.  We find Stephen taking a walk along Sandymount Strand. Sentence to sentence the pages jump from thought to idea to sensation and we are stuck inside Stephen’s mind. Not the most  pleasant place to be.

I’ll be the first to say I couldn’t tell anyone what happens in this chapter. This is Joyce at his most experimental, it’s very hard to follow. I imagine English professors every where could use this chapter as an example of stream of consciousness writing. Despite the difficulty though, as a reader I found myself transformed.  Events and narrative go out the window, and I stopped caring about the ability/inability to follow the flow of thought and reference. Instead I found myself entertained by the word-play and the experimentation and challenge to the reader of our expectations of a novel. Of course this is one of the many prime things being accomplished in Ulysses.

Stephen is moody and we are largely stuck amid his shifting mood and thought only occasionally leaving his mind for a glimpse of setting/action:


Ay, very like a whale. When one reads these strange pages of one long gone one feels that one is at one with one who once…

The grainy sand had gone from under his feet. His boots trod again a damp crackling mast, razorshells, squeaking pebbles, that on the unnumbered pebbles beats, wood sieved by the shipworm, lost Armada. Unwholesome sandflats waited to suck his treading soles, breathing upward sewage breath. He coasted them, walking warily. A porter-bottle stood up, stogged to its waist, in the cakey sand dough. A sentinel: isle of dreadful thirst.

Stephen moves from questioning the purpose of his own study, self-reflection, reflection on old dead texts, wondering all to what purpose, to considering the ground beneath his feet, until  a bottle stuck  in the sand brings him back to Ireland, his return here, and again the theme of nation.

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Bloomsday Preview

In plenty of time for June 16th, the celebration of all things Ulysses-related, the BBC Radio 4 has announced a full-days broadcast of the book — in 7 parts!

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Episode 2, Nestor – In which Stephen goes to work.

In this episode, Stephen goes to work.  I was surprised to find he had an occupation, as he previously seemed the type that would be scornful of work, and stooping to accept a paycheck. He is in fact a substitute teacher, and by all appearances, a popular one.  The boys take to him and in particular, after-class one of the more unhappy (read: 1904 nerd) students stays behind for some tutoring, Stephen is reminded of his recently departed mother, and we learn that Stephen has compassion.  This also came as a surprise to me, as up until now Stephen has appeared fairly bored with the examples of humanity before him, and turning his nose up at anything too mundane. Earning money itself becomes a bit of a dirty prospect.

Point in case: Mr. Deasy.

The boys then go out to play and Stephen tracks down his boss — Mr. Deasy, a Protestant, to collect his pay. The boss-man from the North is a chatterbox and he ropes Stephen into both a lengthy conversation on “history” and “economics”,  as well as the task of delivering Deasy’s treatise, a letter to the editor on the important issue of Foot and Mouth disease, to the local paper.

I interpret the exchange as Deasy attempting to give advice or otherwise mentor Stephen, or at the very least, draw him into a debate.  Stephen wants none of it.  Deasy’s theories, particularly the ones of anti-Semitic/anti-woman persuasion, are mildly rejected by Stephen, but largely he’s not muddying his garment in debating anything with Deasy.

This episode contains the book’s most famous line, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” , which I must admit I was pleased to read, as it was something familiar. I found Stephen’s  God is “a shout in the street” more thought provoking, however it was a bit of a throwaway comment for Stephen, as much trying to distract Deasy from his train of thought, or attempting to shock a bit.

The comment led me to think about the nature of this idea that God makes itself present with event, typically violent, and otherwise, is unavailable.  This shout is the only manifestation of God in a novel written at the close of WWI, in a time when the novel was meant to be representative of reality.  Ponderous stuff.

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