Stately, plump book that this is, I obviously don’t want to add a reread of The Odyssey to my list of requisites before I can enjoy Ulysses. My memories of Homer are rather sketchy; apart from a few verse excerpts read in high school, my best knowledge of the whole storyline comes from reading a plain prose version a decade ago. So my journey into Joyce starts, inevitably, with a trip to Wikipedia. I’m sure there will be many.
Joyce wrote the whole book loosely on the idea of renewing Homer’s Odyssey for a the 20th century crowd. The handy chapter titles, which tell me what aspect of Odysseus’ tale Joyce is recreating, aren’t in the book. Those titles can be found online or in any Ulysses reference guide. I get the sense that Joyce didn’t want to concede any hints to his readers; his smugness at having written a giant, loose-lipped homage to The Odyssey seems even more vainglorious when the only outright clue he deigns to give his readers is the title. It automatically becomes a book which we have to “figure out.” And I’m okay with that. Mainly because generations of scholars have put down flags for me along the route already. But I’ll accept Joyce’s puffed-out chest. For now. Wait until we reach his lengthy sections on Shakespeare.
Dublin. The date is June 16th, 1904. And it will stay that way for 783 pages.
The first three chapters concern our archetypal Telemachus, “far from battle.” As they are so short, I’ll lump them together here.
Stephen Dedalus, a morose school-teacher, is not enjoying life. His mother recently died and his babbling blasphemer of a roommate, Buck Mulligan, can’t help mentioning that Stephen refused to kneel and pray at his mother’s deathbed. Stephen’s inner monologue starts to reveal that this is a man who thinks like a book; his head is full of Shakespeare and history and his stomach is empty. The two men live in a tower on Sandycove beach. With a visiting Englishman, the three men go for a quick morning swim.
Stephen apparently has a theory about Hamlet which requires maths to prove. Oh boy. I sense that I’m going to hear all about it.
“The bard’s noserag. A new art colour for our Irish poets: snotgreen. You can almost taste it, can’t you?”
“You behold in me, Stephen said with grim displeasure, a horrible example of free thought.”
Joyce is having a laugh with us. Nestor was an old man (reportedly 110–really) when the Trojan war began, and, unable to battle himself, he loves to dole out advice to the young troops. The Nestor in Ulysses has to be Stephen’s boss, Mr. Deasy, who is a windbag. He is a blowhard who quotes Shakespeare’s Iago but, I expect, he has a good time reeling out some of Polonius’ wheezes. Mr. Deasy, rather than just paying Stephen’s wages, has to call him in for a lecture on the Englishman’s favorite phrase (“I paid my way”) and generally remind Stephen of Anglo-Irish political relations. Mr. Deasy is also an expert on the Jews and their money-hungry schemes, so this casual anti-Semitism adds to the zeitgeist surrounding the novel’s Jewish main character, Leopold Bloom (more on him next time). All of the characters seem trapped in history and themselves.
“On his cheek, dull and bloodless, a soft stain of ink lay, dateshaped, recent and damp as a snail’s bed.”
“History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
Proteus was a prototype sea-god before Poseidon took his job. Appropriate enough, as Stephen is reflecting on the sea and thinking about his mother. Stephen spends this whole chapter going mad stream of consciousness, which reveals his running obsessions with foreign places and tongues. Much of this is self-recrimination that could be worse than I imagine, because I don’t get 80% of his references. Crunching over seashells on Sandymount beach, Stephen picks his nose, defaces a rock with his carefully placed snot, and thinks poetically about pissing. As a guy, I’ve been there before myself.
“In long lassoes from the Cock lake the water flowed full, covering greengoldenly lagoons of sand, rising, flowing.”
Well, I’ve gotten past some of the easiest parts of the book. Development tends to happen and prose occasionally sparkles. Joyce is showing off, but it’s mostly playful. Quite a few of the novel’s most famous lines come from these first 50 pages. And now I’m off to meet Odysseus in all his, erm, glory? You’ll see what I mean.