IX. Scylla & Charybdis
Okay, so I wasn’t looking forward to this Shakespeare chapter. I love Shakespeare and I’ve read most of the plays multiple times, but if I actually enjoyed this then all the people who scoffed at my English degree will surely have a point, won’t they? Because this wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. Stephen entertains a group of tiresome old farts at the National Library with his theories about Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s a heavily autobiographical and speculation filled skit played out by people who employ their bloated vocabularies. But it’s also a loving satire of Elizabethan language; there are endless Shakespeare in-jokes and, true to the definition of wit in Shakespeare’s time, all the men are trying to one-up each other through quick wordplay and jokes. That’s pretty much how the chapter goes. If you haven’t read around a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays, this might be something to skip. The references make it fun for English types like me. Oh, and there’s some damning evidence for the prosecution against Joyce’s ego: a character actually says, “The most beautiful book that has come out of our country in my time. One thinks of Homer.” Seriously, Jimmie?
“Horseness is the whatness of allhorse.”
“Coffined thoughts around me, in mummycases, embalmed in spice of words.” (Description of old tomes.)
“A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella.”
X. Wandering Rocks
This is pretty much an underwhelming rehash of Dubliners. Joyce presents us with nineteen short vignettes, most of them about minor side characters. It’s just people tootling around. And I know that Bloom tootles, but at least I’m invested emotionally in his character. The only redeemable section of this chapter is when Bloom buys a questionable romantic novel called Sweets of Sin for Molly. Other than that, this chapter illustrates how Joyce rolled the ambitions of his previous published work into Ulysses, as if he was intentionally trying to sum himself up in one book. The small scale stories of Dubliners are there, and Stephen gets to run through many of the same issues he had in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I’d skip this chapter.
The musical motifs chapter. Joyce focuses on the sound of objects and the musicality of language, using repeated words like emphasized notes and crafting sentences for rhythm. This creates a breathing musical phrase. All very interesting, but only for a few pages. This chapter drags on far too long. Skim-worthy. It helps to read the chapter aloud–that advice goes for most of the book, and an Irish lilt wouldn’t hurt either–and reading this section aloud is especially beneficial. Doing so showed me the musical structure of the sentences and how Joyce seems to be controlling the rhythm of his syllabic sounds. All of which would be quite impressive if the chapter weren’t so dull. Reading it aloud only made me question my commitment to this book’s foibles. In summary, Bloom has dinner with Stephen’s uncle at a hotel while Blazes Boylan heads off to meet Molly for their not so clandestine rendezvous. The highlight was Bloom describing someone as having a “barreltone” singing voice.
“An afterclang of Cowley’s chords closed, died on the air made richer.”
“Her ear too is a shell, the peeping lobe there. Been to the seaside. Lovely seaside girls. Skin tanned raw. Should have put on coldcream first make it brown. Buttered toast.”
Here we get an unknown first person narrator and a bunch of Irish guys arguing. Not much else. We hear all sorts of tangents and jargon from other people’s professions, but this starts to get interminable. Bloom is harassed for being a Jew; one man throws a biscuit tin at his head. This chapter isn’t even skim-worthy–just skip it.
Well, isn’t this chapter out of the blue. Plump in the middle of Ulysses, I find a sentimental little parody of romance stories. Gerty MacDowell, a young woman on Sandymount strand, is having a gentle twilight think about love and femininity. And it’s all told in ever-so-slightly twee language. But the surprise comes halfway through, when we discover that Bloom is surreptitiously watching her from afar. And he’s having a sly feel. Yeah. Fireworks even go off in the sky at the point of orgasm. Soon after that, of course, our hero finds that Gerty has a lame leg. Yeppers, I don’t think anyone feels vaguely comfortable with this.
“A defect is ten times worse in a woman. But makes them polite.” (Wow, Bloom’s views of women are, erm, yeah. Just erm.)
XIV. Oxen of the Sun
? ? ? This chapter could only have been written by a man who was a little mad. Stephen and Bloom finally meet at a maternity ward, and there’s drinking all around. The whole blasted thing is written as a love letter to the English language throughout history. The birth and rejoicing is written as a series of pastiches of the Bible, Malory’s King Arthur, Defoe, Sterne, Dickens, and I don’t know who else. Geez, who exactly is this written for? I assume some Oxford dons get their chuckles off to this boasting style. The chapter comes to a stumping finish with a mouthful of slang. Ulysses’ chapters are getting successively more difficult, and the language here is starting to expand like a wheezy accordion, mostly with a gawp and a gawdalmighty Joyce was obsessive. Interesting enough, but if you haven’t read widely from the hundreds of years leading up to Joyce this might be a yawn chapter.
Bloom and Stephen head off into the red light district of Dublin, and the whole lengthy chapter is told in play-script format. This is a psychological acid trip. Both of these sauced up boys have hallucinations and Freud would have adored this chapter for its nightmare psychology. This is experimental theatre at its screwiest. And I’ve had a revelation about this book. It’s madness to power through this book in order. I think Ulysses is the kind of novel best read at random over years, keeping everything to palatable doses. By dipping in to random pages, I’d never know exactly when I was done with the book. And maybe that’s the healthy way of approaching this, because I’m just about fed up with the fact that Joyce seems to have stopped caring for his readers.
“(The famished snaggletusks of an elderly bawd protrude from a doorway.)”
Preparatory to anything, I just want to say whoo hoo! Part III of the mammoth book is here! Other than that, no comment. Just…No. This is written in a deliberately boring way to suit the ragged mindsets of Bloom and Stephen after a wild couple of hours. They huddle off to a cabman’s shelter to regain their senses. I’m just going to post the first and last sentences of the chapter and ask you if you want to approach the sandwich meat in between–it might have gone off.
“Preparatory to anything else Mr Bloom brushed off the greater bulk of the shavings and handed Stephen the hat and ashplant and bucked him up generally in orthodox Samaritan fashion, which he very badly needed.”
“As they walked, they at times stopped and walked again, continuing their tete-a-tete (which of course he was utterly out of), about sirens, enemies of man’s reason, mingled with a number of other topics of the same category, usurpers, historical cases of the kind while the man in the sweeper car or you might as well call it in the sleeper car who in any case couldn’t possibly hear because they were too far simply sat in his seat near the end of Lower Gardiner Street and looked after their lowbacked car.”