I’ll write something more here soon, but it won’t be a book review. The book to the left is one of my favorites and every cover ever designed for One Hundred Years of Solitude is beautiful. Right now, I just want this image at the top of my blog.
For the meantime, I need to think of a calm way to talk about García Márquez that doesn’t just sound like raving love and awe.
It’s hard to classify this book, which seems to splay out in disjointed shapes more than most of Calvino’s work. He enjoyed defying a reader’s expectations of what a story can be. I guess Invisible Cities is a philosophical travelogue treatise with fantasy/sci-fi elements. If I really want to wedge something else in that description, then this could also be historical/political. The whole book is a series of dialogues between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. That’s it. The two men sit around smoking long-stemmed amber pipes while Polo describes some malarkey B.S. cities that he has visited. The emperor goads the traveler on, sure that these tales are all fantasies. Half the time, Calvino tells the reader point-blank that Kublai Khan isn’t really listening. At first, since he doesn’t speak the language, Polo even mimes metaphors (“the ingenious foreigner improvised pantomimes that the sovereign had to interpret: one city was depicted by the leap of a fish escaping the cormorant’s beak to fall into a net…a third by a skull, its teeth green with mold, clenching a round, white pearl”).
It’s really like reading a number of prose poems about how humans design, live in, remember, and desire places. Every named city has a symbolic purpose, even if that purpose is just to entertain the emperor or appease one of his languid moods.
Calvino is doing something similar to what Melville did in those encyclopedic chapters of Moby-Dick, wherein every subject under the sun or a human skull is connoted to a single idea (the white whale/the urban congregation of people). Calvino proves that his own chosen symbol is just as inexhaustible. For that alone, I would recommend this book. It’s not the most gripping of reads and it really started to make me question whether we can even classify this as a novel (lacking as it is in plot and even flimsy on character development). Considering that relatively meager frame, I’m even more curious to hear that this was turned into an opera. I know those don’t always have the tightest or most logical plots, but still. Read in snippets of 30 pages or so a shot, Invisible Cities does provide the imagination with some beautiful pictures. And a book that functions as a novel of ideas/art gallery at once is just awesomesauce.
It’s no surprise that the descriptions in this book have inspired artists and architects. Just do a web search for Invisible Cities and you’ll see plenty of artworks depicting various cities. My favorite of the 55 cities in the novel is Octavia, so here’s that whole chapter to give you a sense of Calvino’s prose.
“If you choose to believe me, good. Now I will tell you how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made. There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands. Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm’s bed.
“This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support. All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children’s games, cable cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.
“Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long.”
Reaching home, drunk and ruffled but not really the worse for wear, Joyce rigorously questions his male heroes before saying goodnight to them. Literally. This chapter is written entirely as a Q&A catechism. If the stolid reader hasn’t grown tired of Stephen and Bloom yet, he or she is about to get a catalogue of their moment-by-moment moods and irreverent talking points. Some of the questions are asked urgently, as if the questioner (the reader? Joyce? an unknown?) is Hamlet’s ghostly father wandering the night. “List! List!” We must hear the details of Bloom’s urination stream, the music that rouses him, the anagrams that Poldy made on his name in youth (“Molldopeloob” was my favorite), and the basics of temperature, height, and stars. By thorough examination, Joyce often succeeds in making me laugh or hesitate over accepted factoids that, through force of habit, I no longer find fascinating. This is a catalogue of a “small” life, a latitudinal and longitudinal map of a body in position. No one else can fill the exact space that Bloom takes up. We overhear his half-hearted late night stratagems to drastically change his life and we shyly watch as he aligns himself top-to-tails with his wife in bed. He kisses her buttcheeks in a bed recently vacated by Blazes and falls asleep. There are many ways of being an individual, and Joyce has finished his attempt to pin one down on paper.
(Bloom and Stephen notice the night sky): “The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.”
Unfortunately for her, Molly Bloom, who now has her husband’s feet in her face, is experiencing insomnia. No doubt her husband’s raucous homecoming woke her up. Molly’s monologue is delivered from the heat of her brain & body in a gush of words–there are no commas, no periods, no punctuation of any kind. This is rambling, beat poet stuff, yet despite those objections I loved it. It’s easy to see why this is the most famous part of the novel. It is, after all, the section most likely to rile the ridges of censors. Apart from that, capping this novel’s thick male choir of voices with a bawdy, sexual MILF’s voice is a novelist’s trick. (Seriously, the professors never mention that Molly is clearly a MILF, although that really doesn’t get close to describing her sensuality.) Sure, we had Gerty’s romantic ingénue voice. But that was parody–Molly’s chapter exhibits Joyce’s real woman, warts and all, tits and tongue. Allowing Molly to speak last forces the reader to reconsider their view of Bloom.
And, perhaps inevitably, I have to read some autobiography into this languorous monologue. It’s hard to imagine that Joyce didn’t plan it that way. The 16th of June, 1904 wasn’t just a random stab at the calendar. Not for Ulysses. It was on that day that Joyce and Nora Barnacle had their first date. Looking into published correspondence between the couple, it is also easy to see that Joyce modeled Molly’s rolling sentences unburdened by punctuation on Nora’s style. Joyce was, let it be said, an odd little man. Reading all of Ulysses can only convince his readers of that. He was terrified of thunder and dogs; not afraid of rejection and pleased to provoke bemused head scratching, even Nora found his writing “obscure and lacking in sense,” which surely gave her something to grumble about. She wished that he had stayed true to his early ambitions to be a singer. He had a fine voice. And even if she found his writing bewildering at best, one hopes that she understood Molly’s monologue for what it is. When we love something, we do our best to understand it. Joyce surely understood and loved his wife’s writing style, which seems indiscernible from speech. There are no intentional frills–Molly is direct and casual at once, comfortably truthful. Yes, it’s obvious that a man wrote this woman’s voice. There’s an element of male fantasy behind Molly, given the fact that she ruminates on sex every other page. And what sex! She seems a little too fascinated by the upturned “hatrack” male member; she even imagines what it would be like to have one of her own so that she could “give it” to a beautiful girl. Nothing, however, seems downright bizarre. Joyce is committed to Molly’s attitude and tone for the whole 40-odd pages and I went along willingly. Overall, Molly’s monologue made me feel more confidant in the Bloom family. Bloom is the sort of man who wants to apologize for things he hasn’t done yet, but he and Joyce love their women. I never said it was going to be a healthy love, but it’s love alright. You can’t fault the romantic sentiment of a man who wrote, “I think I would know Nora’s fart anywhere. I think I could pick hers out in a roomful of farting women.” See women, men find farts funny and romantic!
(By the by, here’s the full erotic letter that this quote comes from: http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/504662-my-sweet-little-whorish-nora-i-did-as-you-told)
Sure I hated this novel 25% of the time. Joyce desperately needed an editor to fight with. But at the same time, I have to applaud Sylvia Beach and independent publishing for unleashing this gorgeous, uneven mess on the world. I don’t think a publishing house would risk clearing this for print today. Not because of the smut and toilet time, oh no. It would stumble because of its outright pretension and Joyce’s fetish for the obscure reference. But reading it in full made me relish the opportunities of a novel. The idea of limits and rules starts to seem ridiculous when I’m wading my way through Joyce’s exhibition of the futility of all the previous writing styles in English. It’s not that Jane Austen’s delicacies and Charles Dickens’ brashness didn’t have a communicative purpose. It’s just that if we can read and understand Molly–though I would recommend listening to any of dozens of Irish actresses reading excerpts–then surely all the previous confines and barriers of taste were too prescriptive. There is beauty to be found in Molly Bloom and in Ulysses, so pick and choose your chapters from this doorstop. There are many love letters to the English language and the everyday to be found in these pages.
“then I hate that confession when I used to go to Father Corrigan he touched me father and what harm if he did where and I said on the canal bank like a fool but whereabouts on your person my child on the leg behind high up was it yes rather high up was it where you sit down yes O Lord couldnt he say bottom right out and have done with it”
“he wanted to milk me into the tea well hes beyond everything I declare somebody ought to put him in the budget”
“I dont like books with a Molly in them like that one he brought me about the one from Flanders a whore always shoplifting anything she could cloth and stuff”
“yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes”
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.”
Mr. Leopold Bloom would not be most people’s choice for an Odysseus of the modern era. He is certainly a very different specimen from Stephen, whom, despite Joyce’s protests, everyone sees as an autobiographical stand-in for Joyce. I’m glad that Joyce didn’t make himself the hero of his own mammoth book, although he certainly had the hubris to pull off Homer’s hero.
Even though Leopold “Poldy” Bloom is ostensibly the head honcho of this narrative, his wife gets the chapter title. Calypso meant to keep Odysseus in her bed forever with sex and splendor, as you do in the Greek myths. Poor guy misses his wife and baby child–still remains happily on the island for seven years. Anyhoo. Bloom isn’t nearly so lucky. His wife is having an affair with Blazes Boylan (doesn’t that just sound like an Irish swear? “By Blazes Boylan, you’ll not see the last of me!”). And, as the story pans out, it seems that everyone is aware of Molly Bloom’s escapades. But she’s still exhausted in her rumpled bedsheets, a recently finished romantic novel on the floor. We really won’t hear from her for about 700 pages. So what does Bloom get up to of a sunny morning? Normal stuff really. Too normal. Jimmie Joyce is making a choice, namely to grant us a sad-comic character who thinks excessively natural things. And oh, we hear every tangent. It’s not so bad really–Bloom goes to a butcher’s, evokes all his senses for us, and then jaunts off to the bathroom with a newspaper thinking of manure and garden improvement. Just a few lines after thinking, “Hope it’s not too big bring on piles again,” Joyce puts this nice sentence in Bloom’s head: “Print anything now.” It’s in reaction to a prize story in the paper, but I think we all needed to hear that sentence after reading what must be one of literature’s first classic crap scenes. Our hero wipes his nethers with a half sheet of the story and departs.
“Mrkrgnao! the cat said loudly.” (That is a bit of linguistic genius.)
“Good puzzle would be cross Dublin without passing a pub.”
“Full gluey woman’s lips.”
V. Lotus Eaters
Bloom has some errands to do. He goes to the post office, gets a teasingly romantic love letter from “Martha Clifford” addressed to his pseudonym, “Henry Flower.” Think phone sex lines, but circa 1904. I’ll give Bloom his credit–he thinks much more like the average person, i.e. not like the bookish run-ons of Stephen Dedalus. Bloom is more or less narrating his own life, thinking about actions as he does them. Stephen’s voice is much more abstracted. Bloom nips into a church for the fun of it (he is Jewish, after all). He has a funeral to get to later in the day, friend Dignam has passed unexpectedly, so we can credit him with some profound thoughts, even though most of what he thinks is rather methodical and undeterred by outpourings of grief. Buying a cake of lemon soap for use at the Turkish baths, Bloom intends to “mix business and pleasure” by having a bathtime wank. Yep. That’s the lotus flower of forgetfulness in our culture: masturbation. Just read this sentence with its implied sighs:
“He saw his trunk and limbs riprippled over and sustained, buoyed lightly upward, lemonyellow: his navel, bud of flesh: and saw the dark tangled curls of his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower.”
Bloom and his buddies catch a carriage to the funeral. There is some conversation about death and its methods, including suicide. The mens’ knees compliantly bump together at corners. Bloom thinks about his son, Rudy, who died young. In an excerpt that pretty much defines the tone of this section, Bloom guesses the moment of Rudy’s conception: “Must have been that morning in Raymond terrace she was at the window, watching the two dogs at it by the wall of the cease to do evil. And the sergeant grinning up. She had that cream gown on with the rip she never stitched. Give us a touch, Poldy. God, I’m dying for it. How life begins.” Charming and, one imagines, quite shocking when the book was published in 1922.
“A corpse is meat gone bad. Well and what’s cheese? Corpse of milk.”
Here Joyce is toying with a satire of newspapers whilst Bloom is trying to place an ad in the Freeman’s Journal. Bloom is an advertising canvasser and, bad for him, he isn’t very successful. The Greek title signifies the winds of the world, and the media must be the modern equivalent for Joyce’s purposes. But god this is plodding. Much groaning humor and the only real attempts to create a newspaper style are the bold headlines every few paragraphs. And puns. Joyce was a fan. Stephen also pops in to place an opinion piece for his boss, but the two main male characters miss each other. I suggest you miss this chapter, too.
“Hailfellow well met the next moment.”
Lunchtime. Disgusted by the animalistic munching of his fellow man, despite the fact that meat-loving Bloom probably looks the same way when he’s eating “grilled mutton kidneys” for that “fine tang of faintly scented urine,” our man heads off to a pub for a gorgonzola cheese sandwich and a burgundy. He is in a consciously vegetarian mood. All very suiting, as the Lestrywhatnows of the title were cannibals. Prior to his meal, every stray thought lead to food–a sign of the hungry ad man. This section was actually quite nice. Everyone says Ulysses is about two guys walking around Dublin for a day, but this was the first time Bloom’s walking thoughts developed like mine do. Prompted by visual nothings, Bloom just spins out thoughts on pregnancy, pigeons pooping, and policemen. All related to food. And Joyce invented the word “womaneyes.” That combined word is necessary, because a woman’s eyes do seem completely different from a man’s eyes. At least this is the way a man sees it. Plus, “womaneyes” is just such an easy expression–it gives me a host of connotations without Joyce having to describe a woman’s eyes at all.
Bloom muses on a pigeon’s thought process: “Who will we do it on? I pick the fellow in black.” (Bloom concludes that it “must be thrilling from the air.”)
“Poached eyes on a ghost.”