Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Reading Joyce

I've always been curious about James Joyce's Ulysses (a.k.a. the greatest novel in the English language) and Finnegan's Wake (a.k.a. the greatest novel in made-up dream language). A beloved math teacher from high school raved about Finnegan, saying he read two lines a night--with a ruler and a Gaelic-to-English dictionary--and loved every word.

Still, it would seem reading Ulysses is not the sort of thing you just jump into -- rather you need to ramp up, to somehow gain a head of steam. My plan was to start off with Dubliners (a collection of short stories and Joyce's first published work) and proceed to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, before tackling big U.

I just finished Dubliners and it felt like a prelude, so that was appropriate. An insightful and, at times, beautiful prelude, but somewhat sketchy in places. I found "The Dead", the final and fullest story, to be the most compelling. Like most of Dubliners, "The Dead" speaks through the voice of the disappointed, static and provincial lives of the Irish middle class and builds to a poetic moment of illumination in its last lines:
"His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. [...] His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."
Unlike some of the shorter stories in the collection, Joyce gives himself some room to flesh out his characters, from the awkward and priggish but generally likable Gabriel Conroy to Molly Ivors, an outspoken nationalist who embodies the fire and forward-thinking spirit missing from most of Joyce's characters. Mostly Joyce, unlike nearly all other Irish authors of his time, keeps his distance from the republican politics that burst into armed rebellion only two years after the publication of Dubliners; in these stories Joyce almost seems skeptical that the Irish have the will or the stature to throw off colonial rule.

Many of the other stories are also excellent, although not particularly cheerful. "Counterparts" is a queasy portrait of an actively self-destructing alcoholic clerk that seems to suck all the oxygen out of the room as you read it. "A Painful Case", "Eveline" and "A Little Cloud" all describe lives of isolation and unfulfilled dreams with an uncomfortable familiarity. Even in the shorter, sketchier moments Joyce is a clever writer with interesting things to point to: an idea, a bit of description, an acidic character description. Onward!

4 comments:

Keith said...

And he could also draw a perfect circle on the chalkboard!

Tim said...

Keith! Oh yeah, I totally forgot about that - that was pretty impressive. Blogging about this prompted me to google his name and it popped up a few pics of him speaking at a reunion for a former private school in the bay area. Very cool guy, wonder what he's up to these days?

Anonymous said...

Ulysses Stream of consciousness a day in the life of Leopold Bloom I’ve read it once and not ashamed to admit I campaigned on through it even though I was hopelessly lost as it kicked my intellectual butt into the gutter I feel it drawing me back like a moth to the flame… A line or two a night maybe that’s the ticket…
Uncl Joe

Tim said...

Hey Uncle Joe! I'm impressed you got through it. Was is confusing and interesting, or just confusing and boring. The first one I can live with. Anyway, I suspect it may defeat me in the end, we shall see...