"Ulysses" (Vintage: $17 paper) is the description of a single day, June 16, 1904, a day in the mingled lives of characters walking, talking, dreaming, eating, drinking, mourning and climaxing their way through the hours of an average Dublin day. Through the stories of his principals -- young Stephen Dedalus, the middle-aged advertisement canvasser Leopold Bloom and his cheating wife, Molly Bloom -- James Joyce aimed to get at character and life with a detail that had never been achieved before in prose. This project, encompassing 816 pages in the Vintage paperback, sounds clear and simple enough.
English writer Evelyn Waugh, crusty and spiky and pompous in the flesh while a model of Georgian clarity and elegance on the page, mourned that Joyce had descended into "gibberish" and had been "all right until he was ruined by the Americans."
That's Waugh for you, though what he was getting at is that Joyce, even while in mid-career, consciously gave himself over into the hands of academics. "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant," he said, perhaps with impish glee. His work became investigated as though it were a gigantic intellectual crossword puzzle. The critic Hugh Kenner, in his 1956 study "Dublin's Joyce," tried to rescue Joyce from this treatment but still found it necessary to include a chapter titled "How to Read 'Ulysses.' "
And there's the problem.
"I was happier then. Or was that I? Or am I now I? Twentyeight I was. She was twentythree when we left Lombard street west something changed. Could never like it again after Rudy. Can't bring back time," reflects Bloom, walking down Grafton Street quite early in the novel, his mind probing at the sadness of his and Molly's life together and the loss from which all other failings have stemmed -- the death of Rudy, their infant son. Here, too, is announced the book's central theme, the lost past, and prose modernism's big enterprise, the attempt, not to recapture time but to redeem it. "Useless to go back. Had to be. Tell me all."
The early chapters of "Ulysses," while never exactly propulsive, proceed in ways not tough to follow. Now we're with Stephen, now we're with Bloom, and the lucid and leisurely style familiar from Joyce's early stories, "Dubliners," slides friction-free into his great stylistic breakthrough, the stream of consciousness. Heart astir, Bloom pushes through the door of a restaurant and sees the animals feed: "Men, men, men. Perched on high stools by the bar, hats shoved back, at the tables calling for more bread, no charge, swilling, wolfing gobfuls of sloppy food, their eyes bulging, wiping wetted moustaches."
These sections of "Ulysses" abound in tiny miracles: "That fellow ramming a knifeful of cabbage down as if his life depended on it"; "The ferrety-eyed pork butcher folded the sausages he had snipped off with blotchy fingers." Less frequently, but often enough, there are scenes of acute emotional observation, the sorts of things that we go to fiction for. "Mourners came out through the gates: woman and a girl. Leanjawed harpy, hard woman at a bargain, her bonnet awry. Girl's stained with dirt and tears, holding the woman's arm looking up at her for a sign to cry." This moment captures perfectly the embarrassment and self-display that can feature in grief. Joyce, when he wanted to, could really get at life's stuff, its sad and wonderful core; the trouble is that, as his career developed, he seemed to stop wanting to in any readily comprehensible way.
The writer who finishes a novel can't be the same human being who started it. Novels take time, usually years, to write, and the novelist is changed by the very act of writing the book, as well as by whatever else happens along the way. Some, like Simenon, try to short-circuit this problem by devising schemes to write short books at blistering speed. Ten chapters, a chapter a day, boom and out! With Joyce, the opposite occurred. Joyce first conceived "Ulysses" in 1907 as an extension of the lovely "Dubliners." He began in earnest on "Ulysses" in 1914, sending chapters as he finished them to the Egoist and the Little Review, and the completed work wasn't published until 1922, appearing first in Paris.
That's a very long gestation period, and somewhere along the way Joyce, the hero-artist who fought against almost insuperable odds to get his work done, became fatally impatient with the best aspects of his own gift. The associative whirring of Leopold Bloom's brain ceased to excite him. He sacrificed verve and poetic exactness for experiment. "Ulysses," as Ezra Pound complained, turned slowly into a novel with a new style every chapter, a tedious Pandora's box of pastiche, reference and parody, the least engaging of literary techniques.
The book stopped being a story to follow and became instead a text that requires explanation, careful and loving gloss as typified by Don Gifford's "Ulysses Annotated," reissued in a new 20th anniversary edition (University of California Press, $29.95), an invaluable line-by-line encyclopedia, complete with maps -- this is a book that's fun to read even in those frequent longeurs when "Ulysses" itself just isn't.
My own numerous attempts upon Joyce's masterpiece have taken me only into the foothills. That's to say, I cruise through those first chapters, start to lose momentum, dabble with increasing irritation, and then, if I haven't given in to boredom and mental exhaustion, skip forward to Molly Bloom's sexy nighttime internal soliloquy. Lazy reading! Once, coming to L.A. for my first extended stay in the late 1980s, I made sure that "Ulysses" was the only book I packed and sat down in the apartment I'd rented, determined to make it through to the end this time. Two days later, I ceased pounding my head against the wall and ran into the sunshine, sighing with guilty relief, and in a nearby used bookstore bought every Ross Macdonald paperback that was on the shelves.
It's my failing, no doubt, but I resent books that cop out on seducing me and demand instead that they be taught. The handsome new "Ulysses Annotated" sits atop my printer, prepared to be my guide and show the way. An old hardback of Richard Ellmann's masterful Joyce biography, a book I love, hints that perhaps I'm ready for another rush at this most daunting literary Alp. Hey, I'm a guy who's read Robert Musil's "A Man Without Qualities" and the entire 12-book span of Anthony Powell's "A Dance to the Music of Time," not once, but twice! I can take it! Leopold Bloom beckons, and Molly, dreaming as ever of "the richlooking green and yellow expensive drinks those stagedoor Johnnies drink with the opera hats." "Ulysses" is chock-full of wonders, right?
Then again, life is short, and that new Lee Child looks pretty tempting.
Richard Rayner's Paperback Writers column appears monthly.
THE SHORT LIST: ALSO NEW IN PAPERBACK
"Dispatches for the New York Tribune" by Karl Marx (Penguin)
Before achieving fame as a political philosopher, Karl Marx wrote lots of journalism, in Germany, in England, and for Charles Dana, editor of Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, then the newspaper with the biggest circulation in the world. John Kennedy once said that maybe if Greeley had paid Marx a few bucks more, the Russian Revolution and the Cold War would never have happened, a great joke with a kernel of truth hiding in it. Whatever we make of the answers Marx gave in "Das Kapital," these vivid pieces show how clearly he perceived and felt the problems of poverty and ownership in the first stages of industrial capitalism. Marx writes about the opium trade, about the lonely death of an itinerant, about Ireland, about the history of property rites in Scotland and British hypocrisy concerning American slavery -- all with a dispassionate detail that makes his conclusions persuasive. Amazing stuff.