March 2, 2008
"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.
Yet "Ulysses" remains the Matterhorn of the modern novel, a peak that many contemplate and few actually surmount. Unread copies of "Ulysses" litter the shelves of thrift stores across the nation. A friend of mine calls it "the greatest bad book ever written." The 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.
"Belchamber" by Howard Sturgis (New York Review Books)Howard Sturgis, the gay son of a wealthy American, attended Cambridge in England, and, when his parents died, he bought a house by Windsor Park that became a social haven for flaneurs, same-sexers and Americans of literary achievement and aspiration. Henry James was his friend, and baleful mentor, deriding Sturgis' literary efforts because they failed to resemble closely enough those of, well, Henry James. Edmund White introduces this new edition of "Belchamber," Sturgis' third novel, a beguiling panorama of British high life with a sensitive and very passive gay man at its center. The book is well-observed, with some monstrous characters and moments of wild hilarity. E.M. Forster loved this book, and I'd guess that Evelyn Waugh knew it too.
"Peony in Love" by Lisa See (Random House)
Narrated in the first person, set in 17th century China, its action springing from the performance of an opera, See's novel tells a story of love pursued in this life and the next. That's to say, the heroine becomes a ghost quite early in the plot, a device that See pursues with such ferocity and clarity of imagination that we believe in every detail of the spirit world that she evokes. As a ghost, Peony is erotic, malicious, playful, vengeful and finally forgiving -- she achieves a human fullness forbidden her by social conventions in life. It's a romantic conceit in the best sense, with some danger to it.
"I Love Dollars" by Zhu Wen (Penguin)
Narrated in the first person, set in a very different China, that of the late 20th century, Zhu Wen's stories evoke a world that is post-Tiananmen Square where characters live on the edge -- materially, emotionally and sexually. In the title story, the narrator tries to get his father to score, with a waitress, with a prostitute, while they search the town for the narrator's brother. The trick of Zhu Wen's writing is its voice, which feels loose and funny and street, but has a tautness that whizzes the reader along. Humor offsets a despairing tone and the evocation of a hungry and cynical Chinese zeitgeist. "The noise outside the car windows now seemed very distant, receding into remoteness as the taxi tunneled steadily, like an insignificant little beetle, into the vacuous center of my mind."
"Serve the People" by Yan Lianke (Black Cat)
This spare and funny novel satirizes the Mao cult of the Cultural Revolution, telling the story of Liu Lian, the privileged and sexy wife of a powerful Communist commander. Liu's husband also happens to be impotent, so she embarks on a steamy affair with a lowly servant, climaxing in a three-day orgy during which they systematically trash every available Party artifact. Yan Lianke, not surprisingly, has run into considerable difficulty with the Chinese Central Propaganda Bureau, which banned the book because it slanders Mao and is overflowing with sex. It's another immensely striking offering from the new and troubled China, translated (like "I Love Dollars," above) by Julia Lovell. A whole literary wave is starting to arrive on these shores.
"Sex for America" edited by Stephen Elliott (Harper Perennial)
"I did not mean to sodomize Dick Cheney," writes the irrepressible Jerry Stahl, one of the authors represented in this collection of politically inspired erotica. Others include Anthony Swofford, Rick Moody, Jonathan Ames and graphic novelist Eric Orner, reminding us that mean and dirty fun isn't the province of contemporary Chinese authors only and that any and all varieties of political leadership need fictional fists raised against them. "I mean, I'm not even gay. Or not usually," Stahl goes on. "But when, to my surprise, I bumped into him -- literally -- at the counter of Heimler's Guns and Ammo, in Caspar, something clicked. And I'm not talking about the safety on my Mauser."
"American Movie Critics" edited by Phillip Lopate (Library of America)
Lopate's grand historical anthology takes us from Vachel Lindsay to Manohla Dargis, affirming the way movies have been written about as a vital strand of American literature. Pauline Kael is heftily represented, of course, likewise James Agee, the poet maudit of the darkened room, and the wonderful Otis Ferguson, who made ring-true comment mingle with great style in a single sentence. "A smooth but natural job, a happy mixture of brainwork and horseplay and a reminder that when intelligence goes for a walk even among the oldest props, the props may come to life," Ferguson writes of the Fred MacMurray picture "Hands Across the Table." Lopate has updated his anthology for this handsome paperback and includes Stephanie Zacharek's killer piece on "United 93."
"A Fanatic Heart" by Edna O' Brien (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
People so often get the wrong idea about Edna O'Brien. She's an immensely tough-minded writer, with, as Philip Roth has noted, an almost searing social and sexual awareness. And there is, too, the simply gorgeous prose: "December night. Jack Frost in scales along the outside of the windows giving to the various rooms a white filtered light. The ice like bits of mirror beveling the puddles of the potholes," she writes in "A Rose in the Heart of New York," one of the stories collected here, many of them about the longing for love and the need for escape, mostly in Ireland or London or Manhattan, a majority of them first published in the New Yorker in the 1960s and 1970s.
"Mellon" by David Cannadine (Vintage)
Business, the great American obsession, is turned into a great and fascinating subject by David Cannadine in this massive and magisterial biography of the dour and lonely financier Andrew R. Mellon, who was born before the Civil War, made billions in banking, and though financing the great industrial boom, was a disaster in his personal life, amassed one of the world's great art collections, was vilified in his final days for bad choices he made contributing to the arrival of the Great Depression, and died not long before the outbreak of World War II. A huge American life, in other words, told here with the vigor and intelligence it deserves.
"Metamorphosis and Other Stories" by Franz Kafka (Penguin)
"When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed," is how translator Michael Hofmann renders perhaps the most famous opening in 20th century literature, giving a low-key exactness that makes the sentence seem fresh again. Hofmann includes other famous stories, notably "A Hunger Artist" and "In the Penal Colony" but offers surprises too, like "Unmasking the Confidence Trickster," from early in Kafka's writing life, and "Josefine, the Singer or the Mouse People," from late on. It's a beautiful collection, issued here with a graphic-novel cover by Sammy Harkham. Kakfa, like Joyce, has become part of our vocabulary, but he remains an author to read, not someone for the experts.
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