James Joyce’s Ulysses has confused, delighted and scandalised the literary world since it’s publication in 1920. Initially banned for being obscene, it is now regarded as one of the greatest – if most impenetrable – works ever written. Notoriously abstruse, it is not a novel for the faint hearted, nor the more delicate-minded reader. But now – it can be! Because, you see, I’ve had a crack at it. Following the success of Finnegans What? Finnegans Wake – A Guide By An Idiot, I thought I’d give this Joyce novel a go. There are numerous resources easily accessible through the wonders of the internet that will help give clarity to this dastardly difficult book, but I have chosen to avoid all that and just give you my own personal impressions of what might be going on. Therefore, you cannot rely upon this series for any academic endeavour, nor any literary insights – however it might at least provide some inspiration to the casual reader who, like me, has often wondered what all the fuss was about…
The book opens with Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus at home in Martello Tower, overlooking the sea. Stephen is a writer who doesn’t actually write very much, but also works as a teacher in a local school. Buck is allegedly a medical student but for now comes across more of a dedicated drinker and carouser, which is much better by far.
Buck is having a shave. Much is made of his cracked shaving mirror for some reason. Stephen thinks it represents Irish art. Stephen is worried about a mad-sounding English fellow called Haines, who is staying with them. He has been raving about panthers all night, which would perturb most sensible people, quite frankly. Stephen is rather glum over the death of his mother, who Buck seems to suggest that Stephen killed. This initially sounds like a direct accusation of murder, but as they ramble on, it appears that Stephen refused to pray for her when she was dying, so likely a rather cruel taunt. They talk of trousers and other things before Buck goes off, singing a little song (he does a fair bit of this), to cook breakfast for the two of them and this Haines chap, while Stephen broods over horrid visions of his dead mother bothering him from beyond the grave.
Buck almost burns the breakfast and there is a bit of a cake and arse party about finding the key to open the door, to let the smoke out. This keys seems important, it get mentioned a few times in this section, so let’s keep an eye out for it later. Eventually, they sit down to breakfast, which sounds suspiciously ordinary and begin discussing tea, specifically that of Mother Grogan, whose tea and water pot may or may not exist. An old woman selling milk door-to-door comes along, she apparently has ‘old shrunken paps’, unlike the fulsome-sounding cows she milks each morning. She is quite impressed by Buck being a medical student and being able to speak Irish, which annoys Stephen a bit. There is some low-level banter before the old woman leaves and our three friends decide to go out. Buck is quite keen to start drinking, while Stephen and Haines discuss Hamlet. Buck performs a blasphemous song – tantalisingly titled ‘The Ballard of Joking Jesus’, before skipping off towards the the brow of a cliff, flapping his hands like a bird.
Stephen and Haines walk on, talking about religion and the benefits and drawbacks thereof. Stephen brings up that key again, for some reason fearful that Buck will ask for it. They follow the cliff path down to the shore, where Buck is taking off all his clothes and talking about red-headed women, who ‘buck like goats’. There is an arrangement to meet up in a pub later that day. Buck splashes into the water watched by Haines, while Stephen goes back up the path, presumably to do something more productive.
This is a suspiciously reasonable opening. Having already read (and written about) the notorious Finnegans Wake, I had a fearful expectation that Ulysses would be of the same, virtually impenetrable, ilk. Not sure for how long we can enjoy this comparatively pedestrian narrative – probably until one or more of the characters decide to get pissed – but for now, this is a nice, gentle easing into the Joycean world. Stephen is a rather dour young writer, who feels somewhat downtrodden by the over-bearing Buck. I know that Joyce likes to draw parallels and comparisons (parodies, at times) with all kinds of classical literature and the title suggests there may well be some Hellenic connotations somewhere, but there seems to be a bit of Hamlet (which is mentioned) going on here. Stephen resents Buck and so Hamlet, Claudius. Stephen concerns himself with his mother’s death, for Hamlet it was his father’s passing that gave him the pip. And then there’s the tower, of course.
I can’t shake the feeling that the key to the tower is important somehow – I mean, it’s a key to a tower, it’s got to be, hasn’t it? Stephen is reluctant to part with it, yet Buck ends up with it all the same. Is it a kind of symbol of Buck’s dominance over Stephen? But above all, why don’t they just get another key cut? A mystery of Joycean proportions.
There are references to Irish history and identity, in neither of which I am particularly well versed so will not pass comment on the possible intentions surrounding their presence. But I will say that it appears that Buck and Stephen have differing opinions in these regards, while the English Haines contents himself with the rather non-committal opinion that ‘It seems history is to blame’.
‘God, he said quietly. Isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a grey sweet mother? The snot green sea. The scrotum-tightening sea.’
I didn’t pick this just because it’s got ‘scrotum’ in it, I promise. It’s a brilliant description, though, isn’t it? You know just what kind of sea it is. And to call it a mother, while at the same time giving such an unpalatable and unwelcoming impression, completely at odds with the warmth and nurturing we usually associate with motherhood.
‘A sacred calf’s face gilded with marmalade. I don’t want to be debagged! Don’t you play the giddy ox with me!’
Not entirely sure what this means but it sounds great when you read it out loud.
‘Her shapely fingernails reddened by the blood of squashed lice from the children’s shirts.’
Splendidly graphic and sort of melancholy, in its own way.
‘A wandering crone, lowly form of an immortal serving her conqueror and her gay betrayer, their common cuckquean, a messenger from the secret morning.’
Magnificent description of the old milk woman, a sort of fairytale grace given to her elderly and decrepit form.