Best Novel of the 20th Century?

I spent far too long attempting to read and understand James Joyce’s Ulysses to simply let it pass without comment, but I’m not going to attempt a literary analysis because I couldn’t come close to sources already online unless I were willing to devote a few more years to it, which I’m surely not. I merely want to address one of the questions I consistently hear about the novel and constantly asked myself as I struggled through it: Is this really the greatest novel of the 20th Century?

Stylistically, Ulysses was definitely a groundbreaking novel. It’s hard to believe Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, one of my favorite “modern” novels, published in 1895 and Joyce’s Ulysses published in 1922 were only published 30 years apart. Joyce’s Freudian, stream-of-consciousness approach changed the modern novel forever. Hardy’s omniscient viewpoint seems archaic compared to Joyce’s viewpoint, though admittedly today’s best-sellers still seem rooted in the more traditional narrative style.

Joyce’s exploration of Leopold Bloom’s mind, his Freudian analysis, as it were, was unprecedented as far as I know, though it seems to have become de rigueur in “serious” modern novels. Judging from graduate school readings, modern protagonists in serious novels more often than not suffer from the same despair and alienation that Bloom and Stephen do.

As Josh Rahn notes in his essay on modernism:

Modernism introduced a new kind of narration to the novel, one that would fundamentally change the entire essence of novel writing. The “unreliable” narrator supplanted the omniscient, trustworthy narrator of preceding centuries, and readers were forced to question even the most basic assumptions about how the novel should operate. James Joyce’s Ulysses is the prime example of a novel whose events are really the happenings of the mind, the goal of which is to translate as well as possible the strange pathways of human consciousness. A whole new perspective came into being known as “stream of consciousness.” Rather than looking out into the world, the great novelists of the early twentieth century surveyed the inner space of the human mind. At the same time, the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud had come into mainstream acceptance. These two forces worked together to alter people’s basic understanding of what constituted truth and reality.

Joyce offers a brilliant portrayal of Leopold Bloom. We not only discover the causes of Leopold Bloom’s despair; we also begin to see the world differently through his eyes. Shown as a victim of a pervasive anti-Semitism, he’s the perfect outsider who, as a result, sees more clearly what is invisible to those who blindly accept their culture. What a brilliant strategy for Joyce who himself had become increasingly alienated from his Irish culture to choose a protagonist who was alienated from Irish culture while at the same time claiming an Irish heritage.

I think if someone asked me to name the most influential novel of the 20th Century I might very well answer Joyce’s Ulysses. After all, I doubt that two novels I actually prefer to Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury and Catch-22, would ever have been written if Ulysses hadn’t broken ground first. Even a writer like Thomas Merton who superficially seems to have little in common with Joyce seems to have admired and been influenced by his work.

Stylistically it’s undeniably a masterpiece. Given my druthers, I prefer to read a novel that seems new, that surprises me. Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse were great reads and made a real impression on me when I first read them. Unfortunately, they haven’t stuck with me nearly as long as more traditional novels like To Kill a Mockingbird, certainly one of the 10 best novels of the 20th Century, and one whose definition of courage I’ve held dear all those years.

Style is undoubtably an important aspect of any work, but, for me, content still trumps style. At least in a serious novel that I’m going to spend time studying, it’s the author’s vision of the world that most interests me. Perhaps if I had lived in Ireland in 1922 I, too, would have seen the world from Joyce’s viewpoint and would have regarded Ulysses as the best novel of the 20th Century. It was definitely a time of deep alienation. Darwinism and science had undermined many religious beliefs. World War I had laid waste to Europe. This was the “Lost Generation,” and It’s no coincidence that T. S.Eliot’s “The Wasteland” was the most acclaimed poem of the time. In the end, though, Joyce’s vision is too close to Eliot’s Wasteland and Pound’s schizophrenic view of the world for my taste.

Joyce reminds me of psychiatrists who study the sickest people in society and then use their findings to generalize about human nature — possibly because his portrayal of Bloom seems so Freudian. I can empathize with Joyce’s Leopold Bloom and admire the way he helps Stephen when he realizes he’s in trouble. But I’ve read the original Ulysses, and Leopold Bloom is no Ulysses. He reminds me more of Eliot’s Fisher King than he does Ulysses.

As many critics have pointed out, Leopold Bloom is so ordinary that it’s hard to take Blooms comparison to Odysseus seriously. Odysseus represented the ideals of Greek Culture. Bloom is anything but ideal; he’s certainly not “heroic” in any way I would define the word. He’s a victim of society who still manages to be a better person than most of those who discriminate against him, but that doesn’t make him “heroic,” or worth emulating. I’ve got enough of my own problems without wanting to emulate Bloom. To be “heroic” Leopold, or Stephen, would have to find a way to stand up to those forces that are destroying them, and there’s no indication of them being able to do that.

Some might claim that Ulysses’ emphasis on alienation as a defining characteristic of modern life and the victimization of the individual makes it a seminal work, but I didn’t find Stephen’s reaction against Irish society particularly new or particularly revolutionary. Society has always pressured people to conform, probably more in the past than in modern times. From what I’ve seen of small-town-life, there is more pressure to conform in villages then there is in large cities. Emerson argued convincingly nearly 100 years before Joyce that “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” The difference between Emerson and Joyce is that Emerson offered “self-reliance” as an alternative to those pressures, whereas Joyce suggests no alternative.

Ulysses has forced me to consciously examine what it is that I look for in a novel and, in turn, decide how important various elements of a novel are to me. This is one of the hardest blog entries I’ve ever written and has required far more thought than I usually put into an entry. It’s even made me appreciate the novel more than I originally did.

Having to reconsider your criteria for judging a book probably makes the novel worth reading, even if you decide in the end that it's not even close to the best novel of the 20th Century. While trying to discover who was in the Modern Library group that decided what the greatest novels of the 20th century were, I found another list called the “Readers List” that said that ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand was the best novel of the 20th Century. In fact, Ayn Rand and L Ron Hubbard dominated the top ten novels. Given those options, I would have to concede that Ulysses was clearly the greatest novel of the 20th Century.

Call It “Rest and Recreation”

I suspect only someone as stubborn as I am would insist on continuing to write about a novel read last year before commenting on more recent readings, but A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man struck some deep chords with me, though they’re probably not the same chords that Joyce intended to strike when he wrote the novel.

The novel got me thinking about Sin and prostitution in ways I haven’t thought about them in many years. Since I didn’t attend church regularly as a youth, I’ve never considered many things “sinful,” seeing them, instead, as moral issues. “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” always served as my life’s guideline, and I’ve done my best to follow that rule throughout my life — which is not to say that I have always managed to do so.

Although the Catholic Church would definitely think otherwise, I feel like I’ve only sinned once in my life, and apparently most Churches don’t even consider what I did a “sin.” On the other hand, I’ve slept with a prostitute once and didn’t consider it a sin then, even if, in retrospect, it seemed like a mistake, one I wouldn’t commit again and wouldn’t have done then if I’d known more about prostitution in Thailand.

These two events converged during a five-day leave in Thailand at the end of my tour of duty in Vietnam. When my tour of duty was about over, I was eligible to go on R&R to Thailand. I argued that it should go to those who had another 6 months of duty, but the officer in charge insisted that I’d “earned” the leave. So, in the end, I took it because I’d been relieved of my command and didn’t have much to do otherwise.

The trip didn’t start very auspiciously. When we got on the plane we were handed a very large bottle of Thai Beer. No one bothered to tell me it wasn’t the usual American 3% alcohol, but a strong 10% brew. I suspect by the time I got off the plane I was already drunk and managed to stay that way most of the time I was in Bangkok, especially since it was the custom to offer a beer in nearly every shop we stopped at.

There was only one other officer on the plane, a Captain whose name I don’t think I even remembered by the end of the trip, though I remembered his actions quite vividly. We had been given adjoining rooms at the hotel, and he took charge almost immediately. I was only a 1st Lieutenant, had never been on R&R before, and had never been in a foreign country, so I wasn’t opposed to letting him set things up. Before I knew it we had hired a taxi to be at our beck-and-call throughout our entire stay, the driver sleeping in his taxi in case we wanted something. Soon our entire five days were booked, and I toured some of Bangkok’s greatest treasures, including the Golden Buddha and the Reclining Buddha. We had an “authentic” Thai feast at an up-scale officer’s club, bought Thai silk for presents and toured the rivers where people lived as they had throughout time.

One night in the middle of drinking, the Captain told our taxi driver we needed a couple of prostitutes. I was either too drunk or too intimidated to protest. Besides, I wasn’t married, and it certainly seemed like a Thai custom. After all, the lobby of the expensive hotel where we were staying had been lined with Thai girls dressed as Indian maidens and cheerleaders when we signed in — and it wasn’t even Halloween. Hell, it was nearly Christmas.

Unlike Stephen in the Portrait of the Artist, I ended up finding the whole experience particularly repugnant and needed a whole lot more beer to spend the night with someone who could barely speak English, so much beer that the evening was barely a memory by morning, though I vaguely remember looking up at the skylight early the next morning and seeing, or perhaps imagining, a giant lizard crawling across it.

As if that night wasn’t bad enough, the next night as we were getting ready to return to Vietnam the Captain, who was Catholic, panicked in the middle of dinner and started asking where he could find a Catholic Priest so he could go to confession before returning to his unit in Vietnam, suddenly afraid he would die in mortal sin and end up in Hell.

I wanted no part of that. I sobered up instantly, wondering why anyone would commit what they thought was a mortal sin knowing death was a daily companion where we were going. I never did find out if he found his priest. As I’ve thought it over, both immediately afterward, months later, and even years later, I thought what we were doing in Vietnam was a greater sin than sleeping with a prostitute for one night, no matter how others might view it.

Even though I didn’t come close to committing any atrocities and don’t think I even managed to kill a single Viet Cong, despite constantly shooting back at snipers who haunted our nights, fighting that war against a people who simply wanted self-rule seemed to me, particularly in retrospect, to be a Sin, one I’ve spent much of my life trying to redeem. There are undeniably “Just Wars” and I am certainly no pacifist, but Vietnam simply wasn’t one of them. I still suffer from a collective guilt that most Americans won’t admit, a guilt that many of my fellow Vietnam vets seemed unable to recover from.

When I read years later how Thai prostitutes were procured, often sold at a young age by poor rural families to earn much-needed money, I regretted that I managed to contribute to that injustice, but it seems to me that the greatest sin belongs to the Thai people who allow that practice to continue. Knowing what I know now, I would certainly never consider having sex with one of them, but I knew nothing of that when I was first there.

My short experience with prostitution makes it impossible for me to identify with Stephen when he chooses “life experiences” over Church doctrines. Hell, it even makes it impossible for me to identify with Ulysses’ Bloom, who’s twice as appealing as Stephen, even if he seems to visit the whorehouse because he’s being cuckolded by his wife and because he’s unable to have sex with her after the death of his son. It’s hard for me to believe that sex without love isn’t just plain wrong. It’s ironic, to me at least, that my views of prostitution are much closer to the Catholic views than to Joyce’s views, despite my refusal to see it as a mortal sin. I don’t think I believe in Heaven or Hell, but it seems to me that using people to satisfy your own personal needs without considering its effects on them leads to personal, if not eternal, damnation.

Portrait of Artist as Young Man

I suppose to be entirely fair to Joyce’s The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man you would have to read it within the context of its own time, but I don’t know that much about Victorian Ireland and I certainly don’t have the desire to do the background research necessary to understand that period. Needless to say, though, Victorian society had a very different view of sexuality than today’s society has, and I suspect my views on sex are actually closer to Joyce’s than they are to Victorian views.

I hate it when I find myself agreeing with a particular opinion of someone I generally disagree with. I was not happy, for instance, when I heard Paul Ryan say that if America was going to attack Syria that we ought to take out Assad, something I’d just said in my blog a few days earlier. Still, as Emerson noted, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” So it’s silly to insist that someone whose views you generally disagree with is not right when you believe he is. That said, like Joyce’s protagonist in Portrait, I generally find myself rejecting the Catholic view of sin, not just the Victorian view.

It is strangely compelling to watch the protagonist transform from the perfect Catholic student, one highly recruited by the priests, to one who rejects the cloth to pursue “the reality of experience.” Although Stephen Dedalus’ first reaction to his violent sin is the same as most people’s would be be, his contemplation of that sin seems more like that of a priest than it does of a layman.

A cold lucid indifference reigned in his soul. At his first violent sin he had felt a wave of vitality pass out of him and had feared to find his body or his soul maimed by the excess. Instead the vital wave had carried him on its bosom out of himself and back again when it receded: and no part of body or soul had been maimed but a dark peace had been established between them. The chaos in which his ardour extinguished itself was a cold indifferent knowledge of himself. He had sinned mortally not once but many times and he knew that, while he stood in danger of eternal damnation for the first sin alone, by every succeeding sin he multiplied his guilt and his punishment. His days and works and thoughts could make no atonement for him, the fountains of sanctifying grace having ceased to refresh his soul. At most, by an alms given to a beggar whose blessing he fled from, he might hope wearily to win for himself some measure of actual grace. Devotion had gone by the board. What did it avail to pray when he knew that his soul lusted after his own destruction? A certain pride, a certain awe, withheld him from offering to God even one prayer at night though he knew it was in God's power to take away his life while he slept and hurl his soul hellward ere he could beg for mercy. His pride in his own sin, his loveless awe of God, told him that his offence was too grievous to be atoned for in whole or in part by a false homage to the Allseeing and Allknowing.

Unlike a priest who I assume would only see the negative aspects of sleeping with a prostitute, Stephen feels that “no part of body or soul had been maimed but a dark peace had been established between them.” Although he is convinced that he is in “danger of eternal damnation,” he wonders if there is any reason to even pray when his soul “lusted after his own destruction.” If what you most desire in life is judged as sinful, why should you even attempt to appeal to God?

As a result of his sinning with prostitutes, Dedalus sees lust as the source of many other sins:

From the evil seed of lust all other deadly sins had sprung forth: pride in himself and contempt of others, covetousness in using money for the purchase of unlawful pleasure, envy of those whose vices he could not reach to and calumnious murmuring against the pious, gluttonous enjoyment of food, the dull glowering anger amid which he brooded upon his longing, the swamp of spiritual and bodily sloth in which his whole being had sunk.

One suspects that the Irish Catholic Church would have judged masturbation or sex with a “good” girl as sinful, perhaps even more sinful, than having sex with prostitutes. For the Church, sex seems by its very nature to be evil, unless it’s used strictly for procreation, and even then it’s questionable. Worst of all, at least as Stephen sees it, committing one sin inevitably leads to further sin, an idea also explored in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

Later, Stephen, like most youthful sinners, repents when confronted by his priest.

You are very young, my child, he said, and let me implore of you to give up that sin. It is a terrible sin. It kills the body and it kills the soul. It is the cause of many crimes and misfortunes. Give it up, my child, for God's sake. It is dishonourable and unmanly. You cannot know where that wretched habit will lead you or where it will come against you. As long as you commit that sin, my poor child, you will never be worth one farthing to God. Pray to our mother Mary to help you. She will help you, my child. Pray to Our Blessed Lady when that sin comes into your mind. I am sure you will do that, will you not? You repent of all those sins. I am sure you do. And you will promise God now that by His holy grace you will never offend Him any more by that wicked sin. You will make that solemn promise to God, will you not?

After repenting Stephen goes from one extreme to another. Relieved of his awful guilt, he revels in God’s Love.

He sat by the fire in the kitchen, not daring to speak for happiness. Till that moment he had not known how beautiful and peaceful life could be. The green square of paper pinned round the lamp cast down a tender shade. On the dresser was a plate of sausages and white pudding and on the shelf there were eggs. They would be for the breakfast in the morning after the communion in the college chapel. White pudding and eggs and sausages and cups of lea. How simple and beautiful was life after all! And life lay all before him.

Of course, any reader over the age of 15 realizes that this stage of happiness is as unrealistic as the despair he felt over his earlier sins. What’s unexpected, perhaps, is that what Stephen takes from his being forgiven by God is his belief “in the reality of love.”

But he could no longer disbelieve in the reality of love since God Himself had loved his individual soul with divine love from all eternity. Gradually, as his soul was enriched with spiritual knowledge, he saw the whole world forming one vast symmetrical expression of God's power and love. Life became a divine gift for every moment and sensation of which, were it even the sight of a single leaf hanging on the twig of a tree, his soul should praise and thank the Giver. The world for all its solid substance and complexity no longer existed for his soul save as a theorem of divine power and love and universality. So entire and unquestionable was this sense of the divine meaning in all nature granted to his soul that he could scarcely understand why it was in any way necessary that he should continue to live. Yet that was part of the divine purpose and he dared not question its use, he above all others who had sinned so deeply and so foully against the divine purpose.

The idea that God loves us and it His divine love that redeems us is standard doctrine, but Joyce seems to translate God’s love for mankind into romantic love, and, perhaps, to mere lust, depending on how you happen to interpret the novel.

When the agony of shame had passed from him he tried to raise his soul from its abject powerlessness. God and the Blessed Virgin were too far from him: God was too great and stern and the Blessed Virgin too pure and holy. But he imagined that he stood near Emma In a wide land and, humbly and in tears, bent and kissed the elbow of her sleeve.

Emma, according to Stephen, is a “real” girl, a “nice” girl, as opposed to the prostitutes he’s slept with, but she seems more like Venus, the Greek Goddess of Love, than a real girl. If you look forward a little in the novel, she might even be the “muse” that inspires him to leave the church.

In the wide land under a tender lucid evening sky, a cloud drifting westward amid a pale green sea of heaven, they stood together, children that had erred. Their error had offended deeply God's majesty though it was the error of two children, but it had not offended her whose beauty is not like earthly beauty, dangerous to look upon, but like the morning star which is its emblem, bright and musical. The eyes were not offended which she turned upon them nor reproachful. She placed their hands together, hand in hand, and said, speaking to their hearts:

Take hands, Stephen and Emma. It is a beautiful evening now in heaven. You have erred but you are always my children. It is one heart that loves another heart. Take hands together, my dear children, and you will be happy together and your hearts will love each other.

Emma, according to Stephen, is a “real” girl, a “nice” girl, as opposed to the prostitutes he’s slept with, but to many she seems more like Venus, the Greek Goddess of Love, than a real girl. If you look forward a little in the novel, she might even be the “muse” that inspires him to leave the church.

Though it is his love, or lust, that calls Stephen, Joyce implies that it is confession to a priest and the constant feeling of guilt that comes from that which finally drives him from the church and from God himself:

Often when he had confessed his doubts and scruples, some momentary inattention at prayer, a movement of trivial anger in his soul or a subtle wilfulness in speech or act, he was bidden by his confessor to name some sin of his past life before absolution was given him. He named it with humility and shame and repented of it once more. It humiliated and shamed him to think that he would never be freed from it wholly, however holily he might live or whatever virtues or perfections he might attain. A restless feeling of guilt would always be present with him: he would confess and repent and be absolved, confess and repent again and be absolved again, fruitlessly. Perhaps that first hasty confession wrung from him by the fear of hell had not been good? Perhaps, concerned only for his imminent doom, he had not had sincere sorrow for his sin? But the surest sign that his confession had been good and that he had had sincere sorrow for his sin Was, he knew, the amendment of his life.

I have amended my life, have I not? he asked himself.

The reader realizes Stephen hasn’t amended his life and that he’s unwilling to spend his life feeling guilty for committing “sins” for wanting to experience all of life. In fact, it is this constant sense of guilt at having to confess his sins that seems to drive him from the church.

… His destiny was to be elusive of social or religious orders. The wisdom of the priest’s appeal did not touch him to the quick. He was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others or to learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the snares of the world.

The snares of the world were its ways of sin. He would fall. He had not yet fallen but he would fall silently, in an instant. Not to fall was too hard, too hard: and he felt the silent lapse of his soul, as it would be at some instant to come, falling, falling but not yet fallen, still unfallen but about to fall.

Although he seems to accept the Church’s belief that he is a sinner and is doomed to fall, he prefers to live his life “unfallen but about to fall,” more Icarus than Daedalus, refusing to be bound by the prison of the church.

In an interesting essay, Neil Murphyargues that

Stephen’s reinterpretation of Catholicism by way of his Daedalian aspirations becomes the source of his eventual artistic spiritual redemption, while the vocational life of the Jesuits is depicted as a life of physical deprivation and denial of vitality. For Stephen, the religious life in effect becomes a sin against life.

As you might guess from reading this blog, I have way too many monastic inclinations to accept that view, but I cannot deny my own view of sin and confession is probably closer to Joyce’s view than it is to the Catholic Church’s view. I’m sure I’ve made my share of mistakes in life and I’ve done things I’ve regretted later, but instead of feeling guilt over what I’ve done I used those mistakes as motivation to do better in the future. I suspect that what I consider the worst mistakes I’ve made in my life are not what the Church would consider the greatest sins, and what the Church would likely consider a sin I don’t even consider a major “mistake.”

Stephen Dedalus and Shelley

The more I thought about Joyce’s A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man the more it occurred to me that I might have loved this book had I read it as a high school student or as a freshman or sophomore in college. In those years the Romantic Poets had considerable appeal, and I idealized women almost as much as I idealized my own place in the universe. I‘m sure some of my fellow students perceived me as a sarcastic nerd. It goes without saying that I was also trying to balance my lust against opposing goals like every other teenager who’s ever been born. In other words, I would have loved the novel because it would have confirmed my misconceptions of the world, or at least what I now see as misconceptions.

The novel is a brutally honest portrayal of Stephen Dedalus, “James Joyce's literary alter ego, appearing as the protagonist and anti-hero of his first, semi-autobiographical novel of artistic existence ...” (at least if we are to believe Wikipedia [and many other sources]). If I had read this novel before I read Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, I would have wondered if Salinger had been inspired by it, though I certainly prefer Joyce’s book to Salinger’s. Even as a teenager I didn’t particularly like Catcher in the Rye, even then perceiving Holden Caulfield as a self-indulgent, whiney twit who saw himself as superior to those around him. Though I’m not particularly fond of Stephen Dadalus, I certainly identify more with him than with Holden.

I ended up majoring in English because I thought literature gave me insights into life I couldn’t find anywhere else. I must still feel that way, or I wouldn’t spend so much time reading poetry and novels. (Though I have to admit nowadays I’d usually rather be outside walking than inside reading.) As a high school senior I identified with Jude the Obscure and felt “The Darkling Thrush” came as close as anything I’d ever read to summarizing my ameliorative philosophy of life. No one else I knew had ever read Thomas Hardy, or showed the least interest in doing so. (Though that had never even occurred to me until I sat down to write this paragraph.)

That probably accounts for why I found it delightful when Stephen identifies his personal crisis with lines from Shelley’s poetry:

Stephen watched the three glasses being raised from the counter as his father and his two cronies drank to the memory of their past. An abyss of fortune or of temperament sundered him from them. His mind seemed older than theirs: it shone coldly on their strifes and happiness and regrets like a moon upon a younger earth. No life or youth stirred in him as it had stirred in them. He had known neither the pleasure of companionship with others nor the vigour of rude male health nor filial piety. Nothing stirred within his soul but a cold and cruel and loveless lust. His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys, and he was drifting amid life like the barren shell of the moon.

Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless . . . ?

He repeated to himself the lines of Shelley's fragment. It’s alternation of sad human ineffectualness with vast inhuman cycles of activity chilled him, and he forgot his own human and ineffectual grieving.

It is an apt metaphor to summarize Stephen’s feelings, especially when you look at the whole second stanza of Shelley’s “The Moon:”

Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?

Alienated from his classmates and family, particularly his father, Stephen is unable to find joy in his life, unable to find anything worth holding on to.

Frustrated in his “love” for Emma, he turns to the red-light district to satisfy his “cold and cruel and loveless lust”:

He would follow a devious course up and down the streets, circling always nearer and nearer in a tremor of fear and joy, until his feet led him suddenly round a dark corner. The whores would be just coming out of their houses making ready for the night, yawning lazily after their sleep and settling the hairpins in their clusters of hair. He would pass by them calmly waiting for a sudden movement of his own will or a sudden call to his sinloving soul from their soft perfumed flesh. Yet as he prowled in quest of that call, his senses, stultified only by his desire, would note keenly all that wounded or shamed them; his eyes, a ring of porter froth on a clothless table or a photograph of two soldiers standing to attention or a gaudy playbill; his ears, the drawling jargon of greeting:

—Hello, Bertie, any good in your mind?

bore his weary mind outward to its verge and inward to its centre, a distant music accompanying him outward and inward. What music? The music came nearer and he recalled the words, the words of Shelley's fragment upon the moon wandering companionless, pale for weariness. The stars began to crumble and a cloud of fine Stardust fell through space.

What a stange mixture of the erotic and the mundane. Considering Stephen is the star pupil in a Catholic school, “a sudden call to his sinloving soul from their soft perfumed flesh” comes as a jarring reminder of just how schizophrenic his life has become, and the irony is underlined by the whore’s calling out “any good in your mind?”

Unfortunately, Joyce starts to lose me on that poetic last sentence, “The stars began to crumble and a cloud of fine Stardust fell through space.” Normally that would be the author, not the character commenting on his state of mind. If it’s Stephen thinking, it would fit his character because it’s hard not to feel he is being overly dramatic, overreacting tf the kinds of problems every teen faces. I can’t help but think it’s Joyce, though, and it’s far too “poetic,” in the bad sense, for my taste.

There are far too many examples of that kind of hyperbole in the novel for me to rank it as one of the ten best novels of the 20th century, examples like this:

The dull light fell more faintly upon the page whereon another equation began to unfold itself slowly and to spread abroad its widening tail. It was his own soul going forth to experience, unfolding itself sin by sin, spreading abroad the balefire of its burning stars and folding back upon itself, fading slowly, quenching its own lights and fires. They were quenched: and the cold darkness filled chaos.

These lines seem almost Miltonic, and Stephen, no matter how brilliant he might be, is no Lucifer about to lose Paradise. He’s a young man who has just “sinned” and in doing so has begun to discover what it means to be a man.

Of course, my dislike for these kinds of passages may say more about my taste in literature than about Joyce’s novel. I prefer content over style. It’s an ongoing argument I’ve had with my literary friends. I would be perfectly happy if I could be completely caught up in the story, focused on character’s actions or thoughts, totally unaware that there’s even a writer involved in the process. Metaphorically speaking, I hate watching movies where the camera shakes and you end up paying more attention to the poor camera work than to the story itself. The last thing I want is to be constantly reminded is how brilliant the author is.

Joyce’s “The Encounter”

Though I prefer Joyce’s short story “Evaline” to his story “An Encounter, ” I think “An Encounter” introduces a more dominant theme in his works, sexual dysfunction. It’s a strange story. If it wasn’t for his later works, it might even seem to be nothing more than one of those enigmatic moments that sticks in our brain for some unknown reason. It would certainly be easy to dismiss it if Joyce didn’t give the event more significance by contrasting it to “the restraining influence of the school.”

The narrator, a boy of unspecified age, is just beginning to be sexually attracted to women but has not yet had a girl friend. The “encounter” in the story is preceded by a discussion of events that take place at school.

The adventures related in the literature of the Wild West were remote from my nature but, at least, they opened doors of escape. I liked better some American detective stories which were traversed from time to time by unkempt fierce and beautiful girls. Though there was nothing wrong in these stories and though their intention was sometimes literary they were circulated secretly at school.

There’s so much going on in this “simple” paragraph that it’s hard to know what to see as significant. “Doors of escape” implies that school does more than impose self-discipline; it imprisons its students. I’m not sure what is meant by “unkempt fierce and beautiful girls,” but I’m fairly sure it’s not the Madonna-version of women promoted by Catholic schools. Then, of course, there’s the implication in the phrase “circulated secretly” of the appeal of the forbidden.

Instead of the reprimand convincing the narrator that the school’s view of women is the correct one, it seems to convince him of the need to escape their influence:

This rebuke during the sober hours of school paled much of the glory of the Wild West for me and the confused puffy face of Leo Dillon awakened one of my consciences. But when the restraining influence of the school was at a distance I began to hunger again for wild sensations, for the escape which those chronicles of disorder alone seemed to offer me. The mimic warfare of the evening became at last as wearisome to me as the routine of school in the morning because I wanted real adventures to happen to myself. But real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad.

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the intention of the Catholic teachers to create a “hunger again for wild sensations” and to convince the boy that “real adventures” must be “sought abroad.”

I don’t think it’s accidental that Joyce preceded his remembrance of this encounter with these incidents at school if he didn’t see a connection between them. Of course, skipping school leads directly to his encounter with the strange old man, but the old man’s story contains the same kind of schizophrenic split that the boy feels between his reading and its forbidden nature.

At first the old man appears benevolent enough, simply interested in the two boys who are playing hooky and in engaging them in conversation. He seems to favor the narrator, drawn by his bookish interests, referring to literary works I’m only vaguely familiar with. Then, however, he begins discussing “little girls” and how appealing they are.

Every boy, he said, has a little sweetheart.

His attitude on this point struck me as strangely liberal in a man of his age. In my heart I thought that what he said about boys and sweethearts was reasonable. But I disliked the words in his mouth and I wondered why he shivered once or twice as if he feared something or felt a sudden chill. As he proceeded I noticed that his accent was good. He began to speak to us about girls, saying what nice soft hair they had and how soft their hands were and how all girls were not so good as they seemed to be if one only knew. There was nothing he liked, he said, so much as looking at a nice young girl, at her nice white hands and her beautiful soft hair. He gave me the impression that he was repeating something which he had learned by heart or that, magnetised by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round in the same orbit. At times he spoke as if he were simply alluding to some fact that everybody knew, and at times he lowered his voice and spoke mysteriously as if he were telling us something secret which he did not wish others to overhear. He repeated his phrases over and over again, varying them and surrounding them with his monotonous voice. I continued to gaze towards the foot of the slope, listening to him.

Though it seems a little strange that an old man would suddenly begin talking about little girls with young boys, there’s nothing particularly disturbing about the man’s views at first. It’s not the kind of talk the boys would have heard from their teachers, certainly, but it seems like common sense. Little boys at a certain age normally find little girls soft skin and beautiful hair attractive. Old men, however, should not find them magnetizing, and certainly not obsessively so.

The encounter takes a turn for the worse:

After a long while his monologue paused. He stood up slowly, saying that he had to leave us for a minute or so, a few minutes, and, without changing the direction of my gaze, I saw him walking slow | away from us towards the near end of the field. We remained silent when he had gone.

After a silence of a few minutes I heard Mahony exclaim:

—I say! Look what he's doing!

As I neither answered nor raised my eyes Mahony exclaimed again:

I say ... He's a queer old josser!

The reader can never be sure “what he’s doing,” but it doesn’t take too much imagination to guess, especially when the conversation takes a much darker turn right after the old josser returns.

He began to speak on the subject of chastising boys. His mind, as if magnetised again by his speech, seemed to circle slowly round and round its new centre. He said that when boys were that kind they ought to be whipped and well whipped. When a boy was rough and unruly there was nothing would do him any good but a good sound whipping. A slap on the hand or a box on the ear was no good: what he wanted was to get a nice warm whipping. I was surprised at this sentiment and involuntarily glanced up at his face. As I did so I met the gaze of a pair of bottle-green eyes peering at me from under a twitching forehead. I turned my eyes away again. The man continued his monologue. He seemed to have forgotten his recent liberalism. He said that if ever he found a boy talking to girls or having a girl for a sweetheart he would whip him and whip him; and that would teach him not to be talking to girls. And if a boy had a girl for a sweetheart and told lies about it then he would give him such a whipping as no boy ever got in this world. He said that there was nothing in this world he would like so well as that. He described to me how he would whip such a boy as if he were unfolding some elaborate mystery. He would love that, he said, better than anything in this world; and his voice, as he led me monotonously through the mystery, grew almost affectionate and seemed to plead with me that I should understand him. I waited till his monologue paused again. Then I stood up abruptly. Lest I should betray my agitation I delayed a few moments pretending to fix my shoe properly and then, saying that I was obliged to go, I bade him good-day. I went up the slope calmly but my heart was beating quickly with fear that he would seize me by the ankles. When I reached the top of the slope I turned round and, without looking at him, called loudly across the field: —Murphy!

One can only conjecture that the old josser had been punished precisely this way for having had a secret girlfriend or lying to an adult about his feelings for a girl. It sounds remarkably like the kind of canings that used to happen in Catholic schools, though it’s also entirely possible it was the kind of punishment he received from a parent.

How that kind of punishment has become something the old josser “loved ... better than anything in this world” is beyond my understanding, though I’m sure Freud must have offered some theories on it.

Seems to me the narrator had a “real adventure” and didn’t have to seek it abroad.

Joyce’s “Eveline

Having just finished Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, I was pleasantly surprised by the stories in his first published work The Dubliners. In hindsight (the best kind of sight, obviously) I wish I had started with The Dubliners, since many, if not most, of the themes found in Ulysses can be found in these stories, and, unlike Ulysses, the stories are crystal clear, their starkness reminding me of Hemingway’s stories like “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” which appeared a few years later or even some of the poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson, like the famous “Richard Cory.”

The poetic, four-and-a half-page “Eveline” focuses on the kind of destructive home life that Joyce and his siblings apparently suffered. In this case, though, the story focuses on a daughter’s decision on whether or not to flee the family and save herself while leaving her younger siblings behind.

Most readers would quickly agree Eveline has every justification for leaving.

But in her new home, in a distant unknown country, it would not be like that. Then she would be married—she, Eveline. People would treat her with respect then. She would not be treated as her mother had been. Even now, though she was over nineteen, she sometimes felt herself in danger of her father's violence. She knew it was that that had given her the palpitations. When they were growing up he had never gone for her like he used to go for Harry and Ernest, because she was a girl; but latterly he had begun to threaten her and say what he would do to her only for her dead mother's sake. And now she had nobody to protect her. Ernest was dead and Harry, who was in the church decorating business, was nearly always down somewhere in the country. Besides, the invariable squabble for money on Saturday nights had begun to weary her unspeakably. She always gave her entire wages—seven shillings —and Harry always sent up what he could but the trouble was to get any money from her father. He said she used to squander the money, that she had no head, that he wasn't going to give her his hard-earned money to throw about the streets, and much more, for he was usually fairly bad of a Saturday night. In the end he would give her the money and ask her had she any intention of buying Sunday's dinner. Then she had to rush out as quickly as she could and do her marketing, holding her black leather purse tightly in her hand as she elbowed her way through the crowds and returning home late under her load of provisions.

As an ex-caseworker and teacher this kind of abusive father is all too familiar. In the first few pages, Joyce has the reader convinced Eveline is going to run away to save herself, and justifiably so though there’s a small hint she is having second thoughts.

She had hard work to keep the house together and to see that the two young children who had been left to her charge went to school regularly and got their meals regularly. It was hard work—a hard life—but now that she was about to leave it she did not find it a wholly undesirable life.

Second thoughts are understandably a part of making such a drastic decision, but the reader wonders in what way is the life she has just described not a “wholly undesirable life”. It’s one thing to sacrifice your happiness for the sake of children left in your care; it’s something quite different to see that decision as anything but the self-sacrifice it is.

This moment of self-doubt is quickly followed by the realization that if she stays her life will be sacrificed, just as her mother’s life was:

As she mused the pitiful vision of her mother's life laid its spell on the very quick of her being—that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness.
....

She stood up in a sudden impulse of terror. Escape! She must escape! Frank would save her. He would give her life, perhaps love, too. But she wanted to live. Why should she be unhappy?

Even in this moment of clarity, though, there’s the suggestion of doubt in the phrase “perhaps love, too.”? Could you really justify running away to a foreign country with a man you didn’t love?

None of these doubts, though, quite prepare the reader for the ending of the story. At the station as the two are about to elope, Eveline suddenly pulls away as her lover is pushed ahead with the rush of he crowd:

No! No! No! It was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy. Amid the seas she sent a cry of anguish!

—Eveline! Evvy!

He rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow. He was shouted at to go on but he still called to her. She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.

Haunting eyes. Not the eyes of someone who has consciously decided to save her younger brothers and sisters. The eyes of someone totally defeated, unable to love or even to regret the sacrifices we sometimes demand of ourselves.

Considering most of Joyce’s works are considered biographical, it’s hard not to wonder if he didn’t feel guilty at times for leaving his younger brothers and sisters behind when he fled to Europe with his wife, knowing at the same time that failing to leave would have made his life unbearable.

Some Opening Comments on Joyce’s Ulysses

As long-time readers may recall, one of my goals in turning this blog from a political blog to a “literary blog” was to focus on books that had been sitting on the shelf since I attended college. I have cleared away nearly all the poetry books I bought back in college. However, I still have a few classic novels sitting on the shelf that I purchased from a book club while attending college with every intention of reading them much earlier in my life.

Thus, when a group of bloggers I know decided to read Joyce’s Ulysses as a group, I decided it was finally time to read Joyce’s three books I had on the shelf. Some preliminary reading suggested it would be a good idea to begin with Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist, so I finished that rather quickly before starting Ulysses. While it wasn’t a favorite, it was a fairly enjoyable read, and I finished it in two days.

However, I have spent most of the last two weeks struggling through Joyce’s Ulysses, finally finishing it last night. I’m a fairly fast reader, and it probably should not have taken more than 15 hours to read the book. That obviously didn’t happen. At some points I found the novel almost impenetrable/unbearable. In fact, I rented the movie Ulysses from Amazon and watched it twice within 7 days to try figure out the sequence of events. I even bought a newer movie, “Bloom” which I’ll be watching before I actually try to say something literate about the book. I also found and watched an hour-long biography of Joyce online and watched it twice. The plot summary at Wikipedia also helped me to keep track of what was going on in the novel. I did, however, refuse to buy Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce's Ulysses, a 694 page book explaining the many references found in the novel. I have no desire to become an expert on Ulysses, thank you.

It took me three days, and several naps, to get through one particularly obscure 60 page section of the book. At times I was tempted to skip long passages of the novel, particularly long lists of names that meant nothing to me, but I resisted the temptation and read every single word, though I make no claims to actually understanding everything, or even most, of what I read.

Perhaps I had unrealistic expectations for the novel since it was rated the best novel of the 20th century by several different sources. Let me just say that if I’d been told that as a senior in high school and I had read this book, I would never have changed my college major from physics to English, exactly what I did after discovering Thomas Hardy’s novels.

I doubt that this novel would even make my top 50 books of the 20th century though, in retrospect, I can see how it might have been one of the most influential novels of the 20th Century. Thomas Hardy is sometimes considered the first modern novelist, but the style of his novels seems ancient compared to Joyce’s style in Ulysses. I can even see where many of my favorite novels might have been inspired by this work.

The book raises many questions, but strangely the main question it raises for me, which has very little to do with the book itself, is what is MY criteria for a great novel. It’s obvious that my criteria is obviously quite different from those critics who argue that this is the greatest novel of the 20th century. I’ve never really thought much in terms of “favorites,” whether it be songs, movies, books, or, even, birds. I don’t even know if I would be capable of compiling a list of the 100 best books I’ve read, though I do have a short list of books that have made the greatest impression on my life.

A few favorites, in more-or-less chronological order, are Melville’s Moby Dick, Clemens’ Huckleberry Finn, Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Heller’s Catch-22, Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Steinbeck’s The Pearl, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Not sure what that tells me about my criteria, but all of them either introduced me to new insights into myself or into the society I live in. All of them made me re-examine my own beliefs and ideas. Some author’s, like Faulkner, for instance, are known for their uniques writing style. Others, are admired despite their “lack of style.” I like to say that I most admire a “simple” style, though Faulkner definitely doesn’t qualify as having a simple style, and I probably admire his sentence structure, his multiple uses of clauses, more than any other writer, except perhaps Hemingway’s very different style.

It’s pretty clear that “style” is not one of the main factors I use in judging a novel. Though I do admire some writer’s eloquence, it’s the ideas behind the eloquence that determine whether the novel becomes a favorite.

It’s also clear that when I encountered a novel plays a major part in determining my reaction to it. For instance, I happened to read Jude the Obscure at precisely the moment I began to realize that all may academic skills and the number of colleges recruiting me was not going to help me to get into some of the elite colleges that wanted me to consider them. My parents’, and my, lack of money was going to be a major determining factor, that and my unwillingness to borrow money to pay for tuition and board and room. In other words, I actually identified with Jude, and still do many years later. Luckily, my future wasn’t as bleak as Jude’s: I was going to go to a local college and live at home, but I was going to go to college. This sense of identifying with the major character(s) seems like an important part of my criteria for a good novel.

I’ve already written about some of these novels and pointed out that a friend sent me Heller’s Catch-22 while I was stationed in Vietnam and I could hardly get through more than a 100 pages before I put it away. It was several years after I returned that I encountered it again in a graduate course that it became a favorite. My Vietnam experience gave me the background I needed to fully appreciate the author’s insights into life. Recent years have given me an even greater appreciation of Milo Minderbinder.

I suspect that if I’d read Ulysses earlier in my life I might have been more impressed with it, though I doubt I would have understood it any better. It is, without a doubt, the most innovative novel of the early 20th century, years before its time.

The book would probably have been more meaningful if I had been Irish, or even if I had been Catholic. Heck, it would probably have been more meaningful if I believed in the concept of sin, but I don’t, and, as far as I can tell, I never have believed in it, though I’m all too familiar with making mistakes, sometimes profound mistakes that have affected my whole life.

Perhaps the novel would have seemed more profound if I had been Anti-Semitic but, having been raised in the Pacific Northwest I hardly recognized anyone’s religion, nor, as far as I can tell, did I ever personally know a Jew until I went into the army. At Fort Knox Officer’s Training I ended up running around with Jewish lawyers who had graduated from NYU. I had no idea they were Jewish until another officer asked me why would run around with “those kikes.” I didn’t have the slightest idea what he was talking about or why it was his concern who the hell I ran around with.

I’ll be out-of-town birding for a while, but I’ll have more to say about The Dubliners, The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses when I return.