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.