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Purity of essence

May 10, 2012 10 comments

I wanted to thank everyone who read along and added helpful and even curious comments both here and on my blog.  While I like to be a purist about reading, I realize that it’s kind of foolish to think you can read certain texts in a vacuum.

I am able to come full circle with a comment about Ulysses.  My co-worker decided that he was finally going to read Ulysses (it feels good to write that).  He is doing it with no outside help (he doesn’t even want me to tell him what’s going on, so I didn’t even tell him about our discussion here).  And it’s amazing hearing what he takes from it and also what he simply doesn’t pick up on.

He didn’t seem to have a basic understanding of the set up of the book–that it is a day in the life of Dublin.  And I can see that if you don’t know that Sandymount strand is in Dublin, it might not be readily apparent that that’s where the book is set (at least right away).  Without such basic knowledge, though, I wondered if it was even possible to understand what was happening in the book.  [Mind you, I had literally no idea what Gravity's Rainbow was about either].  I had a college course about Ulysses (complete with Ulysses Annotated, so I knew a lot of what was going on in the background.  Of course, when he talks to me about Ulysses, I want to tell him about all the various things that each section symbolizes, or why things are done the way they are.  But I’m holding my tongue to keep his purity in tact.

Having said that, he is picking up on a lot of stuff and is getting a lot of the story.  And it’s always fun to hear him come in with a new insight to what he read that morning.  But I wonder if it would be more enjoyable if he “knew” more.

And now with the insights that I’ve been getting here, I wonder if Gravity’s Rainbow would have been more interesting if I knew the connections I’ve been reading about here.   I would say yes, very probably.  Like my co-worker, I didn’t want any spoilers (that’s why I didn’t read Weisenberger, as I understand spoilers–if that is even possibly with GR–were present, heck, unavoidable.  But I’ll bet knowing more about what the Kabbalah stuff meant would have made some of these sections more interesting.

So, Joyce threw everything he could about Dublin (and some of the world around him) into Ulysses.  And Pynchon seems to have thrown into Gravity’s Rainbow everything he knew about the World circa 1945, with a bit of 70s politics thrown in as well.  And it’s obvious he did his homework.  I never would have guessed that so much of the stuff he talks about was real–can you really fit a light bulb into a kazoo?  And without Wikipedia cheat sheets I wouldn’t have appreciated nearly as much.  Of course, I read the Wikipedia stuff after i read the section, when I was skimming it for things to post about, so i was able to keep some of my purity in tact.

I guess the point is that no one can ever hope to know as much as an author about a subject.  Either because  the author lived it or because the author did more research than you have, or even because it is simply his or her perspective on events.  In the case of Gravity’s Rainbow, I may not have understood everything that happened in the book, but holy cow did I learn a lot more than I ever knew about WWII, conspiracy theories and paranoia.

On another note, I had hoped to post something here every week, but I learned that bosses really don’t appreciate employees writing blog posts on company time (spoiled sports).  So I’m sorry I couldn’t help keep the discussion going regularly.  But at the same time I also found myself almost literally speechless about what  to talk about.  Aside from some serious WTF questions, this book had me kind of stymied for insights.  Well, not insights per say, but coherent insights.

I’m appreciative of the book for making me think so much (and making me think such crazy things) and I appreciate you all for helping me focus my thoughts.

I feel like I would perhaps like to read this book again (although not anytime soon). But since I just learned that V. has some of the same charcaters in it, perhaps i should go back and read that one first.  I wish that GR was available as an audiobook!  That would be interesting in terms of narrator as well.

Speaking of insights, here’s an interesting review of the book from The New York Times.  Holy spoiler alert about Gottfried!  But there are some interesting cultural insights (since it was written in 1973), that we might not pick up on in 2012.  I believe there’s a few errors, too.  It’s also fascinating to see such a lengthy book review in a newspaper!

So, what’s next everyone, JR?  [I actually wrote this post before Daryl submitted his survey.  JR was kind of a joke, but I'm delighted that it was an option!]

Tangentially, I was wondering if there was any kind of acknowledged list of difficult books out there?  I mean, right now it seems like Infinite Zombies is a major resource for such a list. There are a few resources that I’ve seen online, although most of them are just people’s personal lists of tough books.  Given the world’s penchant for making lists, I’m surprised no one with any authority has created The Top 20 Hardest Novels.  I’m pretentious enough to think that I have most of them in my house (whether I have read them or not).  But I always wonder if I missed one.

Not quite Gottfied

The final word belongs to Slothrop (and others): oboy.

Ulysses in Five Minutes

This just in from the makers of UlyssesSeen.

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UlyssesSeen Pledge Drive

If you played along for the Ulysses read a few months ago, you’ll likely be familiar with the UlyssesSeen project. The project not only provided an extremely useful way of digesting the first episode of Joyce’s book but also made big news in the Apple world when Apple asked that the iPad version be modified to remove pictures of nudity. Although Throwaway Horse (the company formed to produce the comic) initially worked to provide censored images for the iPad, the matter garnered enough press that Apple backed down and allowed the original work to be used. The artist behind the project, Rob Berry, was kind enough to post here a few times.

Boiling the book down to frames in a graphic format takes loads of work and time, but the folks putting the resource together are seeking to raise some money that will help accelerate production. The site through which they’re soliciting funds is a pledge site; if the pledge goal isn’t met, the project dies and no money changes hands. If the goal is met, Throwaway Horse can pay the bills for a few months and production ramps up. They’re at some 67% of the goal now, with a month-and-a-half yet to go.

If you’ve got a few bucks to spare and would like to see this neat project move forward, you can pledge here.

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Ulysses Audio Book 13-15

September 13, 2010 1 comment

As with last week, just in case anyone is following along, I did a quick post about the Ulysses audio book (Episodes 13-15).

I’m delighted that I’m picking up so many details that I missed the first time though.  Although I’m not sure if it really changes my opinion of the book, it shows that there were even more carefully thought out details than I first realized.

It’s here.

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Ulysses Audio Book (Episodes 1-12)

September 6, 2010 3 comments

Hi Ulyssesians.  I know the read is technically over, but after finishing the book, I wanted to give it a go on audio book.  I’m about half way done with the disc set.  You can see my post about it here.

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Would’ve, Should’ve, Couldn’t

September 2, 2010 3 comments

Hello:

It’s me again: Judd. Maybe you remember me from a month or two ago, when we started talking about Ulysses. I had a lot to say, for minute there, and was really looking forward to all the stuff I would say about the second half of the book: you know, when it really gets good. But then, out of nowhere (or rather not unexpectedly) life caught up with me, and the whole blogging thing got pushed to the back-burner in favor of things I was either getting paid for or graded on. You know how that goes. But I’ve been enjoying reading the other posts on here. Daryl, I’m sorry the book wasn’t your cup of tea, but I’m glad you made it through. I hope you’ll give it another look sometime: it only gets better. And it has the richest body of criticism of any work of literature: there’s lots of smart stuff to read out there. Start with Hugh Kenner.

Anyway, I wanted to put in a final post, now that we’re done and September is here and I’m really getting busy in earnest, about the things I would have written about, had I world enough and time. So here they are:

BLOOM: Obviously Ulysses is a difficult book, and a masterpiece of style and allusion.  But I think what people forget sometimes is that at bottom it is an incredibly humane portrait of a very relatable human being. I love Bloom. He walks around, thinks about stuff, gets hungry, eats, checks girls out as they walk down the street or sit on the beach, gets frustrated and disgusted by the people around him, worries, and tries to do the right thing. But more than that, I’m incredibly moved by Bloom, because he’s just so sad. I think that’s why “Lestrygonians” is among my favorite episodes, and one I would have liked to have written about in more length. It is to Bloom what “Proteus” is to Stephen: the chapter where we are most immersed in a character’s head, with minimal intrusion (ok, there’s more intrusion here than in “Proteus,” but we’re still getting a pretty good look at Bloom’s thoughts). He’s hungry, looking for a nice place to eat lunch, and trying to avoid thinking about that which he doesn’t want to acknowledge. So he thinks about a lot of other stuff, but the bad thoughts keep coming back. Here are a few of my favorite bits:

Never know anything about it. Waste of time. Gasballs spinning about, crossing each other, passing. Same old dingdong always. Gas: then solid: then world: then cold: then dead shell drifting around, frozen rock, like that pineapple rock. The moon. Must be a new moon out, she said. I believe there is. (8.581-5)

I don’t know what to call this, maybe an astronomical version of the pathetic fallacy, but certainly Bloom allows his sadness to color his view of the grand scheme of things (truly grand, like, universal) in a really moving way. (We have a bit of a reversal of this in “Ithaca,” 17. 2012-23.)

And then a bit later the most beautiful, simultaneously sexy and sad, thing I think I’ve ever read, which I’m going to go ahead and quote in spite of its length:

Stuck on the pane two flies buzzed, stuck.

Glowing wine on his palate lingered swallowed. Crushing in the winepress grapes of Burgandy. Sun’s heat it is. Seems to a secret touch telling me memory. Touched his sense moistened remembered. Hidden under wild ferns on Howth below us sleeping: sky. No sound. The sky. The bay purple by the Lion’s head. Green by Drumleck. Yellowgreen towards Sutton. Fields of undersea, the lines faint brown in grass, buried cities. Pillowed on my coat she had her hair, earwigs in the heather scrub my hand under her nape, you’ll toss me all. O wonder! Coolsoft with ointments her hand touched me, caressed: her eyes upon me did not turn away. Ravished over her I lay, full lips full open, kissed her mouth. Yum. Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed. Mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweetsour of her spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy. Young life, her lips that gave me pouting. Soft warm sticky gumjelly lips. Flowers her eyes were, take me, willing eyes. Pebbles fell. She lay still. A goat. No-one. High on Ben Howth rhododendrons a nannygoat walking surefooted, dropping currants. Screened under ferns she laughed warmfolded. Wildly I lay on her, kissed her: eyes, her lips, her stretched neck beating, woman’s breasts full in her blouse of nun’s veiling, fat nipples upright. Hot I tongued her. She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed my hair. Kissed, she kissed me.

Me. And me now.

Stuck, the flies buzzed.

Were three words ever more devastating than that “And me now”? If so, I’d like to know. (We get this same scene again at the very end of the book, of course, in a far more famous passage. But I like this one.) At any rate, we’ll return to Bloom’s head later, in “Sirens” and “Nausicaa,” but by then the narrative has gone in more experimental directions. This is the chapter when we’re most with Bloom, at least for my money.

OXEN: I’m working on a longer piece, for a different audience, on the narrative voice(s) in the “Oxen of the Sun” episode. It’s a hard one, for sure, the one that pissed me off the most the first time I read this book (and the second), but it’s a chapter that rewards close attention. There are so many voices blending: the authors being parodied, the characters, the “narrator”; I think Joyce is having a lot of fun pulling the carpet out from under us. When I have something a little more developed (someday soon I hope) maybe I will put a bit of it up here, if people are still interested. In the meantime, if you want to read about narrative voice in Joyce, I strongly recommend John-Paul Riquelme, Teller and Tale in Joyce’s Fiction (Johns Hopkins, 1983).

ADAPTATION: Can you believe this novel has been filmed? Twice? Plus turned into a Broadway show? I just watched the 1967 version: it was pretty good, for trying to do the impossible.

Anyway, those are just a few things I wanted to mention. I’m sure there were others, but this post is starting to get pretty long. It was fun hanging out with you guys: let’s do it again sometime. I hope to be less busy next summer. But then, hope springs eternal, right?

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Being Young and Being Old

I don’t have much too say specifically about the final episode of Ulysses. I’ve learned by now just to let myself be carried along in the stream of Joyce’s prose, so I bumped along as usual this week. Some things were funny and some were very nicely rendered. The closing cascade of memories/thoughts/emotions was lovely. Maybe it’s too cute to suggest that Molly undergoes a metempsychotic sort of change over the course of the episode, morphing from something of a shrill malcontent to someone who by the end has a bit of a heart.

The books I like the most are the ones that leave me sort of stunned at the end because of how well-wrought they are, or how dazzling. Ulysses falls short for me in this department. It’s clearly the work of a really smart guy who has a keen ability to make you inhabit the head of the characters he writes. But the thing is that I already inhabit my own head. My head isn’t quite the carnival that has set up tents in Bloom’s head, but the thought patterns Joyce captures are familiar to me. I suppose I’m ok with familiar, though. Part of what resonates so strongly with me in David Foster Wallace’s brief interviews, for example, is that some of them represent not quite the whole exact truth about ways I’ve felt or things I’ve thought, but neither are they so terribly close to outright parody. It’s the harrowing familiarity and honesty in that work that appeals to me. So much of Ulysses captured the formal or structural familiarity of how people think but had very little familiarity to me in terms of subject matter or personal feeling. It’s not a book I could relate to in any way, and that surely colored my enjoyment of it.

I guess I feel about this book more or less the way I feel about Pynchon’s books. They’re kind of like nasty medicine. I don’t much enjoy them going down, but they’re probably good for me.  I don’t know if I’ll ever reread this one. I’ve tried off and on for over a decade; ask me again in another decade. I’m pretty sure I’ll never attempt Finnegan’s Wake.

I suppose I should do something besides trash-talk the book, though, so I’ll toss out something half-baked and cross my fingers that the more learned and enthusiastic among us can add to or subtract from it in the comments.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I believe Joyce rewrote to serve as a sort of preface to Ulysses, is explicitly about being young. Ulysses, then, is a book about being old, or maybe — since its two most distinctive voices are closer to middle-age — about what happens to you as you begin to grow old. I started to type out a bunch of sort of flimsy evidence in support of this statement, but it began to feel a little high-school term-paperish, so I’ll let the statement stand more or less on its own now, and we can take it up in the comments.

I won’t say that I enjoyed Ulysses a whole heck of a lot, but I am glad to have read it, and reading along with others has, as ever to date, made the experience richer for me. Thanks to those who wrote blog posts or comments, and many thanks to Judd for starting us off; it wouldn’t have happened without him.

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