I had every intention of getting this up earlier in the week. In fact, my writing schedule had this penned in for Tuesday; however, life is life and here we are on a Friday and I am finally getting around to posting my reaction/interpretation to the first “episode” of Ulysses.
My first reaction: yep, this is most definitely a piece of modernist fiction.
For those who are familiar with Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, there is a bit of that flavor to this tome. Ironically enough, in Woolf’s diaries, she goes on about Joyce and her considerable irritation both with the novel Ulysses and Joyce himself; though some scholars feel that she “doth protest too much,” suggesting that perhaps it was jealousy rather than disdain that prompted her to dismiss Joyce.
Either way. In Ulysses, immediately the reader is thrust into the modernist genre; a catapulting of interior thought broken up by dialogue with very little of a transitional helping hand. To begin, I decided to read the pages without the assistance of the annotated Ulysses that I purchased to help me along, knowing beforehand that the number of illusions, foreign languages, etc. would be far beyond my level of comprehension.
I had it, but I didn’t want to immediately use the source, instead, wishing for a first impression that included any confusion I might have at the references.
Joyce does not hold back from said references; the fifth line immediately launches us into Latin, spoken by our first main character, Buck Mulligan. I worked out that the phrasing is about God and probably a Catholic thing (we are in Ireland after all); but it is not so much the words, as it is the deliverance of them that informs this scene.
When Buck Mulligan says these Latin words he is holding up a bowl used for cleaning his razor. Easily, the reader interprets the “offering” as one of absolute irony; which of course sets up a rather accurate portrayal of the character.
And from line five, we are off, being introduced to the next character of Stephen, a rather melancholy lad who, apparently, is thought to have his killed his mother, though most definitely refused to pray with her at her time of death (such a brilliant way of describing the character without describing the character).
There is a quick reference to Stephen wearing mourning clothes and not yet allowing himself to wear gray; suggesting either Stephen adheres to strict social codes like wearing only black after the death of a family member or real grief. Either way, the interaction between Buck and Stephen is one of a strained friendship, a relationship where Buck is obviously the more extrovert, out individual, and Stephen the much more contained individual.
The narration fluctuates back and forth between Buck and Stephen and we soon find that, as suspected, Stephen is the melancholy type that finds offense with things, but who is, mostly, haunted by the memory and possibly the real ghost of his mother.
Within these musings, the reader is launched into the interior dialogue and stream of memory that is so indicative of modernist writers. Stephen remembers his mother as she was, but not how she was exactly, but how he remembers her. This is an important aspect of modernist literature; this understanding of perception coloring reality. Again, to compare to Woolf only because I have more a background with Woolf, there is this uneasy understanding that the narrator is not altogether reliable.
Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot also moved around within this idea.
But I am getting off track.
So. Stephen is thinking almost obsessively about his dead mother, guilt following him about, or perhaps confusion, doubt, uncertainty. Whatever the reasoning, it is most definitely a melancholy cast that colors this character.
We are then introduced to Haines; a fellow from England, a “paleface” as Buck calls him. This is a rather strange term and I found myself tempted to look at the historical meaning behind it in my annotated reference, but I resisted. Reading on: Haines is an interesting character, clearly intellectual, speaking Irish to the milk woman though none of the actual Irish characters speak it, and having a calm and clear response to Buck’s over-the-top nature.
Haines also attempts to bring Stephen out; to befriend him even, though Stephen would rather be left alone and is entirely too defensive, looking for offense in every word Haines speaks. There is not, at least from my reading, insult in anything Haine’s says, though my interpretations are limited by my limited knowledge.
We finish the episode with a quick swim in the sea, dipping into the proverbial cleansing or the womb, or maybe a reference to the actual journey of Ulysses, either way, the last word, “usurper” has a feeling of foreshadowing, or perhaps just one of forbidding, though I couldn’t tell you what that might be… a bit of a cliffhanger, I suppose.
Anyway, overwhelmingly, Buck dominates the storyline. Sure, we dip in and out of Stephen’s head, and Haine’s has his parts, but Buck drives the narration, interacting with all the characters and throwing commentary about to suggest he has an opinion or at least would like people to believe he has an opinion about everything taking place. By the time we get to the end of the first episode, the three characters are clearly drawn, though the historical relationship between them is not as clear. How did these relationships manifest?
With my virgin-eyed reading finished, I turned then to my annotated source to see what I could glean from the pages and pages of references.
Truly, the insight is interesting, and the language translations and bases do inform the narration to a degree, but I found as I scanned over the references that knowing them does not necessarily fill in my reading of the episode; rather, I was able to glean many of the implications as I read, and those things I missed were not detrimental to my understanding of what was taking place.
In other words, I was never confused by the many, many references. Yes, there are layers there, but though I was only able to read the first layer due to a lack of relevant education, I was not left out of the narration.
I knew what was taking place.
However, as I did not know some of the terminologies, like g.p.i., finding out that it is an abbreviation for general paresis of the insane, a medical term for syphilis, was informative, as was some the background of certain words like “hyperborean.” The annotated source does add to the original text, but I would say is not required.
The many references aside, being flexible in reading the narration is required. The stream of consciousness jumps about, though there is a method to Joyce’s madness and I found that once I figured out that if a character speaks, the adjoining thoughts are the speakers. This helped to differentiate between the character’s interior dialogue. I found that I enjoyed the brief snippets of thought. Unlike Woolf’s long inner dialogues, Joyce does not dip overly long into any one character’s head. This helps move the story along.
At least, it does in episode 1. I will delve into episode 2 here in the next few days and see if my initial reactions continue or if I fall into the annoyance that so many readers have expressed about this book.
For those reading along, what was your reaction to Episode 1? Did you read it straight through? Did you look up references? What are your thoughts?
For next week: Episode 2
“I remember only ideas and sensations.”