Is Ulysses Overrated?
All but one chapter—and not the one you think.
But you've also written fondly about the 30-page Hamlet discussion in the "Scylla and Charybdis" chapter.
All right, it's true, in The Shakespeare Wars I pay tribute to Joyce's quite tender and loving speculation about the emotional resonance of one putative episode in Shakespeare's life. It's based on the apocryphal story that when Shakespeare was an actor at the Globe, he played Old Hamlet, the ghost of young Hamlet's murdered father. And thus at that moment when the Ghost cries out to Hamlet on the stage, Shakespeare was—since he'd lost a son named Hamnet (or Hamlet) when the boy was only 11— in some poignant, resonant way crying out to his lost boy from the realm of the living to that of the dead. It's just about the only biographical speculation about Shakespeare I have any patience for, and that includes Stephen Greenblatt's elaborate but unfounded fantasy about the origin of Shylock, and James Shapiro's baseless sophistry about how Shakespeare supposedly wanted to cut Hamlet's last soliloquy.
Aren't you digressing from the subject here?
Yes! That's the reason I like the Ithaca episode. The second reason. The Q&A form allows the Questioner both to digress and to interrupt digression piling upon digression and get the Answerer back on topic.
What did Q interrupt here?
An incipient digression on my part about a long-running scholarly discussion over the relationship between the names "Hamlet" and "Hamnet" (always interchangeable back in the 16th century?), which would have obscured my main point.
Joyce was onto something if not historically then heartbreakingly, metaphorically true when he conjured up a ghostly Shakespeare calling out to a lost Hamlet.
Was there anything else you liked about Ulysses you're holding back on?
Well, the spelling of the sound the cat makes in the opening of the Leopold Bloom chapter.
Can you elaborate?
OK, everybody likes the opening of the Leopold Bloom section: "Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fouls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crust crumbs, fried hencod's roes."
I'm not hearing anything here about the cat sound.
OK, OK. The "cat-echism," you might say, comes just a couple paragraphs later. Joyce renders a hungry morning cat's imploration as "Mrkgnao!" an achievement of undeniably felicitous genius and accuracy that transcends by far the conventional "Meow."
You're digressing again. Let's get back to the Ithaca episode. Why do you like it so much?
Well, consider the four questions it opens with. (I've omitted the answers.)
- "What parallel courses did Bloom and Stephen follow returning [from Dublin's 'Nighttown']?"
- "Of what did the duumvirate deliberate during their itinerary?"
- "Did Bloom discover common factors of similarity between their respective like and unlike reactions to experience?"
- "Were their views on some points divergent?"
What is it you like so much about a narrative proceeding this way?
Well, I think the signature of bad writing or writing that hasn't been polished is the false or the forced transition. Q&A narrative pretty much dispenses with any pretense at smooth transition, thus avoiding the problem. It's abrupt, playful, and it recognizes the two primal curiosities that enable narrative drive: the desire to know "what happened next?" and the desire to know "just who is this person or persons to whom whatever it is that happened happened?"
And what makes that different from ordinary narrative?
Well for one thing it introduces two new characters, Mr. Q and Mr. A, who hover namelessly over the two previously established protagonists' wanderings and converse about their personalities and past and present situations. After a while Mr. Q and Mr. A turn out to have divergent personalities of their own—and divergent situations, in the metaphysical scheme of things.
Whatever do you mean by that?
How does Mr. A know so much, is he the Creator of everything in the book? Does A stand for author? Has A authored Q, too? And Q's questions as well? But Mr. Q seems to be in some different space or place than Mr. A. It's dizzying in a pleasurable way, the thinking about fiction this chapter gives rise to.
Well, ordinary narrative often takes these things for granted or makes you feel unsophisticated for wondering about who the narrator is and how much he or she knows. There's something touching about the way this narrative seems to care that you know certain things. Ordinary narrative acts as if it doesn't care what you care about, only what it cares about and acts all superior by making you guess why. The Q&A form makes you wonder why you wonder why. It's not about piling on literary tricks, so much as dismantling them to see how they're done.
What's the most revealing of the first four questions?
The answer to the fourth question on what points their view diverged: "Bloom assented covertly to Stephen's rectification of the anachronism involved in assigning the date of the conversion of the Irish nation to christianity from druidism by Patrick son of Calpornus, son of Potitus son of Odyssus sent by pope Celestine I in the year 432 in the reign of Leary to the year 260 or thereabouts in the reign of Cormac MacArt ..."
What has that got to do with the price of eggs?
Well, it suggests the comfortable interchange of two people who differ in many ways but are both erudite in a geeky way and the spiritual communion their geekdom affords them. (I also love that he slips that "Odyssus" reference in.)
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Photograph of James Joyce in the public domain.