Is Ulysses Overrated?
All but one chapter—and not the one you think.
Is there more to it, your interest in the catechism narrative method?
Well, to be honest I've only recently become fascinated by the catechism chapter and the way it uses Q&A as a narrative and meditative technique. But I love the way the form can both move things forward and also allow them to pause. To be endowed with unexpected and often surprising depth, detail, and dimensionality through the use of the interrogative (sometimes the interrogation) mode.
But that's not all, right?
Jeez, you're getting personal. If you must know, I've actually been experimenting with the catechismic method as a way of doing fiction, wondering whether an entire novel could be told that way.
What kind of novel?
A New York love story.
So what was the problem?
Well, the technical problem that besets me is my affinity for digression. I had resorted to using this catechismic technique to overcome my tendency to pile digression upon digression upon digression rather than moving the narrative forward.
Explain your epiphany in this regard.
In seeking to describe the Tribeca party where my protagonist met his new love, it took me so long to get past my many observations concerning the hors d'ouerves that I had finally out of frustration cap-locked: COME ON DAMMIT, AT LEAST DESCRIBE THE DRESS SHE WAS WEARING!! And I realized I heard an echo of the impatient catechismic Mr. Q, and suddenly realized why Joyce liked it. The way it cut through the endless possibility of digression and gets to the heart of the matter.
Are there any other reasons you want people to read the Ithaca episode?
Well, to name just one, I think it offers some of the most beautiful passages Joyce wrote in his entire oeuvre.
The one that begins with Q asking, "What spectacle confronted them when they, first the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, from obscurity by a passage from the rere of the house into the penumbra of the garden?"
And A answers: "The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit."
And then the next three pages of transcendently beautiful prose consisting mainly of Bloom's meditations upon the constellations and the moon. Some of the most lyrical and spiritual writing in all Ulysses.
What is your advice to the reader of this column?
Don't die before you read these passages.
Describe her dress.
It was a short black sleeveless shift.
A Betsey Johnson.
Was there a special significance to that dress?
yes he said yes
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.