Thursday, March 11, 2004

“Mouth, south. Is the mouth south someway? Or the south a mouth? Must be some. South, pout, shout, drouth.”

Ah, James Joyce, writer’s writer, brainiac maniac, the man who would secure his immortality, so he famously reckoned, by dishing scholars something to puzzle over for centuries to come.

But what is he actually saying? It’s hardly ever clear. To read James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is a slow-burning migraine, a dull interminable torture of unrelenting tedium, gratuitous tangents, narrative dead-ends, turgid self-celebratory wordplay, and opaque artistic narcissism. It’s also considered one the greatest novels of the 20th century — even by some who have read it.

Now, controversy is brewing across the water. This year is the centennial of a certain day in June, Bloomsday 1904, during which Stephen Dedalus, Leopold and Molly Bloom and all the rest go through their paces, over the course of 700-odd pages eating kidney pies, sipping Guinness and quoting lots of Latin in and around the cobblestoned alleys of Dublin. And, of all years, some of the Irish literati have chosen to mark this as the year to call the work’s reputation into question.

The opening salvo came from acclaimed Dublin novelist, Roddy Doyle (“The Barrytown Trilogy,” “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha”). ” ‘Ulysses’ could have done with a good editor,” he told a New York audience. “You know people are always putting ‘Ulysses’ in the top 10 books ever written, but I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it.”

On the face of it, Mr. Doyle’s criticism seems relatively benign. But in Ireland, Joyce is a revered native son, a big tourist draw for Dublin, and the subject, both there and around the world, of a whole industry of literary sleuthing, reading clubs and Bloomsday re-enactments. Now, with the June centennial looming, the grumbles of some Irish writers are raining on the parade.

Measuring the stock of “Ulysses” is an old sport. When it first came out in 1922, many readers and critics found it unreadable or obscene (it was banned for a period in the United States). Then, after it was championed by Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and others, its reputation rose steadily until it was seen as a pioneering — and, ultimately, sacrosanct — monument of literary modernism. Its stream-of-consciousness style and the disparate narrative voices, the novelistic equivalent of multiple personality disorder, have been assimilated by scores of critically fashionable novelists from Beatniks such as Jack Kerouac to Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, not to mention many aspiring writers who often find that plot development interferes with the full display of youthful erudition.

For the common reader, however, “Ulysses” has always been either an unapproachable beast, or a cocktail party talisman of well-readness. Or, lately, in certain circles, a punching bag for artistic rebellion. (It’s now OK to find the work unreadable, as long as you can explain why.)

So, is the work readable? And if so, should anyone read it? And, if they read it, should they read it till the end?

“It is not unlikely,” opined an early review in the New York Times (1922), “that every thought Mr. Joyce has had, every person he has met — is to be encountered in the obscurities and frankness of ‘Ulysses.’ ” In short, Mr. Joyce, it’s too much information. And that was a favorable review.

Actually, the least of the problems for the ordinary reader are all the Homeric parallels drawn from “The Odyssey” or the Greek, Latin and foreign terms peppering the prose. Depending on your exposure to Jesuit schooling, these can be ignored without too much guilt.

Harder is to just make sense of what is going on. The punctuation is eccentric, voices bleed together, names and characters pop up without introduction, and just as quickly disappear. Not to mention the final sentence of the book: a 45-page long disjointed erotic monologue.

Finally, all this is compounded by its period setting, Dublin, 1904. Joyce provides no historical context to orient the reader amid the flux of arcane details of local street life.

You are thrown into a microbic world without a microscope and supposed to make sense of it all.

Here’s one character on a walk. “Almidano Artifoni walked past Holles street, past Sewell’s yard. Behind him Cashel Boyle O’Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell with stickumbrellacoat dangling, shunned the lamp before Mr. Law Smith’s house and, crossing, walked along Marion Square.” Unless you’re a Dublin tour guide, and there is much of this sort of stuff in the novel, your eyes will, and should, turn stone gray with indifference.

But there is a bit of a trick to reading Joyce. Imagine simply that you are inside someone’s head. Their internal musings have no editorial censor, just a chain of free associations, memories, place names and people. In short, a private system of symbols. You’re given no context, because you’re not really supposed to be there.

Joyce may have shattered novelistic dogma by painting his characters from the inside out, but this sort of style is hard to endure over 700 pages.

The modernist writer, at his worst, not only refuses to hold the reader’s hand by providing something as banal as context, he stubbornly refuses to even acknowledge his presence. Instead, he is almost writing for other writers who all think in terms of shorthand, riffs and wink-wink knowing asides.

Aldous Huxley said of “Ulysses,” “It is, among other things, a kind of technical handbook in which the young novelist can study all the possible and many of the quite impossible ways of telling a story.” He went on to call it, “one of the dullest books ever written.”

Not all criticism of “Ulysses” is fair, however. The notion, for example, that Joyce’s language is uniformly elitist and exclusionary should be dispelled once and for all. Some of it is. But it’s also inventively childlike — stamps are “stickyback pictures,” earthy — “the sweet oaken reek of horsepiss,” and precise — the entrance to a church is marked by “the cold smell of sacred stone.”

Indeed, despite all the incoherence, Joyce renders the full scope of human existence in loving, intricate detail: Catholic rituals, sailor bars, liturgical music, flower gardens, clothing, furniture, and above all, food. Here’s how he introduces us to one of his main characters, Bloom: “Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beast and fowl. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roe. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

It’s a shame Joyce did not put his talent of description to better use. Huxley is essentially right. “Ulysses” is so dull because there’s a total absence of dramatic conflict.

Therefore, it makes little sense to mention that Stephen Dedalus was fashioned after the mythological architect who constructed the Labyrinth for the Minotaur of Crete, or that Leopold Bloom’s potato is maybe a symbol of Irish history, or that it all dramatizes the Freudian notion of the unconscious. It all gets lost in the detail.

There is a certain stubborn breed of writer for whom their interior world takes precedence over entertaining the reader. Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s ongoing alter-ego, remarks in an earlier work that his obligation as a writer is “to forge in the smitty of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

To be sure, such a noble ambition goes over the head of writers whose beach reads are left behind in time-shares, sandy and dog-eared, smelling of coconut lotion. But even beyond the realm of pulp fiction, it can’t mean much either for writers who are both brilliant stylists and patient storytellers. To forge the two in the smitty of their souls is not necessarily a rejection of experimentation and modernism. It’s simply acknowledging that novel writing is a conversation with the reader, not a murky, private dream. If that’s the case, then James Joyce remains a brilliant wordsmith with an encyclopedic mind, but “Ulysses” is a pretty awful novel.

• Stefan Sullivan, author of two previous books, is currently working on a novel about the District in the 1960s.

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