Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Sketches of Ulysses, 3
From Wikipedia: The Rolling Stone Album Guide calls it “a work of unparalleled grace and lyricism.” In 2003, the album was ranked number 356 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
I call it virtually impossible to leave playing for five minutes.
For me to say that any music is unlistenable is quite the achievement on the part of the composer, arranger, conductor, and musicians. With few exceptions I can sit through just about anything.
Exceptions: Opera and Led Zeppelin, both of which I’ve always lumped in the same category — they’re great until the singing starts.
I’d heard that Ulysses was one of the great unread novels of all time, the kind of literature that people like to say they’ve plowed through in order to impress other people, but which no one has actually read from beginning to end.
Maybe that was Finnegans Wake. Or Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.
My Boyz (as opposed to my sons) were dragged with me through elements of my Ulysses work, whether they wanted to be or not.
[First, let me say that my Boyz are vastly, vastly better educated and well-read than I am. Giants and geniuses all.]
Beast told Scooter, “You should read it. It’s not that difficult (no more so than Absalom Absalom or Gravity’s Rainbow).”
Strongboy piped in, “I tried [Gravity’s Rainbow] recently and couldn’t locate a major plot—or a minor one—by about page 50 and aborted. I like to be challenged as a reader, but a little positive reinforcement for the effort would be nice, too.”
Paisan, resident polymath, responded quickly, “One plot starts at the White Visitation, where the behaviorist Pointsman is studying Tyrone Slothrop because he gets a hard-on and screws a British gal BEFORE the V2 rockets hit that London locale (they are silent, traveling faster than the speed of sound). Response, THEN stimulus. Of course, there is Roger Mexico, also at the WV, plotting V2 hits according to the Poisson distribution; as Pointsman dwells in the Zero and the One, Mexico lives everywhere in between, in probabilities. There are three other major plots (involving the suicide of Herero tribe, a German chemist, a Russian and the Kirgiz lights)—‘any one of which would have enhanced the status of every novelist writing in English,’ according to the NYT review.”
I love my Boyz. Paisan can hold the floor for hours on the Civil War, Shakespeare, baseball, statistics, Pynchon, politics, city planning, and probably half a dozen other topics I can’t even imagine. And that’s without anything to lube his delivery.
Trust me, Paisan needs nothing to lube his delivery. And it’s always well informed and hilarious.
When I knew Ulysses was coming in, I’d committed myself to read the novel first, and then the front and back matter. The front matter introduces the novel, discussing its construction, themes, and publication history. The back matter presents the explanatory notes, the semiofficial errata sheets, and 200-some-odd pages of some of the most soul-numbing proofreading I’ve ever done, because of the quality of the scan, not the nature of the material.
And when I say “soul-numbing proofreading,” that’s an area with which I’m well familiar. I spent the first 17 months out of college proofreading airline timetables and lottery and scratch-off tickets—one of the most enjoyable and, in retrospect, perhaps simplest times of my life. Ah, the Helen Estates, and Atlanta before it went nuts.
I read Ulysses front to back, with the exception of the play chapter, which was far too frustrating from a bad-scan perspective to continue, and I needed at that time, as Strongboy said, some positive reinforcement. After that chapter, the proofreading was easy, especially Molly’s rant at the end. Then I went back and finished the play chapter, which ended up containing my favorite character in the book, a progressively drunker military type who is the prototype for the kind of folks who really groove on Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American.”
My thinking as page gave way to page was that Joyce didn’t really care about the reader. Joyce cared about Joyce. Joyce cared about showing folks how clever he was, and how he could write in any genre (not all equally well, in my mind, but some damn good). Joyce was more intent on the structure and the detail and the variety of his styles than in presenting a story that anyone would, could, or should follow.
Sometimes when I’m returning a manuscript, I’ll tell the author what an accomplishment the work was. I’m always sincere about that statement, and it occasionally is uttered when I’ve just read a very good book. But sometimes that statement is coded language for, “I’m happy for you and your career that you’ve devoted so much time to this incredibly arcane topic, but in the long run, you’ve just spent the last ten years of your life creating a beautifully packaged doorstop that should function for years to come.”
And maybe I’m displaying my own ignorance here, and I never mind doing that. It’s how I learn, when I have an open mind to do so. Hilarious to me are comments that people make about Citizen Kane: “It’s all clichés.” No, dummy. It created the form. Some dude who ended up being a caricature in his later years was a Boy Genius who invented whole new worlds of filmmaking and storytelling when he was twenty-six years old.
I guess I’m opening myself up to, “Hey, Dummy.”
But reading the front matter for the Oxford World’s Classics edition of the 1922 printing confirmed my general impressions.
Joyce, after meeting only with meager publishing success to that point, went on to attempt this master work of Ulysses. But along the way, he goosed interest in the developing manuscript by letting people know how the book should be interpreted. Nearing publication and a little thereafter, he gave two different folks schemata of the book, indicating its links to the Odyssey, somewhat to Hamlet, what genres each section of the book paired up with, what colors, what body parts and functions, what times of day, and so on.
Somewhere in the notes, the editor of this edition—obviously no slouch in the brains department—stated that without Joyce’s assistance, it’s unlikely that folks would have made any connection between Ulysses and the Odyssey, much less Hamlet.
And there’s more than a little of the following mind-set involved for the readers, too:
Joyce not only gave the world a new way to look at novels; he gave the world a particular piece of work and enough semi-informative and occasionally contradictory data to goose enough critical interest in this book to last forever, obviously.
Some of Ulysses is beautiful. It’s all challenging. It’s an amazing accomplishment. But Joyce’s greater accomplishment still, as far as I’m concerned, was in marketing.
No one needed schema to figure out Citizen Kane. And did Joyce really have all that stuff in mind before he wrote the damn thing? Call me skeptical.