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My name is Bob Land. I am a full-time freelance editor, indexer, and proofreader. This blog is my website.

You'll find my rate sheet and client list here, as well as musings on the life of a freelancer; editing, proofreading, and indexing concerns and issues; my ongoing battles with books and production; and the occasional personal revelation.

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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.

Anyway.

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.

Please see:



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.

18 comments:

moi said...

I don't care how many fancy words have been shotgunned at Ulysses in an attempt to justify its existence as litrichure. It still sucks. It's not composition that should challenge, it's ideas.

P.S. I shared with you lately that I've developed a fondness for some of my parents' old Miles Davis records, specifically, Someday My Prince Will Come? It's very retro cool.

P.S.S. I also love Led Zeppelin, even if listening to them is the aural equivalent of trying to do the hustle in concrete boots.

czar said...

@Moi: Where were you a few days ago when I really needed the statement you just made, which is the crux of the copyediting credo, if I may slightly copyedit it?

Ideas should challenge, not composition.

I will be quoting that to every author and publisher, forever.

Good god, what a great statement.

PS: You don't have to be too adventurous from old Miles records to shift over to Bill Evans, for years the only white guy Miles would allow in his band. Trust me.

Retro cool = what heroin chic used to be, before it showed up on the fashion runways.

PPS: Most folks I know love Led Zeppelin. They also like college football.

Scooter said...

Yeah, Czar. F*ck Joyce! That is what you're saying, isn't it?

czar said...

@Scooter: I think it's Joyce who's been doing the f*cking around here. And the rest of us get to pay for it.

Easy for me to say. I'm getting paid. But your people are sitting on my check, which doesn't improve my mood.

My younger issue (one of the boys, not the Boyz) assures me that Portrait of an Artist is worthwhile. And a friend of mine who is far more accomplished and intelligent than I -- his eyes lit up when he realized he had someone he could talk Ulysses with. So I'd probably have to fend off his onslaughts.

But, yeah, if someone came to me and asked about Ulysses, I'd say it's not worth the effort, unless you just want to cross something off a list.

Derek Davidson said...

I am reminded of something Tom Stoppard once offered in his THE REAL THING, about how sometimes something sounds good but, on further examination, is rather empty. I paraphrase. But "ideas should challenge, not composition" risks crossing into the sounds-good-but-empty line: the composition of a thing IS an idea, made manifest, as it were, in its particular form. Music. All painting, I suppose. Mixtures of things. Jazz challenges in its composition, and it should. Challenging ideas without attention to form or composition are polemics or stump speeches. Commercials. "I know," Joyce might have said, "I will write about a book that follows such and such a structure in its very form--a chapter reflective of the sirens that is itself jangly and musical...I won't actually DO it, but I will write about something that does..." Well, where is the fun in that? What's the tired dictum about writing? Oh yes, show, don't tell. Joyce was showing us what his idea for a book would look and sound like, were it composed in just that manner. And incidentally, I don't like Led Zeppelin.

czar said...

@Derek: Thanks. We needed some scholarly input here and a little perspective. Some day, we will sit and talk it over, and I'll be all the better for it. I can't promise you'll feel the same way.

But if anyone can, you need to explain the whole play section to me sometime. I'm not sure if I thought it was the weakest link because I struggled through the production aspect of it, or if it's actually the case.

And I've always known your musical bent was beyond question. What do you think of Robert Plant entering your world in his dotage?

moi said...

Of course a book's style, the way it is written, is the means by which its ideas are conveyed. The two go hand in hand. What I mean is, I have no idea why on earth its considered laudable to have to WORK to understand something written in one's own language. In other words, there is Faulkner and then there is Flannery O'Connor.

Leslie said...

Csar, another procrastination masterpiece of a blog entry. You capture the boyz so very well.

Every year at Symphony Space they have a Ulysses reading outloud. People seem to be crazy about it; cultish, you might say. Congrats on achieving your goal! I haven't ever read it (nor am likely to, I'm afraid). Possibly you remember (or heard tell) of the time that I announced to Kurt Fanstill that the Beatles biography SHOUT! was "the best book" I'd ever read. (I was reading it at the time.) He ran with it--but I knew what I meant. I just started the Red Chamber; my Chinese cosmetics student recommended it. It's very long, and should be good.

czar said...

@Moi: Hopefully Aunty will weigh in in Aunty-speak on this issue.

Sorry. I'm up to my ears in irony on the new project.

@Leslie: The Boyz need no capturing. It's just providing a venue and letting the Boyzian essence shine through.

Your Chinese cosmetics student? How does "cosmetics" fit in here? I'm guessing you're still teaching Engrish?

czar said...

@Derek and Moi:

Your comments are so interesting. You've hit upon something that ties back into other elements of my post.

Why listen to Coltrane or Ornette Coleman when Bill Evans or Milt Jackson are available?

To me, Coltrane -- elements of whose music are anathema to many -- reaches certain levels of passion and emotion in his musical flights that hit me very deeply, in a much different way than Bill Evans does, and I can't imagine my musical life without either one.

I can't see Ulysses, on one admittedly hasty read, reaching many readers' emotional depths. I thought some parts of the book were hilarious, and from reading the commentary, I get the idea that Joyce was saddened more people didn't have that reaction. Some parts were poignant. The whole bit about Bloom and the handicapped girl on the beach comes to mind. And even the end of Molly's rant.

And the book wonderfully displayed the shifts and turns and interruptions of internal monologue.

But the book is, as Derek said, largely a book about the process of writing a book. If one reads fiction for the story, I don't think this is the book to pick up.

What comes to mind is a concert I ushered for at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta many years ago. Itzhak Perlman. I'd heard of him for much of my life. Technically I'm sure his playing was damn near perfect. The concert left me cold as hell. Passionless. Was his point to demonstrate his chops or bring something to the music? He might have had an off night. But it's hard to imagine someone with that rep being that off.

Scooter said...

I'm sorry I don't have the "chops" to chime in on your musical observations, but the previous mention of Faulkner vs. O'Connor brought me back to my dark days of graduate school and a conversation I used to have in my head, and sometimes out loud, about Stanley Fish vs. Derrida (and many others). I always admired and was grateful to Fish for, as it seemed to me, making a real effort to write prose that was
understandable to a relatively wide audience. I'm not one to advocate for everything to be written on an 8th-grade level. On the other hand, when some of the most intelligent people anywhere have to sweat heavily to puzzle out what on earth somebody is saying, perhaps that writer has not written well. Further, Fish often showed me that, once you got past the obfuscation, the ideas expressed were not necessarily that difficult to understand.

P.S. You already know that I'm not a big Led Zeppelin fan.

RT said...

I just returned from a 10-day visit to St. Petersburg, Russia, where I was born. It was my first time back since my family left in '78. What a city! I did the "Dostoevsky walk" (walking by his numerous apartments, then the setting for Crime and Punishment -- all but two of his novels are set in this city, and the ones that are have settings that correspond to actual houses/streets, AND THEY'RE ALL STILL THERE, relatively unchanged!) and also stopped by Nabokov's house, where there was an exhibit of artwork inspired by Ulysses, one of Nabokov's favorite books.

I've only read the book once, but was sufficiently impressed to then attempt Finnegans Wake. Fortunately, there's a wonderful group in NYC -- called "Wake Watchers" for fun, but officially known as The Finnegans Wake Society of New York -- that meets once a month for 2 hours and plows through about a page. This holographic book pretty much calls for a group reading, as you need multiple brains to engage its labyrinthine text. I can honestly say that those meetings are the highlight of my month, and I heartily recommend to anyone wanting to "read" this book to find or start a group. (I put "read" in quotes because you don't really read this book in any sense of the word -- you unpack it, sing it, marvel at it...but you don't "read" it.) Wake Watchers have been meeting regularly for about 25 years, and even have a write-up in the NY Times. I've been attending the meetings for about 3 years now, and have "read" only about 30 pages, but as I mentioned, it's a holographic book in that almost every sentence contains the entire "plot," if you can call it that (man rises, then falls, usually through his own crime/sin and/or by the hands of his son(s), while all the while the feminine principles buoys him both in his greatness and fall). If Ulysses is a day book, then Finnegans Wake is a night book...OK, I better stop yammering about Finnegans Wake -- I can do that all day, every day.

I've enjoyed reading your blogging on the book, and will reread Ulysses sometime next year, in time for Bloomsday. As for Joyce having "all that stuff in mind before he wrote the damn thing?" as you wrote, I think it's very likely that he did, judging from his extensive notes, though I do think that the parallels with the Odyssey are a bit overblown (yes, they're there, but just as a schema, and you don't need to have read the Odyssey to enjoy/understand Ulysses). The Hamlet parallels are much more obvious, I think (and Joyce certainly inserted tons of Hamlet references into Finnegans Wake).

As you've mentioned Pynchon on the blog, here's a funny pic for you:

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=4458310932717&set=a.1399166256012.57710.1137955749&type=1&ref=nf


PS While in St. Petersburg, a friend took me to a book signing/talk at a bookstore. The book's title is Dostoevsky's St. Petersburg (it's in Russian). An elderly man stood up during the Q&A and talked a bit about some of the locales...then the author said, "I must mention that this man is Dostoevsky's great-grandson." He even looked like him a bit. Needless to say, I was dumbstruck (and more than a bit thunderstruck).

czar said...

@RT: Thanks for writing.

RT, folks, is a friend and editorial colleague of mine . . . whose trips to his homeland are vastly more interesting than mine. His devotion to Joyce is admirable.

My current project is a indexing a book on irony in postmodernist architecture. Included are a few passages that seem to address matters here:

This series of studies revisited Schlegel and Kierkegaard and built a case for the “aesthetic” dimension of language
whereby language was appreciated for the vast (yet nontotalizing) universe of rhetorical fiction it created, and not for its stable correspondence with the world out there. Against the “modern” literary theorists like Wayne Booth, “who have a stake in the understandability of literature,” de Man linked the insight of the fictitious grounding of language to a displacement of the humanist motifs of stability, understanding, and self-control; with the realization of “the imaginary source of fiction,” he explained, “the human self has experienced the void within his own being, and the invented fiction, far from filling the void, asserts itself as pure nothingness, our nothingness stated and restated by a subject that is the agent of its own instability.”


Seems like there was another one, but I can't find it now.

I just woke up from a nightmare in which a local author of mine came by with the final galleys of his book and cheerfully deleted every hyphen. I screamed, "What are you doing?"

He said, "A woman who taught for 57 years told me to take them all out."

For real. Moi, you can take a guess who this author is.

Aunty Belle said...

Mercy Maud!

Mah haid hurts. Cain't ya' jes assign the copyeditin' of that ironic postmodernist architecture sentence to Joyce?

Czar, what interestin' visitors turn up when ya' stir yore innards thisaway. An' wuz yore own self born in Russia? (how'd I miss that?)


I cain't abide Zeplin. Luv collich football.

@ RT
I gits the Wake Watchers meetin' up fer 25 years. We'uns have The Andalusian Peacocks not far behind- 19 years of unpackin' Flannery. NYT ain't give us a mention, though.

czar said...

@Aunty: Sorry for the misunderstanding. I was born in the decidedly less interesting Staten Island, NY, although my people are from Russia -- on my mother's side.

Aunty Belle said...

I left a loooong comment yesterday--it evaporated?

Essentially--wait, ever'body gone now? Din't wanna say too much when folks whose sensibilities I ain't familiar wif' is likely to be readin'.

Essentially Czar knows Aunty's take on Joyce-- t'weren't only Jung who thought him schizophrenic--the quip wuz made it were ole Ezra who shoulda been free an' JJ sent to the nutty farm(We woan go into iffin' EP was sent to farm fer political reasons or mental). But I doan think so--JJ wuz the sad condition known as a tortured apostate. His Catholicism was impossible to remove, an interstitial resident that could never be evicted.

Despite his Jesuit edoocation, he left the Church--sorta--left Ireland fer Italy, then back to Ireland, no no, back to Italy---clearly confused about his place in the world geographically an' spiritually.

UNlike some, he never took cheap shots at the Church, nor tried to dissuade his siblings from their own faith (some held on, some did not). But JJ himself, ya know, went to Easter liturgy on the sly--and other solemn feasts too.
He couldn't live by it, but he couldn't leave it wholly, so he wuz never whole in his heart.

I'se reminded of Fitzgerald plaintively writin' to Edmund Wilson--that Marxist flirt-- "I no longer tell my crystalline beads" (rosary) as if Wilson might pat him on the haid fer this pitiful gesture toward modernism.

JJ seemed to think that he had to divest himself of all thangs religious for the sake of his art--thas' of course the idea that wuz loose at the time--still is, an still jes' as silly a notion. I ask ya': Has art of today soared whar' it's cut loose from religion, or the struggle wif' a life that is assumed to have meanin' an' purpose?

But still. Aunty ain't no critic. Thas' a talent unto itself, like translation or editin'. An' still more, of what I recall of Joyce (it doan count fer much since I wuz a chile in collich) he Had Somethin' To Say.

On this I can paraphrase Will Faulkner (yep, read much more of WF, but then I'se a born Mississippian) WF said writer's need to have somethin' to say.

An' it better be universal, an endurin' somethin' that transcends any era of history, since the human heart an' soul doan change over the ages, jes' the props.

An' when ya' say it, say this universal in the local/ particular way. This is what he called his own writer's salvation, the discovery that he could say whatever he needed to say right from Yoknapatawpha county.

Reckon JJ did same--stories were all in Ireland (I think?? need to ck that). The battle a'tween good an' evil in a particular soul in a particular place. It's why we read the Russians, why the French read Walker Percy an' why the Japanese luv Flannery. Them fools who use evil as a pop market tease(King, Rice) cain't last.

Then ya' git WF on Writing workshop 101--craft. Many writer's know craft can be learned, (Stephen King) but vision cain't. WF an others observe that craft ain't sufficient, but it is necessary. So thas' the question (fer me) on JJ. He had somethin' to say, he had universal themes distilled in the crucible of a particular place. Did he have craft? It's what I doan know (from adult reading). If the horizon ever clears enough fer Ulysses, I may find out myself.

czar said...

@Aunty: Sorry I am just responding. I was thinking how it seems that much of what you say about some authors revolves around their distance from Catholicism, and originally I thought Oh, that's just Aunty. But when I reread your post and I saw the term "tortured apostate," I wondered why that sounded familiar. Of course! It's the RCC's version of "self-hating Jew," a genre that Woody Allen, a million comics, and even the czar has mined from time to time.

I am not a practicing Jew by any means -- and I was never much of one by any stretch -- but it's as much of my identity as anything, especially having grown up in the whole NYC-Miami Beach-Poconos deal. It is, however, very easy not to practice Judaism in 21st-century America, especially in SW Virginia.

On critics . . . yes, it's a whole 'nother thing -- although most of what I'm paid to read seems to attract the worst writers in the field of academia. I think people have been afraid to edit them. Terrible prose, and a press told me not to edit it: it would be a waste of time, kind of like kissing a pig.

Joyce and his craft. That's what it was all about. "I can be a better technical writer than you. I can be a better romance novelist than you." OK, fine. And I'm pretty dense when it comes to all that. It's a great accomplishment. Doesn't always make for a great book. But, yeah, if I were locked in a room with it for three years, it would keep me busy, for better or worse.

Oh, I don't know what happened to your earlier comment. The only thing that came through on my email was that it looked like you'd deleted one. And that's the way it came across in the comments. Blogger bites again.

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