Saturday, July 30, 2005

Anti-Semitism in ULYSSES?

I once wrote a story where a character makes a racist joke about a customer she is serving in her Iowa coffee shop. My intent was to characterize this woman as a person flawed by prejudice, but my workshop colleagues tore into me, accusing me of being racist. This exercise in political correctness was quite an eye opener. (And I shouldn’t have been surprised by Kirkus’s negative review of my novel THE FLAME TREE, which sternly took me to task for the audacity of portraying a few Muslims as bigoted and violent).

So I’m not going to jump all over Joyce when one of his characters (the Britisher Haines) says, “Of course I’m a Britisher…and I feel as one. I don’t want to see my country fall into the hands of the German jews either. That’s our national problem, I’m afraid, just now.”

This is probably just Haines. One musn’t try to reverse engineer the author from his characters. In fact, maybe Joyce, being Irish, was taking the mickey out of the British by making a Britisher brutish.

On the other hand, this was written at the opening of this century, when racism wasn’t even a concept yet, although its practice was much more casually out in the open and culturally acceptable. So I do wonder whether Joyce was exposing something of himself here. I repeat, I don’t know. The rest (the great unread rest) of the novel might tell.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

A note for ULYSSES fans

I’m not reading ULYSSES to mock it. I’m serious about this, but on other hand, I have to be in some sense light-hearted about it as well, otherwise the temptation to toss aside the novel might be too much. If I sound snide or cynical, it's not intended.

I’m up to page 21, and I reckon reading this is like dining at an Indonesian rijstaffel. That’s a banquet of rice with dozens of accompanying dishes. You might not like all the dishes, in fact you might not understand some of the dishes, but there are many delicious dishes to enjoy.

As for expert commentary, there seems to be something on each page or two I don’t quite get, or don’t get at all. I really doubt any of you would have the time or patience to answer all my questions, some of them no doubt outright dumb or ignorant.

But I will have questions to ask later, when I’ve read much or most of the novel. For example, I am keeping in mind Segur’s comment to one of my posts that Buck Mulligan wants to Hellenize Ireland – I don’t know why this should be so, but I reckon maybe the answer will come as I read on. If it doesn’t, I’ll get back this point.

Why this blog?

I’m not fooling myself into thinking that this blog is burning a comet’s trail aross the blogosphere. But here is why I am blogging my reading of ULYSSES instead of reading it the old-fashioned way, in private and in quiet:

1. Because for while I’ve wanted to write a blog just for the hell of it, to give me a break from my fiction writing. I was going to blog about fiction writing, but decided to warm up first on another.

2. Because I didn’t want to write the deadly boring “I did this and then I did that” sort of blog.

3. Because I did decide to bite the bullet and read ULYSSES.

4. Because, to be completely honest, I’d like whoever reads this blog to be tempted to click on the little icon over there and check out my novel. That's why this isn't anonymous. Of course, maybe you’ll shake your head and ask, What’s the industry coming to these days if an idiot like this guy can get published?

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Would Joyce like this cigarette?

Did JJ smoke? He might have appreciated Indonesia's newest cigarette.

Can't a fellow read ULYSSES just for the enjoyment, I plaintively ask?

Segur, a most learned person about things Joycean, gently points out in his comments the errors of my ways and assumptions in my previous posts.

Still, I’d like to plaintively ask, is it possible to read ULYSSES these days just for the enjoyment of it, without needing a commentary to understand it?

I guess that depends on what I mean by “enjoy.” Me, that means being able to follow the text and the story without any undue labor. The parts of the writing that aren't accessible to me are piling up. I admit I’m biased both by reading habit and I guess some genetics – growing up in Bali most of my reading were whatever novels tourists and travelers left behind. Vacation stuff. Don’t get me wrong, by reading great literature I am growing into an appreciation of great literature, but so far, upon page 18, ULYSSES isn’t growing on me.

Consider this passage: Inshore and farther out the mirror of water whitened, spurned by lightshod hurrying feet. White breast of the dim sea. The twining stresses, two by two. A hand plucking the harpstrings merging their twining chords. Wavewhite wedded words shimmering on the dim tide.

Reading that snippet aloud, I enjoy the rhythm and cadence, but damned if I can understand it. If that makes me a literary philistine, then philistine I am.

But still, I do like Buck Mulligan, fluttering his hands at his side like a cherub and reciting The Ballad of Joking Jesus. If anyone thinks that I amn’t divine/He’ll get no free drinks when I’m making the wine

On, on! I shall not fail!

Monday, July 25, 2005

Picking noses, plus more on reading plan

My nine-year-old daughter made this in Sunday School (the writing says God's Team). My seven-year-old son said it would be great for picking noses. (He also says, you can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but you should never ever pick your friend’s nose)

I’m faithfully keeping up my ULYSSES reading. Mario in his comment suggests that at 3 pages a day I will lose track of characters, but on the other hand, having a daily quota is the only way I can be sure I actually finish the novel.

It’s sort of like reading the Bible through in a year.

However, I think it’d be boring to comment on each day’s read. So I won’t be posting every day.

By the way, I am going to start another blog on my novel-in-progress, the one under deadline to Simon and Schuster YA (about the tsunami). Along with other related writing stuff. Will let you all know.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

The first 3 pages

Read first 3 pages (and for convenience say, let’s say my daily quota is 3 ages –whoops, I mean pages). Yes, I read every word, too, a lot of them more than once, trying to get the sense of things.

I’m on a parapet overlooking Dublin bay with Stephen Dedalus and stately, plump Buck Mulligan. Mulligan seems to have a version of Tourette’s syndrome. I don’t fully understand him (what is an oun?), but I like him.

Let me briefly “workshop” this beginning ala “how to write fiction”: No real opening hook. Use of foreign languages a no-no. Pesky adverbs should be deleted. Too many adjectives. General setting clear, but confusion as to the nature of Dedalus’s and Buck’s accommodations. Nice foreshadowing of conflict with the unseen Haines, a fellow resident of the tower who’s raving about shooting a black panther (note: I expect something to come of this setup). When Dedalus says to Buck “You saved men from drowning”, this is authorial intrusion, telling the reader something that should be shown. Dedadlus says he is no hero, which of course leads me to expect that he will prove to be one. Excellent powers of description (“gurgling face..equine in its length..light untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak.”) Flashback of Dedalus’s refusal to pray for his dying mother despite her request (a telling characterization of Dedalus) is well handled, although it is perhaps best shown in immediate scene.

Okay, okay, that was just a frivolous exercise. But truthfully, if I had opened this novel in a bookstore without any idea of what it was I would have immediately put it down. Why? Because I have this quirk about not wanting to read novels that don’t use standard quotation marks for dialogue (ULYSSES uses dashes to set off dialogue—was this one of Joyce’s literary inventions?). This reflects poorly on me, I know.

Still, I’ve plunged in and found the writing more accessible than I thought I would. A mild spark of interest in the story, as well, but not enough to read beyond my daily quota.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

My Reading Plan

My copy of ULYSSES has 780 pages. I’ve flipped through them – while there several sections, there don’t seem to be any chapters. To finish the novel in a year, I would have to read about 2.1 pages a day (or 2.136986… to be precise -- an irrational number, by the way). That seems eminently doable. Perhaps there will be days when the story tugs me along beyond this quota. Perhaps there will be many more days when I will read exactly 2.136986… pages, or down to the closest word (splitting this hair down to the closest letter of the closest word would be overdoing it, I believe).

But I noticed Joyce’s signoff at the end: Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914-1921. And here I thought Joyce was holed up in dreary Dublin to write this. One small stereotype shattered. Maybe larger stereotypes will also crumble.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

It's arrived!

My copy of ULYSSES has arrived. After quickly flipping through the pages, 783 of them, I am deeply moved by a profound sense of inertia.

Do I have to read the introductory front pages?

One interesting thing right of the bat, from my cursory examination of the front matter: I didn't know the book had been banned in the US. Books that are banned tend to get fame and notoriety. Is this one reason why ULYSSES is so famous and so unread?

Tomorrow I am off to an Internetless island with my kids to go surfing. I will not bring my laptop nor ULYSSES. I have packed other books to read, such as Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.

Just kidding (although I did read Brown's ANGELS AND DEMONS a few weeks ago on a similar trip -- my eyes haven't quite recovered from all their rolling). One of the books I do have is Robinson's GILEAD, which I am quite looking forward to read, as my father was a minister and missionary.

I'll plan out my year of reading ULYSSES when I return on July 20th.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Well, I'll be quarked

I am in grievous error. I said in an earlier post that the physicist Gell-Mann got the name "quark" from ULYSSES. Wroing wroing wrong. The term comes from Joyce's FINNEGAN'S AWAKE and boy is he hungover.

Okay, okay. That's FINNEGAN'S WAKE, which probably refers to poor Finnegan's postmortem rites. Several friends and kind colleagues have commented that I have chosen the wrong non-understandable novel to read, that FW better fits that criterion.

I hang my head in abashment.

Still waiting on Amazon.


Sunday, July 03, 2005

Who was the real Ulysses?

Ulysses was that ancient Greek warrior dude who, after lots of heroics in the Trojan War (he was the devious bastard who came up with the wooden horse idea to get inside the gates of Troy), went on that famous Odyssey as told by Homer, trying to get back home to his wife Penelope, albeit somewhat reluctantly.

It was Homer, in writing the Odyssey, who's responsible for the cliché “steering a course between Scylla and Charybdis”, which for some odd reason I've heard at least five times this past week. The monster Scylla snacked on sailors and the whirlpool Charybdis drowned them, and Ulysses had to safely make his way between them. The phrase means having to navigate threatening waters, even if landlocked and stationary, such as when you are seated at a party between your mother-in-law and your boss.

The 19th century poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, taking pity on Ulysses having to hang with his aged wife, sent the old man on further adventures, "to strive, to find, to seek, and not to yield." Excellent words, btw, for a middle-aged fart who is going to read ULYSSES for the first time.

As for James Joyce, I understand (and I could be wrong) that all the characters in his novel have their counterpart in the ancient Homerian epic. So I’m real interested to see what form Joyce’s Trojan Horse takes, not mention how Joyce steered the course between his mother-in-law and his boss.*

*(Was Joyce ever married? Gainfully employed? I guess I should find out, but I am curiously incurious.)

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Okay, just kidding on the math of previous post

Checking to see if you were alert, which apparently no one was. (But hey, this is about ULYSSES, not math).

I said the 15 billion AA batteries manufactured each year (an estimation) would stack into a cube several thousand kilometers to a side.

You don't really have to do the math to realize that's ridiculous, otherwise the planet would soon be covered in AA batteries.

An honest hand-wavy calculation gives a cube about 50 meters (yards) to a side.

That's enough room to pack about 50 million copies of ULYSSES, certainly far more than has been printed, much less read.