Wednesday, November 15, 2017


I finished the first section of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) commonly referred to as Telemachus. This covers the first twenty-three pages of the edition I'm reading, opening with the iconic,“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” He's atop the Sandycove Martello tower in Dublin where he's residing with Stephen Dedalus (protagonist of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) and an English student named Haines. There's tension between the two of them for several reasons (including the presence of Haines) though a main linchpin is Mulligan accusing Stephen of having been heartless to Stephen's mother when she was dyingMary Dedalus had asked her unbelieving son to pray for her and he refused. In return Stephen overheard Mulligan making a "beastly" remark about his mother's passing. By the end of this section, Stephen has decided to leave the tower and not return.

That may all seem quaint, as this plebeian describes it, but there's a lot more happening beginning with the robust language. After Haines assumes Stephen is an atheist: "You behold in me, Stephen said with grim displeasure, a horrible example of free thought" or after his verbal jiu-jitsu with Mulligan: "Parried again. He fears the lancet of my art as I fear that of his. The cold steel pen." And on and on the beauty of these passages build like nothing else in literature. No hyperbole. Martin Amis calls Joyce a "genius ... he makes Beckett look pedestrian, Lawrence look laconic, Nabokov look guileless." Zadie Smith says, "For me, Joyce is the ultimate realist because he is trying to convey how experience really feels. And he found it to be so idiosyncratic he needed to invent a new language for it." And none other than T.S. Eliot: "I hold [Ulysses] to be the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape." More well known authors make the Joyce case here.

Part of the Ulysses experience is the plethora of new words and phrases the reader gleans. Here's a few I picked out from the Telemachus chapter:

Algy - Algernon Charles Swinburne, the ostentatiously decadent late Victorian poet from Northumberland. 

Dogsbody - a person who is given boring, menial tasks to do.

Epi oinopa ponton - from Homer's odyssey that means, "upon the wine-dark sea."

Heresiarchs - The founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect.

Mummer - an actor who communicates entirely by gesture and facial expression.

Terrene - of or like Earth; earthy

Thalatta - shouting joy of 10,000 Greeks seeking the Black Sea yelling, "The Sea."

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