Tuesday, March 12, 2013

James Joyce's Ulysses #1

"Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed." So begins James Joyce's masterwork. And what an opening sentence. Just roll that around your tongue and lips a few times in a faux Irish accent. But just as Joyce makes most prose poems sound like precious roadmaps to nowhere, he also embeds meaning within the tiniest aesthetic. Take the first word. We usually think of a "stately" person as having a dignified bearing, and it's true that the mocking,  dramatic Mulligan carries himself with rakish hubris. But the first syllable should be emphasized.

The opening tower scene of Ulysses was based on a six-day Joyce autobiography with university friend Oliver Gogarty, a man later to become a writer, surgeon and wit of some renown. It's in this latter capacity that he's revealed in the opening of the novel. But let's get back to the stateliness of Mulligan. It was Joyce's actual foil who wanted to transform Ireland into a new Greece through verse and gab. And the tower was the place where Gogarty/Mulligan would launch this literary offensive. (It was only one of seventy-four towers built as a lookout and defense for and from French invasion.)

It's just one of many elements of Joyce's genius that he could colour so sympathetic a character as Mulligan while personally and psychologically skewering the man. Shakespeare had that, as well. Just as one laughs or winces with the violence of Mulligan's presence, his withering digs and singing jests at Stephen Dedalus (Joyce, in at least this section), one is brought up in awe, even repentance for a virtual piling-on, when Mulligan is confounded by, and finally denounces with hurt and compassion, Stephen's small-minded slight at the other's retort at Stephen's mother's funeral. " 'Her cerebral lobes are not functioning. She calls the doctor Peter Teazle and picks buttercups off the quilt. Humour her till it's over. You crossed her last wish in death and yet you sulk with me because I don't whinge like some hired mute from Lalouette's.' ".

Yet one can't completely side with Mulligan, either. Here is the first of many amazing interiorities in the novel -- stream-of-consciousness, if it must be characterized so, and emanating from Stephen: "Pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart. Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes. Across the threadbare cuffedge he saw the sea hailed as a great sweet mother by the wellfed voice beside him."

But we can't stop there. Joyce piles up the complexities with this curiously linked passage three pages later: "In the gloomy domed livingroom of the tower Buck Mulligan's gowned form moved briskly about the hearth to and fro, hiding and revealing its yellow glow."

Well, that's a tiny exploration from the first nine pages. Bear with me as I make frequent but sporadic updates for quite a while.