Yesterday we noted how, in order to separate themselves from the vulgar masses, the intellectuals of the early twentieth century deliberately developed a form of literature which was too difficult for the ordinary reader to understand. And few books in that era were more difficult to understand than James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).
You might imagine, therefore, that the appearance of Ulysses would have been greeted with cries of joy and acclamation from the literary intelligentsia. But not so.
Why not? Well, there were two problems. The first was that Joyce himself was not one of us; he was a definite oik. And the second problem was that Joyce’s hero, Leopold Bloom, was even oikier. The man was an Irish Jew, for a start. And he was some sort of clerk, for heaven’s sake; and there were few worse insults in the intellectuals’ armoury than to describe a fellow as a mere clerk.
The word oik, by the way, is an old-fashioned English term for a person of uncouth behaviour and/or appearance. A friend of mine once had to act as guide to a distinguished politician called Roy Jenkins (now deceased). Roy was sometimes known as Woy, because of a minor speech impediment. By way of small talk my friend and Woy fell to discussing other personalities in UK politics, and my friend asked Woy what he thought of Kenneth Clarke – a man who may soon lead the Tory party. ‘Oh,’ cried Woy, ‘an absolute oik!’
But back to Joyce. Yes, strive though he might to be the leader of the avant-garde and hence the intellectuals’ darling, poor old Jimmy boy never quite made it. He was dismissed by Virginia Woolf as a ‘a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic [ha!], insistent, raw, striking and ultimately nauseating.’ He probably smelt too.
Leopold Bloom also failed to find favour. He was not an intellectual. The only book we see him buy is entitled Sweets of Sin (not one feels, a highbrow volume), and he reads a periodical called Tit-Bits!
We may note, in passing, that Tit-Bits was not as salacious as it sounds, but it was a magazine which was regularly singled out for condemnation by the intelligentsia. It was aimed firmly at suburban readers, and in its early days each issue contained 40,000 words of text covering a remarkably wide spectrum of subjects. It was clearly bought by those of the lower social orders who sought to improve themselves, and such people got little encouragement from most of the intellectual community.
So, one way and another, James Joyce did not receive universal approval and admiration from the literary intelligentsia, despite the fact that they were the obvious audience for his book, and despite the fact that Ulysses was as difficult to follow as anything ever published up to that point.
Not that Ulysses is impossible to read in the same way that you would read any other book, but it is pretty hard going. It is much easier to follow, on the whole, if you have a guide to help you. I myself have found that the best guide to the book is Harry Blamires’s The New Bloomsday Book – subtitled A guide through Ulysses. First published in 1966, a second edition appeared in 1988; this is the one that I have. A third edition, however, was issued in 1996. If you buy a copy, you should ideally make sure that you have an up-to-date edition of Ulysses, so that the page-number references match.
As I have remarked before, my favourite section of Ulysses is the Nighttown sequence, which is written largely in the form of a play script. I am not always sure, however, whether some of the symbolism that Blamires’s commentary draws attention to was placed there by Joyce himself, intentionally, or whether it is something that Blamires himself has read into the text. Either way, Blamires’s guide to this longish section of the book has proved invaluable to me, and I warmly recommend it to others who are about to wrestle with Joyce’s masterpiece.
Some time ago, a reader of the blog kindly sent me a quotation from Albert Camus: ‘Those who write clearly have readers, those who write obscurely have commentators.’ Well, as commentators go, Blamires is one of the best.