My copies of Ulysses and The Sensual World.
As has been established in a previous blog entry on Peter Reich’s A Book Of Dreams, I have a severe Kate Bush problem. One of the ways in which this love manifests is a desire to read the books she has written songs about. I had already read Wuthering Heights and it is one of my favourite books, so I concluded from this that I would love all the other books she loves enough to write songs about. I’ve read The Turn of The Screw by Henry James, which inspired the film (The Innocents) which inspired the song (Infant Kiss), and also A Book Of Dreams. That left only the book which inspired the Sensual World: James Joyce’s Ulysses.
For those who haven’t experienced the Sensual World, you are in for a treat:
On her album Director’s Cut, released in 2011, Kate Bush completely changed the track. Here is an excerpt from a Guardian article explaining the change:
The Sensual World is perhaps the most changed of these tracks – it has not even retained its original title. Now called Flower of the Mountain, the original lyrics have been replaced by a passage from James Joyce’s 1922 novel. “Originally when I wrote the song The Sensual World I had used text from the end of Ulysses,” Bush said. “When I asked for permission to use the text I was refused, which was disappointing. I then wrote my own lyrics for the song, although I felt that the original idea had been more interesting. Well, I’m not James Joyce am I? When I came to work on this project I thought I would ask for permission again and this time they said yes … I am delighted that I have had the chance to fulfill the original concept.”
(An Aside: I am now a bookbinder, and as part of my training I have had to learn how to use a hot foil blocking press on different materials. I set A LOT of Kate Bush lyrics, including some lyrics from The Sensual World on some material that looks very much like the dress she wears in the music video. Here it is:
End of the aside!)
I have owned this copy of Ulysses since around 2010/2011. My housemate at the time took me to the Oxfam bookshop in Headingley, in Leeds, because we lived close to it and she had learned fairly early on that I love books. She does too. She has an amazing talent; by feeling the pages of an old book, she can tell you what kind of printing press it was printed on. We were once asked how an arts person makes friends with someone with a physics background: cake. And books. We went to the Oxfam bookshop one day, and because it is a beautiful copy and only cost £10, I bought it. Here is a better view of it, including the spine. I have no idea why there is a bow on it.
My copy of Ulysses. Why is there a bow on the spine? I do not know.
Having owned it for five(ish) years now, I decided to finally read it. To get to and from work, I take a bus, and during the lunch break, almost everyone is quiet and reads. I get a lot of reading time during the day, and it is wonderful. Ulysses came on the bus with me, and we had a good time together.
I approached this book almost completely blind. Here are the things I knew about it in advance:
- It is based on the Greek story of Odysseus (whose Latin name is Ulysses), of which I know nothing.
- James Joyce wrote obscurely on purpose to make sure that scholars would still be studying it in a hundred years? (I don’t even know if this is correct.)
- All the action takes place over the course of one day.
- Bloom’s Day is a thing that happens every year in Dublin.
- Every section has a corresponding body part.
- Kate Bush wrote The Sensual World based on the final part of the book, Molly Bloom’s internal monologue, a single sentence that lasts for around 100 pages. Therefore, to greater appreciate the song and Kate Bush’s intentions, I would need to see the whole thing through to the end; no cheating and skipping ahead.
- It’s a difficult book to read.
And that was literally it. I decided not to use any resources while I read, to hold onto this blindness. I didn’t want to have any expectations about what I should be reading into it. Any questions I had could be answered after reading (if I could find the answers). The copy that I have does not have any of the extra material that newer editions have. For example, the Everyman’s Library copy has a table in the back which looks a bit like this:
Ulysses Cheat Sheet in the back of the Everyman’s Library edition (I live in a house in which there are two copies of Ulysses. PRETENTIONS are okay sometimes).
This table splits up the sections of Ulysses into the corresponding sections of The Odyssey, gives the hour of the scene, along with some of the important symbolic references present in the different sections. (After reading the book, and discovering this table, I found out that I had got Kidney, Genitals and Ear correct. I was very proud of myself.)
Previous to this reading, I had tried once before, and hadn’t even made it to the introduction of Leopold Bloom. This time I found it much easier; that was the first instance of realising that a second read is probably necessary. As is forgetting that this is supposed to be a difficult book! Once I had got used to the initial style of the writing, I began to really enjoy it. There were some really wonderful sentences that I held on to long after finishing the book. Here are two of my favourites, from the first section of the book, which follows Stephen Dedalus through his morning:
On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins.
He raised his forefinger and beat the air oldly before his voice spoke.
Why did I enjoy these sentences so much? Sometimes, descriptions are so vivid that the images you get in your head is like looking at a photograph, and that’s what these sentences said. The first sentence is describing the light as it falls through the trees and lands on Stephen’s shoulders. You could say “spots of light moved across his shoulders as he walked beneath the trees” and you would understand the image, but James Joyce has written the sentence almost entirely using metaphors. The spots of light are “sun flung spangles”; his motion is described in terms of the movement of the spots of light, the “dancing coins”, rather than in terms of Stephen’s movement.
What about the second sentence? “Beating the air oldly”; again, this could be said in an entirely different, more straightforward (and much more boring?) way. He has avoided using the clichéd phrase usually used in this situation, in which a figure with more authority “shakes their forefinger” at the (typically younger) less experienced character. And I think that is the thing I really loved most about this book. Cliché has been avoided (apart from where it has been used in a satirical sense, as in the section where he parodies romance novels as Gerty MacDowell fantasises about love). In both of these sentences that I picked out, the action has been described from a point that we aren’t usually familiar with (movement of the light instead of movement of the person; beating the air as opposed to shaking a finger). Having never read anything like that before, it made me think a bit more about what I was reading; if the author had been lazy and used lazy clichés it wouldn’t have made such an impression.
The last two sections of the book are definitely my favourite sections. The second to last is structured in a question and answer style. Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus have been out with friends/acquaintances and are fairly drunk and tired. Bloom feels a fatherly protection for Stephen and wants to make sure that he is okay; he tries to offer him a place to stay for the night, and really wants to be the kind of person that Stephen can admire. At first, the way it is structured makes it seem like it will be very dry, but the questions are such that you want to know the answer. The answers are often full of deadpan humour:
Did Bloom accept the invitation to dinner given then by the son and afterwards seconded by the father?
Very gratefully, with grateful appreciation, with sincere appreciative gratitude, in appreciatively grateful sincerity of regret, he declined.
These two men, one old enough to be the father of the other, have stumbled back to the house of Bloom. It’s about 1am and they have been drinking. This question and answer made it very clear to me that they are both very tired and very drunk. In the stages of being overly polite and familiar, and genuine, and friendly. And he does all that with just two sentences. The whole book was a joy.
There were a lot of parts that went completely over my head too; I have very little idea about what happened in the chapter in which Bloom is at the maternity hospital and meets up with Stephen and his friends before they head out. An article about the most worthwhile parts of Ulysses describes this particular section much better than I can:
I do love the “Oxen of the Sun” episode, in which Joyce writes chronologically successive rafts of prose that replicate the stylistic evolution of English writing from Chaucer to the present. It’s skillful and funny and offers a tapestrylike illustration of the progress of language and rhetoric, style as content.
Completely baffling to read, especially as it gets into the heavy slang at the end of the chapter. But just as you start to struggle with or get bored with a style, it switches to a completely different one. And you have to go through the process of getting comfortable with the style again, which I really enjoyed every time.
What did I think of the final part of the book? The part that Kate Bush wanted to turn into a song? This was the final part of the books, and one of my favourites, along with the question and answer style section. The whole chapter is from Molly Bloom’s point of view, who, it seems to the reader, has not left her bed all day. She started there when we first joined Leopold when he took her breakfast in bed, and she was still there when he got into bed at the end of the evening. She has spent a large portion of the day in that room, and also presumably with Boylan, the man who is managing her current singing tour and whom Leopold is suspicious of being his wife’s lover.
After spending a book with boys and men who are concerned with hamlet, advertising, medical school, death and lovers-from-a-distance, the change to Molly’s abruptness and directness throws you off-balance at first. She seems much more decisive and sure of herself and of her husband than Bloom or Stephen are of anything. Where Leopold is indecisive and almost unwilling to think about it when it comes to his wife’s potential admirers and lovers, Molly thinks she knows about the nature of Leopold’s affairs. She assumes that he has had meetings with the woman who writes to him (Leopold thinks he has very cleverly kept these letters secret), and also assumes that he has affairs all over the place. Having followed him for the day through the book, the reader knows that each instance of Bloom being attracted to or noticing another woman leads to him thinking of Molly, or being disappointed. He watches these women from a distance.
Both of them project something of themselves onto each other. But the creativity of the language and the way in which it is used to tell the story elevate the book from being a simple story about a day in the life of a man in advertising who is worried about his wife’s fidelity into something about how well you can ever know another person. You spend most of the book in Leopold’s head. You spend some if it in Stephen’s, you spend some of it observing how others observe and feel about Bloom. And at the end of it you get the opinion of his wife. How does how Bloom sees himself compare to all these different perspectives? How do they fit together to build one person? How would the reader feel about him if they didn’t get Molly’s opinion at the end? These are the things the book made me think about, and I don’t really have any answers yet! Not ones that I could write about coherently and interestingly anyway.
As soon as I had finished reading I wanted to read it again, and it was very heartening to discover that I could open the book to any page, read what I had previously considered to be impenetrable text, and read it with ease. I felt like I could read anything. I’ve read Ulysses, so why not? No book is impenetrable now! And I have Kate Bush to thank for that.
In 2013, I went to Paris. I was there for five days, for a workshop. The evenings were spent wandering around and getting lost, and accidentally getting the queue for the Arc de Triomphe. One thing I knew that I had to do, however, was visit Shakespeare and Company, a famous Paris bookshop that I’ve wanted to visit ever since I first heard of it. Please give me a second while I retrieve the journal I was writing in at the time!
This journal came with me to find Shakespeare and Company. It is the same green as my copy of Ulysses. Coincidence???
Tuesday 17th October 2013
I’m sitting on some stairs outside Notre Dame, and I just saw a man do poi with fireworks. I couldn’t find the bookshop, and then I got lost (how do you lose a cathedral after just seeing it?). But I found it. The night show is just a film about the history of Notre Dame, and you had to pay. I can’t get back too late either, so I just had a look inside.
Later, after losing a cathedral, I find Shakespeare and Company:
I found it, and I am IN in it. They have a library upstairs where you can sit and read books that aren’t even for buying. There is a piano to the right with a Bishop on it. There’s a girl on the bed to my right, listening to music and writing. There’s a woman opposite me, reading a book of horror stories. In the room next door is a book group. There’s a typewriter in a dark little cubby hole, and a place for children to sit and read books. There is a wall of messages. I might write one.
Someone just sat next to me, and is playing the slightly out of tune piano. I have no idea what he is playing. I don’t think he does either. He has gone from jazz to … silent movie style music, to something else entirely. I wonder if he comes here a lot. If this was the UK, nobody would dare sit at the piano, even though it is there to be played. They’d be scared of annoying the people around them.
I’m a little scared of going through the creaky gate to the poetry section. It is separated from the rest of the shop by an iron gate (piano man is now playing the Pink Panther theme). This place is open til 11, by the way, That’s amazing.
Why talk about Shakespeare and Company? After finishing Ulysses I read a bit about it, to put the book in context, learn where it had come from, how something like that had ever been published at the time. And it was first published by James Joyce’s friend, Sylvia Beach, an American living in Paris who founded Shakespeare and Company in 1919! Without knowing it, I had visited a historical literary destination; it was a very satisfying discovery! And the shop continues to publish and sell things that otherwise wouldn’t get much attention. While I was there, I bought a copy of the Belville Park Pages, which contains some amazing prose and poetry that I never would have been exposed to if I hadn’t gone into that bookshop.
The copy of Belville Park Pages no. 9, purchased from Shakespeare and Company.
Making connections is one of the best things about reading, and it turns out that there are tons to be made from Ulysses; with places, other authors, other books. Other styles of writing! It’s the kind of book I will be able to read and re-read and take something new away from each time. Well, that happens with almost every re-read, but Ulysses is so dense with information and connections that I can’t imagine ever feeling like I know everything about the book.
As I wrote earlier, I felt like reading Ulysses had made it possible for me to read anything else that I wanted to. So I decided to have another go at The Lighthouse by Virginia Wo0lf after being told that her writing style also resembles thought processes and that she writes very much from inside characters’ heads. Those are both things I enjoyed about Ulysses, so approached The Lighthouse this time round with the belief that, no matter how difficult the book would be to get into, it would be worth it and, more importantly, I would be able to do it.
As I found when I went back to re-read passages of Ulysses once I finished it, the text made much more sense to me now. And I want to read everything she has written. The book is written as if you are an observer in the characters’ heads, and often you aren’t given much warning about when the perspective is going to shift. But it isn’t difficult to follow, and it never feels crowded or claustrophobic.
Here is one of my favourite passages from the novel. One of the guests invited to the holiday home, Lily Briscoe, tried to paint the mother of the large family, Mrs Ramsey, while she sat with her son earlier in the day. A tree in the painting is causing her some trouble. Lily is at dinner with the family and all their guests, feeling slightly patronised by one of the male guests there, who believes that women cannot paint and cannot write:
He has his work, Lily said to herself. She remembered, all of a sudden as if she had found a treasure, that she too had her work. In a flash, she saw her picture, and thought, Yes, I shall put the three further in the middle; then I shall avoid that awkward space. That’s what I shall do. That’s what has been puzzling me. She took up the salt cellar and put it down again on a flower pattern in the table-cloth, so as to remind herself to move the tree.
The conventional way to describe a character would be to illustrate how they interact with other characters, their facial expressions, what they look like. Here, we learn that Lily is very dedicated to her own work, and often finds it difficult to remember that her own work and her own opinions are just as valid as those of the people around her. The action of moving the salt cellar to a different place on the table did the same thing to my mental images as those two sentences from Ulysses; I was there at the table, I was in Lily Briscoe’s head as she zoned out of the dining table conversation for a few seconds to observe the patterns in the table-cloth and think about her painting.
The salt cellar comes back later in the scene, and this time it reminds her that she must hold on to her belief in the importance of her work:
Why did her whole being bow, like corn under a wind, and erect itself again from this abasement only with a great and rather painful effort? She must make it once more. There’s the sprig on the table-cloth; there’s my painting; I must move the tree to the middle; that matters – nothing else. Could she not hold fast to that, she asked herself, and not lose her temper, and not argue; and if she wanted a little revenge take it by laughing at him?
The salt cellar makes another appearance, in a later section of the book set a long time after this dinner. Lily goes back to the house with some of the family members and previous guests, and remembers her painting and the table-cloth. It is very hard to describe the power of memory in a story, and Virginia Woolf does it in a way that is very easy to relate to, because it is something that everyone does. For some reason, it is rarely included, because who wants to read about the way a character remembers something? But just like James Joyce avoided clichés to describe even the act of walking under a tree in a new way, Virginia Woolf used the simple act in which a character associates a significance to the placing of a salt-cellar to illustrate how memory works. The word “elegant” is overused, but I think in this case it really is the only word to use.
Another book I read that I never would have attempted to read if I had not made it though Ulysses and enjoyed it: A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBride.
The whole book is written in fragmented sentences, as if you are reading exactly what the protagonist is thinking as soon as she thinks it, before she has even formed it into sentences for herself. It took a while to get used to reading in the style that your subconscious puts thoughts together, but it is impressive that Eimear McBride has managed to capture that. I can relate to it, anyway, and all the people who have praised it so much and given it awards must have been able to also.
If you’re going to read Ulysses because you want to, because you feel like you have to, or because you need to for academic reasons, I urge you to go in blind. Avoid reading about it. Don’t read any reviews (though if you’ve already read this – sorry!), and prepare to read something entirely different to what you were expected. Prepare to be surprised by how progressive some of his ideas were for the time. Put the effort in to stick with it and try to follow some of the weirder sentences because it is worth it. There’s more humour than I thought there would be; it is a fun book. It feels like James Joyce set himself massive challenges while writing, and it is just a lot of fun to read the results of those challenges.
And best of all, you’ll come away feeling like you can read absolutely anything. After you’ve finished re-reading Ulysses. (You will definitely want to re-read it!)