Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Notes on Ulysses by James Joyce, Part I: The Telemachiad.

I've finished the first part of Ulysses, the Telemachiad (meaning 'the song of Telemechus'), which comprises of three episodes:
  • Telemachus, from the Greek Τηλέμαχος meaning 'far from battle'. Refers to Telemachus in Homer's The Odyssey, who searched for his father Odysseus when he fails to return home from the Trojan War.
  • Nestor, referring to Nestor of Gerenia (Νέστωρ Γερήνιο).
  • Proteus, from the Greek 'Πρωτεύς' referring to Homer's 'Old Man of the Sea'.
I will, when I've finished the novel, write a review of some kind, but for now here are some thoughts of Ulysses so far.

And, so far, so mixed. Telemachus and Nestor are actually a delight to read, but, hit Proteus and find the real work starts there.

Telemachus has great energy and a beautiful rhythm throughout. One of my friends drew my attention to this by reading the first sentence, which you must read aloud right now:
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. 
And there are plenty more,
... and then covered the bowl smartly. —Back to barracks! he said sternly.
He added in a preacher's tone...
And then,
Thanks, old chap, he cried briskly. That will do nicely. Switch off the current, will you?
I love the first episode. As I say, it's high energy - set at 8am in the tower, Buck Mulligan in high spirits, pretending to perform mass whilst shaving, winding up the sombre Stephen Dedalus (in Telemachus we pick up his story from the end of Portrait of an Artist), who is in mourning for his mother, and who seems to take it all out a little on a third, Haines, an Englishman. They talk a little of history, specifically Ireland's, theology, Hamlet, and money. There's a lot going on, but, as my third read, I'm finding all kinds of details I'd never noticed, appreciated, or understood before. And, whilst in that respect it is quite dense, it's also very readable and does not require a synopsis, which is why I'm going to end here. But I do love it, it is rather wonderful!

Following Telemachus is Nestor, which follows Stephen into the classroom where he is teaching the victories of Pyrrhus. I like the description / thoughts of one of his pupils:
Ugly and futile: lean neck and thick hair and a stain of ink, a snail's bed. Yet someone had loved him, borne him in her arms and in her heart. But for her the race of the world would have trampled him underfoot, a squashed boneless snail. She had loved his weak watery blood drained from her own. Was that then real? The only true thing in life? His mother's prostrate body the fiery Columbanus in holy zeal bestrode. She was no more: the trembling skeleton of a twig burnt in the fire, an odour of rosewood and wetted ashes. She had saved him from being trampled underfoot and had gone, scarcely having been. A poor soul gone to heaven: and on a heath beneath winking stars a fox, red reek of rapine in his fur, with merciless bright eyes scraped in the earth, listened, scraped up the earth, listened, scraped and scraped.
There is repetition from the first episode, where Stephen is thinking of his own mother and a dream he had where she smelt of "an odour of wax and rosewood", but Stephen's thoughts are interrupted by the vile, anti-Semitic Mr. Deasy, who is largely preoccupied with money (though the history of Ireland is discussed). This part contains the famous quotes, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake", and "God is a shout in the street". In context:
History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
From the playfield the boys raised a shout. A whirring whistle: goal. What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?
—The ways of the Creator are not our ways, Mr Deasy said. All human history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God.
Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:
—That is God.
Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!
—What? Mr Deasy asked.
—A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.
Like Telemachus, it's dense, but very readable. There is hope and joy for Ulysses, but that is promptly thwarted in the third episode, Proteus, where Stephen walks on the beach, thinks thoughts, picks his nose, and urinates against a rock. And he does think lot of thoughts. Proteus is a shape-shifting god, so at least the naming of the episode makes sense. It did mark a shift; Stephen began to think of his father rather than just his mother. The whole episode is interior, there seemed to be some references to the outside world, but Stephen was on the whole preoccupied. It really was a very difficult chapter, but I'm not going to consult other sources whilst I write this post. All I'll say is I do, at some point, need a little help with it! It was somewhat frustrating.

But, I've moved on, and the next episode, the first of The Odyssey (the second part) is rather fun and much more manageable! I do intend to write a few thoughts on the second part, but the second part makes up the vast majority of the book, so it will be after Christmas. And I am enjoying it; Proteus or no Proteus, it's a good experience. 


  1. I do remember being pleasantly surprised when we started on Bloomsday at the initial readability! Didn't last, but it was a good start ;)

    1. It was a good start! I think I'm going to have to quit this readalong - really really want to read Les Misérables, and my heart just isn't into Ulysses at the moment. It's going to have to be a 2014 read.


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