Monday, November 29, 2010

Ulysses, a Masterpiece, and My New Sixth Favorite Novel for Men

UlyssesSo, I've done it. I've read Ulysses from beginning to end, finding parallels between the characters in Joyce's portrait of Dublin and Homer's epic of Ulysses' return to Ithaca after the Trojan War; slogging through the difficult chapters told in stream of consciousness; jumping from character to character as Leopold Bloom makes his way across Dublin at midday; patiently wading through Joyce's mockery of various affected styles of English prose; enduring the staccato-like catechism (which was apparently Joyce's favorite part of the novel); and winding up with Molly Bloom's internal soliloquy, which is without punctuation and so full of bodily functions and sexual fantasies that it would make even a sailor blush. I didn't do it alone, mind you--I had a Princeton professor to guide me--but it's done. And at the end of the day, I've emerged exhausted, but with a profound respect for Joyce as an artist, as a visionary, but most of all as a humanist.

There are too many dimensions to Ulysses to try to capture more than a handful in any reasonable review, so I won't even try. Joyce himself famously said that, with respect to Ulysses, he had "put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant." I'm focused here on the three aspects of the novel that impressed me most. In no particular order, they are as follows:

1. Recognizing the epic in the everyday. Ulysses takes place over the course of one day--June 16, 1904--in which Joyce follows first Stephen Dedalus (Joyce's alter-ego and the protagonist of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) and then Leopold Bloom (the protagonist of Ulysses) as they make their way separately from their respective homes, through the streets of Dublin on a variety of errands, toward an unanticipated reunion in the wee hours of the night. The story relies for its structure on Homer's epic, The Odyssey, which first follows Telemachus (Ulysses' son) as he leaves home to search for his absent father, and then Ulysses as he returns to his home in Ithaca after the Trojan War. Numerous episodes recounted in The Odyssey have their corollaries in Ulysses, including (among many others) a humorous take on Homer's sirens and an encounter with a (then) modern-day cyclops, myopic in his view of Irish identity and his own racial superiority.  Part of Joyce's genius is in showing that, viewed from the proper perspective, every life is an epic every bit as adventuresome as that of Ulysses.

2. Innovation in style. Though the original story was serialized and then published as a whole in only three parts, Joyce himself later accepted the addition of 18 Odyssey-derived episode headings. Nearly every episode exhibits a different literary style or character perspective, from stream of consciousness to newspaper headlines to mock Olde English to mythological description to question and answer (the catechism), from the head of Stephen Dedalus to Leopold Bloom to various characters in the Dublin street to an unnamed observer in a Dublin bar to young Gerty on the beach to Molly Bloom's final soliloquy. To anyone that has not read the work, this would appear to be an impossible, chaotic jumble of storytelling techniques and perspectives, sure to derail the main story. But Joyce makes it work, partly because the story that he tells is so simple and straightforward and human (see below) that the reader can easily follow along with a little patience and, if necessary (as in my case), some study. The mix of technique is shocking to modern readers--I can only imagine what it must have seemed to readers in the 1920's--but once you get the hang of it, Joyce's genius really shines through.

3. Daring to tell a story that is human in every respect. As mentioned briefly above, there are more references to bodily functions and sexual fantasy in Ulysses than perhaps in any other book that I have ever read. And while I generally view the overuse of sex or potty humor as a cheap device designed to pander to a lower readership, I think just the opposite is true in Ulysses.  Joyce used the embarrassments and oddities and fetishes of every day to create not only believeable characters, but characters that you would swear that you know personally, even thought they are removed from modern life by an ocean and a century.  The same is true of the misunderstandings, petty jealousies, lethargy, and persecutions that sap their and our strength day after day--theirs are yours and vice versa.  This is Joyce's greatest trick in my opinion: allowing the reader to see him or herself in not only a single character, but in all the main characters of the work, male and female alike.

As a modern reader of what has been often deemed the greatest novel ever written in the English language, the only criticism that I have of Ulysses is that it is too historically tied to the issue of Irish nationalism.  The references to English oppression and the roots of Sinn Fein make the work somewhat less relevant to the modern reader than it might otherwise be.  At the same time, given that one of Ulysses' main themes is usurpation, I am not sure that it could have been written any other way.  And it is for this reason alone that I place it sixth among my personal recommendations of novels for men--those that sit above it (and many that sit below it) are more enduring as expressions of universal human experience not tied to a particular time or place.  This takes nothing away from the work itself, of course--it is undeniably a masterpiece--but reflects only my own personal view.  I hope that in these lines I've persuaded more people to give Ulysses the old college try.  In any case, let me know what you think of Ulysses, whether you've read it or not.

As a result of my experience with Ulysses, I have ordered an old, well-thumbed library copy of Finnegans Wake, which I am resolved to pick up (and review) at some point in the near future.  If anyone has a recommendation for a critical review, please pass it along--I know that I'm going to need it.  In the meantime, I need a little break.           

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Literary Blog Hop (We'll Be Having Scotch and Cigars in the Library)

Someone among our friends over at The Blue Bookcase has been taking her ginko biloba (I'm betting on Christina).  This weekend marks the first ever Literary Blog Hop wherein we snooty literary types look disapprovingly through our wire-rimmed glasses, over the rims of our scotch tumblers, and through the haze of cigar smoke in our grand libraries at all those lesser genres, which so murk the crystal clear waters of the beautiful River of Literature, which flows unbroken down the valley of time from its origins among the forests of late-medieval England and Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.

We're just kidding, of course.  I myself occasionally read a Clive Cussler (adventure) or Orson Scott Card (sci-fi), and I even made it through the first 50 pages of Twilight before I was forced to quit and dedicate my life to its eradication from the planet (see our Declaration of War on All Things Twilight here).  Which is to say that our tastes here at The Literate Man are not entirely or exclusively "literary," but we do generally find that we obtain the most enjoyment from works that tell an essentially human story, demonstrate growth or at least change in their characterization, endure the tests of time (exhibiting a consistent social relevance), and evidence an expert, innovative, or at least playful use of structure and language.  We also prefer beer over scotch, but that is the subject of a different post.

One of our favorites (I say speaking for myself and Aaron, but perhaps not Greg) is Sometimes A Great Notion by Ken Kesey (see our review of it here).  Kesey is much better known for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest--which is a good book, don't get me wrong--than for Sometimes A Great Notion, which was his masterpiece and (arguably) the best book ever written about life in the great American Northwest.  Sometimes is a novel of freedom and independence set in a world that tends toward conformity, which is perhaps the most relevant story of our age.  Each of its many characters develop throughout the course of the novel, but none more so than the bookish and rebellious Leland Stamper, who finally comes to stand with his family against the forces arrayed against them.  The novel is as relevant today as the day that it was written and its relevance should continue as long as workers' unions continue to exist.  But perhaps the most impressive and "literary" feature of the work is Kesey's technique of multiple perspectives, whereby the thoughts and actions of several characters are presented on the same page and sometimes in the same line.  It sounds confusing, I'll admit, but somehow Kesey makes it work.  The truth is that I've never read anything like it except, perhaps, James Joyce's Ulysses, which I am convinced must have directly influenced Kesey's work.

So that's our contribution to the first Literary Blog Hop discussion.  If you're here from there, please feel free to look around.  Thanks again to The Blue Bookcase for putting an obviously great idea into practice.  We sincerely intend to participate as frequently as possible.

Literary Blog Hop

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Review of Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, or How Vladimir Nabokov Is Like a Paranoid, Junkyard Dog

Doctor ZhivagoDoctor Zhivago is a tale of love set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution and Civil War of 1917-1921, as well as the institution of the Soviet Union, which followed it.  The novel is, in essence, a criticism of the Soviet system, which destroyed both culture and humanism in its single-minded pursuit of an ideology that was progressively twisted by those in power.  More grandly, it is the story of the inability of the individual to control even his own destiny among the strong currents of time, ideology, and power.  Publication was refused Pasternak in the Soviet Union in 1956.  A copy of the manuscript was then smuggled out of the country in 1957 and appeared in English the next year.  Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, which he was forced to refuse in order to forego a scandal in the USSR.  Unfortunately, he died only two years later.          

I've read a few reviews of Doctor Zhivago out there on the interwebs, and it's impossible not to notice a fairly uniform dislike for it.  Most reviews find it long and stale, with relatively cardboard characters that are thrown together in odd and contrived places and situations simply to move the story along or make a particular point about politics or ideology.  And it's not simply a case of cultural differences or a misunderstanding of the artist--the dislike runs wide and deep. Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov once said, "Doctor Zhivago is a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelieveable girls, romantic robbers and trite coincidences."  Ouch!  So much for mutual support among Russian novelists. 

I personally disagree with Nabokov's overall negative assessment of the work, which is to say that I like Doctor Zhivago immensely.  I find it a fascinating account of life in the Soviet Union and an honest portrayal of mostly apolitical citizens whose primary concern is simply to survive the buffeting winds of change and idealism.  The writing is depressingly beautiful.  While Pasternak is not as fluid and artistic in his writing as John Steinbeck, Doctor Zhivago flavors strongly to me of East of Eden--an epic tale of love set against the backdrop of forces (natural or political) that are beyond the characters' control and which ultimately end up determining their lives.  At the same time, Doctor Zhivago is periodically disjointed and contrived, characteristics which (I like to think) Pasternak himself attributed to the Soviet state that had swallowed his people and his culture. 

And there are other (convincing) reasons for Nabokov's harsh opinion than the honest critique of a fellow writer.  In fact, Doctor Zhivago was released in the West at around the same time that Nabokov released Lolita, and his criticism smacks strongly of territoriality--a junkyard dog running off the stray that has wandered too close to his fence.  Moreover, Nabokov was convinced that Doctor Zhivago--despite its criticism of the Soviet system and the Soviets' refusal to publish the work--was a public relations plot by the Soviets to raise Soviet literature to new heights (i.e., above Nabokov himself) in the eyes of the world. 

At the same time, looking behind the (seemingly paranoid) green monster, I think Nabokov is on to something.  Doctor Zhivago has gained a fairly sizeable acceptance in its numerous film adaptations.  Even today, the story seems to run fairly consistently on the various classic movie channels.  In short, because Doctor Zhivago is sweeping in its setting, both historically and geographically, and because it attempts to construct a romantic relationship that is buffeted by the winds of history, it appears to tap into those notions of romanticism that we have deemed appropriate to the screen, but not the page.

Is there anyone out there, besides me, that likes Doctor Zhivago more than its film adaptations?  Is this unusual?  Are there other examples of works of literature that have received only a middling popular acceptance as literature, but have blossomed in film?