Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

James Joyce’s Ulysses: Why the Fuss?

An interview with David Norris
Mark Harkin

Norris refers to the characters of Ulysses as ‘down-at-heel Dubliners’. None of these people are prospering. As Norris explains, this was directly connected with Joyce’s life in 1904: ‘He was at the nadir of his experience in 1904. He’d been summoned home by his father’s famous telegram – Mother dying. Come home. Father. – to linger around Dublin while she died in great distress of cancer of the liver. The father had drunk them into abject poverty, so life was very painful. Joyce somehow managed to cauterise these personal wounds, and out of that unpromising material, gave us one of the great celebrations of the human spirit.’

Bloom’s defence of love against the forces of brutality is integral to the overall message of Ulysses. At the heart of the hero’s experience of love is his thoroughly imperfect marriage to Molly, which is depicted with unflinching candour. Part of what makes Ulysses different to the novels which preceded it, is that it shows the entire physical reality of what it means to inhabit a human body – eating, sweating, urinating, defecating, masturbating, copulating, etc. Joyce shies away from nothing in this snapshot of Leopold and Molly’s life together. With their moribund sex-life and respective infidelities, the couple’s situation is far from ideal, yet this imperfection is crucial to Ulysses’s theme, as Norris explains:

‘Joyce doesn’t expect people to be heroic in the ordinary sense. He’s quite unlike DH Lawrence – in order to succeed as a hero in Lawrence’s fiction, you have to be a very considerable sexual athlete. Leopold Bloom survives, but he hasn’t had complete sexual intercourse with his wife in over eleven years, and he ends up, at the conclusion of the novel, upside down in her bed.’

In the middle of Ulysses, Molly Bloom has sex with a concert promoter, Blazes Boylan, while Leopold Bloom masturbates at Sandymount Strand, leering at Gertie McDowell. And yet, in spite of this sad and sordid carry-on, Mr and Mrs Bloom continue to meditate with affection on their pre-marital courtship. Senator Norris identifies a kind of union which transcends their current relationship difficulties:

‘On the night of the day she has committed adultery with Blazes Boylan, she thinks about him almost as a kind of sex-toy – ‘that big red thing’ – whereas she reflects on Bloom to the extent that Bloom is the last man in her thoughts as her eyes close in sleep. She thinks about him, that day in Howth when they lay on the rhododendrons and savoured their first kiss…it’s the only moment in the novel where there is a shared experience, a kind of communion. Bloom also thins about kissing Molly in the Lestrygonians episode, where exactly the same language system is used. There is a real meeting, not just of their bodies but also of their spirits.’

It is fitting that Ulysses should end on a note of romantic affection as Joyce chose its date according to his own courtship with Nora Barnacle. Norris explains: ‘Joyce met Nora in a casual encounter in the street on 10 June 1904, and this led to him going walking with her on 16 June, just under a week later on the strand at Irishtown / Ringsend. From that, the romance blossomed and they eloped, which was quite a risk for Nora Barnacle. That date impressed itself on Joyce’s mind and he celebrated it by making it the day on which he offered to the world a reduction of Homer’s Odyssey.’

While most critics acknowledge Ulysses’s greatness, some wonder if it effectively ‘finished’ the novel, making anything ‘new’ impossible. Senator Norris has little time for such doom-laden theories: ‘As to whether it’s possible to write a novel after Ulysses, Joyce went on and made it worse by writing Finnegan’s Wake, and he left a mushroom cloud hanging over Irish writing. But after Finnegan’s Wake, Joyce told a friend of mine that he was going to write something new and simple, about the sea. So why can’t they do that? Human nature is inexhaustible. I’m not a mathematician, but
once you go over seven items, the number of permutations and combinations gets pretty vast. Within the vast resources of the English language and the human situation, there’s quite a lot you can write.’

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