Sunday, October 15, 2017

Another Immersion in 'Ulysses'

Those of us who find the work of James Joyce continually fascinating are not put off by Joyce's own listing of the four greatest writers: Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Joyce. I'm again taking a Ulysses course, this one at our Politics and Prose bookstore taught by Chris Griffin, an Irish former teacher of Irish literature at George Washington Univ.

There's always more to be found in this novel, often heralded as the greatest of the 20th century. I have more of a feeling for many of the places after the initial trip in June to Ireland where I was able to enjoy Bloomsday, June 16, and see many of the settings of famous scenes in the novel. Incidental comments in the class add to the appreciation: for example, that Joyce felt that Gabriel Conroy, the main character in his story, "The Dead", in Dubliners, was who Joyce felt he would have become had he remained in Ireland.

The comments meant for the first-timers to the book also help. The first three chapters are centered on Stephen Dedalus, who represents Joyce himself at the age of 22 and was the leading character in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, although he has yet to produce any work of art. He is highly intellectual, however, so many of the allusions are to Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas; when we get to Chapter 4 and meet Leopold Bloom, Joyce's everyman, the allusions are just as likely to focus on then-popular songs--Joyce himself was a tenor who sang with John McCormick.

I learned so much about Joyce and his life from reading Brenda Maddox's magnificent biography of his wife, Nora. Joyce, like some other geniuses, did believe the world owed him a living and he lived high when he could, usually on other people's money. Years ago we stayed in a Kensington house in London we rented from the nephew of Harriet Shaw Weaver, an English lady who spent a great deal of her fortune supporting Joyce.

Joyce, however, was true to Nora over the years of both privation and success. He did not have an easy life as both his children probably suffered from his over-involvement in trying to direct their lives. Nora worked mightily to keep the traveling household together and Joyce's siblings were often drafted to support him, both with money and in many other ways. His brother Stanislaus's memoir was properly entitled My Brother's Keeper.

I always learn something from the class sessions and the book of annotations to Ulysses. There's a reference to Ferrando, an operatic character. I assumed it was to the tenor in Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte, a leading role. But I was mistaken. This Ferrando is the captain of the Count di Luna's guard in Verdi's Il Trovatore, and while not a leading character, his aria, to which Stephen refers, tells the whole back-story of the opera. 

What's fascinating about this incredible novel is that if you think you see some allusion or reference, it is definitely meant to be there. 

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