JOYCE'S "ULYSSES" SETS A NEW STANDARD IN FICTION - The Queerest Novel Ever Written, article in Current Opinion 1922
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SOMETHING new is troubling the critics of two continents. It is a book over two inches thick, over half a million words long; it is called "Ulysses"; and it was written by an Irishman, James Joyce, now living in Paris. Readers in America who follow the output of good literature are familiar with Joyce's remarkable "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," and may have read his "Dubliners." Even casual readers will recall the fact that, three years ago, an issue of the Little Review, of New York, in which "Ulysses" was running serially, was suppressed by the police. But few, if any, of either informed or casual readers were prepared for the critical hubbub evoked by the publication of the new book.
One of the ablest French periodicals, La Nouvelle Revue Frangaise, opens a leading article on "Ulysses" as follows: "With this book Ireland makes a sensational re-entrance into high European literature." To which J. Middleton Murry, of the London Nation, makes the rejoinder: "'Ulysses' is many things: it is very big, it is hard to read, difficult to procure, unlike any other book that has been written, extraordinarily interesting to those who have patience (and they need it), the work of an intensely serious man. But European? That, we should have thought, is the last epithet to apply to it." Mr. Murry, however, goes on to declare that in part of the story "a genius of the very highest order, strictly comparable to Goethe's or Dostoevsky's, is evident"; while Arnold Bennett, writing in the London Outlook of another part, says: "I have never read anything to surpass it, and I doubt if I have ever read anything to equal it."
The distinguishing characteristics of the book are its psychologic insight and a kind of stenographic reporting. Mr. Joyce is said to have pushed the intimate detailed analysis of character to a point farther than that of any other writer. There are only three characters in the story, and its action (what little there is) takes place in Dublin within a period of twenty-four hours. The three characters are Stephen Dedalus (hero of "The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"), Leopold Bloom, a Hungarian Jew in the advertizing business, and Bloom's wife, Marion. "One might almost say," Mr. Murry remarks, "that all the thoughts and all the experiences of those beings, real or imaginary, from their waking to their sleeping on a spring day in Dublin in 1904, are somehow given by Mr. Joyce: and not only their conscious thoughts—and they are very differently conscious—but the very fringes of their sentience." More even than that, Mr. Joyce stages, in that part of the book which Mr. Murry specially adnirea, a kind of Walpurgisnacht of his chief characters. "Bloom and Dedalus are revealed in a kingdom where the practical reactions of life are no more. They become human quintessentialities, realized potencies of the subconscious, metaphysical egos."
There is always danger that short quotations may give a misleading and unfair impression of a work, or even of a chapter of a work; but here is an extract from "Ulysses" which Arnold Bennett has conscientiously chosen as representative:
"Making for the museum gate with long windy strides he lifted his eyes. Handsome building. Sir Thomas Deane designed. Not following me?
"Didn't see me perhaps. Light in his eyes.
"The flutter of his breath came forth in short sighs. Quick. Cold statues; quiet there. Safe in a minute.
"No, he didn't see me. After two. Just at the gate.
"His eyes beating looked steadfastly at cream curves of stone. Sir Thomas Deane was the Greek architecture.
"Looking for something I."
Scores, even hundreds, of pages in "Ulysses" are filled with this kind of composition. Of course, Mr. Bennett points out, the author is trying to reproduce the thoughts of the personage, and his verbal method can be justified. But "upon the whole, tho the reproduction is successful, the things reproduced appear too often to be trivial and perfectly futile in the narrative." Mr. Bennett continues:
"I would not accuse him of what is absurdly called 'photographic realism.' But I would say that much of the book is more like an official short-hand writer's 'note' than a novel. In some of his moods the author is resolved at any price not to select, nor to make even the shortest leap from one point of interest to another. He has taken oath with himself to put it all down and be hanged to it. He would scorn the selective skill in such a masterpiece of narrative technique as 'Esther Waters' (whose brilliance only experts can fully appreciate). He would probably defend himself, and find disciples to defend him. But unless the experience of creative artists since the recorded beginning of art is quite worthless, James Joyce is quite wrong-headed. Anyhow, with his wilfulness, he has made novel-reading into a fair imitation of penal servitude. It is not as if his rendering of life was exhaustive, or had the slightest pretension to be exhaustive. The rendering is extremely and ostentatiously partial. The author seems to have no geographical sense, little sense of environment, no sense of the general kindness of human nature, and not much poetical sense. Worse than all, he has positively no sense of perspective. But my criticism of the artist in him goes deeper. His vision of the world and its inhabitants is mean, hostile, and uncharitable. He has a colossal 'down' on humanity. Now, Christ in his all-embracing charity might have written a supreme novel. Beelzebub could not."
Withal, James Joyce is pronounced by Mr. Bennett a very astonishing phenomenon of letters:
"He is sometimes dazzingly original. If he does not see life whole he sees it piercingly. His ingenuity is marvelous. He has wit. He has a prodigious humor. He is afraid of naught. And had heaven in its wisdom thought fit not to deprive him of that basic sagacity and that moral self-dominion which alone enable an artist to assemble and control and fully utilize his powers, he would have stood a chance of being one of the greatest novelists that ever lived.
"The best portions of the novel (unfortunately they constitute only a fraction of the whole) are superb. I single out the long orgiastic scene, and the long unspoken monolog of Mrs. Bloom which closes the book. The former will easily bear comparison with Rabelais at his fantastical finest; it leaves Petronius out of sight. It has plenary inspiration. It is the richest stuff, handled with a virtuosity to match the quality of the material. The latter (forty difficult pages, some twenty-five thousand words without any punctuation at all) might in its utterly convincing realism be an actual document, the magical record of inmost thoughts thought by a woman that existed. Talk about understanding 'feminine psychology' ... I have never read anything to surpass it, and I doubt if I have ever read anything to equal it. My blame may have seemed extravagant, and my praise may seem extravagant; but that is how I feel about James Joyce."
It would be unfair to the public, Mr. Bennett concludes, not to refer to the indecency of "Ulysses." The book is not pornographic, but it is "more indecent, obscene, scatological and licentious" than the majority of professedly pornographic books. We are told further:
"James Joyce sticks at nothing, literally. He forbids himself no word. He says everything — everything. The code is smashed to bits. Many persons could not continue reading 'Ulysses'; they would be obliged, by mere shock, to drop it. It is published in France, but not in French, and I imagine that if it had been published in French there would have been trouble about it even in Paris. It must cause reflection in the minds of all those of us who have hitherto held and preached that honest works of art ought to be exempt from police interference. Is the staggering indecency justified by results obtained? The great majority of Britons would say that nothing could justify it. For myself I think that in the main it is not justified by results obtained; but I must plainly add, at the risk of opprobrium, that in the finest passages it is in my opinion justified."