I have now finished reading James Joyce’s classic modernist novel Ulysses, and what a tumultuous, agonizing, and rewarding journey it’s been. For those of you unfamiliar with this work, it follows protagonist Leopold Bloom throughout a single day, June 16, 1904 (now known internationally as Bloomsday).
Our hero, our Odysseus, is a Jewish businessman living in Dublin, aged 38, with a wife Molly, who is having an affair. Another important character is 22 year-old Stephen Dedalus of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man fame, to whom the reader is reintroduced at the start of the book. Stephen is also Joyce’s alter-ego in many ways. We don’t meet Bloom until Episode 4, Calypso. There are 18 episodes total.
I remember watching The Departed and there’s a scene in which the main bad guy, Frank Costello, says to the young Colin Sullivan (the adult version of whom is played by Matt Damon), “Nobody gives it to you. You have to take it. Non serviam.” The young Colin then says “James Joyce.” Costello replies “Smart, Colin.” (I have a hard time buying that, since generally speaking, children don’t read Joyce, as far as I know). Non Serviam, which I now recognize from Portrait, “I will not serve,” meaning: I will not serve the Holy Roman Catholic Church, God, Tradition, etc….an idea which Costello uses to turn Sullivan away from loyalty to the law and God and towards his own greed, lawlessness, and crime-for-the-sake-of-crime.
Of course that wasn’t the point of Stephen Dedalus’ turning away from his faith, but I think it is a natural conclusion of non-religious sentiment. It might be better to say that Joyce was ahead of his time in creating the experience of modernism; that his ideas and experience of the world were now outside of Tradition without being against it. This creates a kind of inner battle in Stephen in the beginning of Ulysses. His long-formed internal monologue make him more of an attractive character to me than Bloom, not to mention his constant references to historical events, his interest in Byron, and his bizarre theories of Hamlet and Shakespeare.
Anyway I’m not even going to try and summarize, review, or go through the book in any way. It’s been an interesting read, and I have only begun to appreciate it. Right now I’m working on an essay about it for class, which will focus largely on how Irish Nationalism and Jewishness come into conflict in the book, and what Joyce seems to be demonstrating about the two through parody and mockery.