"Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves." -James Joyce, Ulysses
As a young man James Joyce was inspired by Henrik Ibsen, a master of the small, intimate scene and this saw focus shows in his own writing. Ulysses encompasses a single day--June 16, 1904. This is remarkable especially considering the book clocks in at 265,000 words, more than twice the length of a modern "publishable" manuscript.
With its experiments with narrative and (lack of) punctuation, its scandalous-for-its-time takes on religion and marriage, Ulysses can be overwhelming for critics and casual readers alike.
Like its contemporary, In Search of Lost Time, the protagonists of Ulysses, Stephan Dedalus and Leopold Bloom are thoughtful and driven by memories. Like Proust's universal narrator, they too are more passive than most modern protagonists would be. The benefit of a somewhat passive protagonist is that the story unfolds around them and develops a depth and detail that many man-of-action stories lack.
What to Steal
“Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal.” -Igor Stravinsky
Girdle Your Loins with Allusions
I read The Odyssey in preparation for Ulysses. I'd read it in high school and remembered it mostly as dry and stilted. It was boring compared to the Christopher Pike novels I was devouring at the time. But now, older, and...well, frankly still in love with Christopher Pike, I can finally see its value. It and its prequel, the Iliad, are allusion gold mines. Allusions add depth and history to any story.
There is something archetypal about the situations in this ancient text: the man, separated from his homeland, outcast in a world of gods and monsters; his son, desperate to find him; his wife, waiting faithfully at home, surrounded by unscrupulous suitors. What's there not to like?
Joyce borrows the form while twisting and subverting the text into something new. There is something alluring about peering into the shadow behind an archetype. Here are a few examples:
- The first episode of Ulysses is named for Odysseus' son, Telemachus, who goes out in search of his father. Stephan Dedalus thus takes the place of a son in the novel. But he is a son without a father and his search is aimless.
- Dedalus also alludes to the Greek Daedalus who both built the labyrinth of the minotaur and, as the father of Icarus, created the wings that took him too close to the sun.
- Other characters also have Odyssey equivalents: Bloom as the wandering Odysseus, only wanders the streets of Dublin; his wife, Molly Bloom, subverts the faithful wife trope and unrepentantly commits adultery.
Having a strong grasp on the stories in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures also adds depth to any story. Being aware of other religious works is also important, but the Bible remains an ingrained part of Western culture, even as belief declines.
There are allusions to the Catholic Church and Judaism everywhere in Ulysses and understanding the background makes the work richer for any reader in the know. Ulysses starts with a tongue-in-cheek version of Catholic Mass with "stately, plump Buck Mulligan" playing a "priest" who has only fleshy desires.
Search through the symbols and rituals of religion; find the ones that connect with your work.
Write What You Know
It is clichéd advice. I hate it. Personally, I write sci-fi and that means I'm pulling everything out of nowhere. But, within this lie is a grain of truth; Joyce knew Dublin. Dublin was a part of him, even though he spent most of his life in self-imposed exile. It could be said to be his through-line; he writes about it in obsessive detail. It is the setting of his most famous works. And because of his obsession, his work vibrates with authenticity.
Look though your recent writing. Is there a topic that crops up over and over again? A place your mind lingers on? Does your hometown call to you? What is your deepest fear? What would you never tell anyone about your childhood? Find your through-line, hone it, and embrace it!
Joyce is known for his experimentation with language and grammar. His stream-of-consciousness writing may not be everyone's style, but play with words is essential for literary growth. Word choice is often the true separation between literary works and more commercial works. Literary readers expect to be challenged by complex, multi-layered writing.
For a good place to start playing with words and language, go over the basics of Grammar B.
How'd he do that?
Born February 2, 1882, James Joyce became one of the most influential writers in the world. With its use of stream-of-consciousness and interior monologue, his works are considered experimental and avant-garde.
However, for all his modernist technique, his works are grounded in ancient traditions and in the microcosm of early twentieth-century Dublin.