Wednesday, July 07, 2010

A Literary Interlude, Courtesy of James Joyce

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Why yes, I am taking the plunge and trying to read James Joyce's classic 1922 novel Ulysses—and so far (I'm only about 30 pages in), I'm finding it less forbidding and impenetrable than I had expected. It certainly strikes me as relatively more accessible, to my mind, than my previous encounters with the equally experimental William Faulkner (with As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury). Even if I end up not getting half of the nuances of Joyce's language and allusions and such, nevertheless I'm actually looking forward to reading the rest of this!

Anyway, here's a particular passage from the novel that struck me, for reasons that, as you'll see below, are more deeply personal than broadly artistic:

Stephen's hand, free again, went back to the hollow shells. Symbols too of beauty and of power. A lump in my pocket. Symbols soiled by greed and misery.

—Don't carry it like that, Mr Deasy said. You'll pull it out somewhere and lose it. You just buy one of these machines. You'll find them very handy.

Answer something.

—Mine would be often empty, Stephen said.

The same room and hour, the same wisdom: and I the same. Three times now. Three nooses round me here. Well. I can break them in this instant if I will.

—Because you don't save, Mr Deasy said, pointing his finger. You don't know yet what money is. Money is power, when you have lived as long as I have. I know, I know. If youth but knew. But what does Shakespeare say? Put but money in thy purse.

—Iago, Stephen murmured.

He lifted his gaze from the idle shells to the old man's stare.

—He knew what money was, Mr Deasy said. He made money. A poet but an Englishman too. Do you know what is the pride of the English? Do you know what is the proudest word you will ever hear from an Englishman's mouth?

The seas' ruler. His seacold eyes looked on the empty bay: history is to blame: on me and on my words, unhating.

—That on his empire, Stephen said, the sun never sets.

—Ba! Mr Deasy cried. That's not English. A French Celt said that. He tapped his savingsbox against his thumbnail.

—I will tell you, he said solemnly, what is his proudest boast. I paid my way.

Good man, good man.

—I paid my way. I never borrowed a shilling in my life. Can you feel that? I owe nothing. Can you?

Mulligan, nine pounds, three pairs of socks, one pair brogues, ties. Curran, ten guineas. McCann, one guinea. Fred Ryan, two shillings. Temple, two lunches. Russell, one guinea, Cousins, ten shillings, Bob Reynolds, half a guinea, Kohler, three guineas, Mrs McKernan, five weeks' board. The lump I have is useless.

—For the moment, no, Stephen answered.

Mr Deasy laughed with rich delight, putting back his savingsbox.

—I knew you couldn't, he said joyously. But one day you must feel it. We are a generous people but we must also be just.

—I fear those big words, Stephen said, which make us so unhappy.

You know who Mr. Deasy, in this passage from James Joyce's classic 1922 novel Ulysses, reminds me of? My mother. Mr. Deasy's emphasis on saving money very much recalls my mother's ultra-frugal ways. Even more than that, though: the character's belief that his older age offers him the kind of experience and wisdom, money-related or not, that youngsters just don't have closely aligns with the rather condescending tone my mother takes whenever she thinks I'm about to make a "critical" mistake.

And apparently, to my mother, as I learned over the weekend, looking into moving to New York could potentially count as one of those kinds of mistakes.

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