Happy Bloomsday!

As you probably know, today is Bloomsday, the annual Irish holiday commemorating the 24-hour period over which James Joyce’s Ulysses took place. As you also know, I had announced in this space last month that I would be (re)reading that famous novel, so today seemed like the auspicious day to start doing so.

And now we proceed. First of all, let me recap why I write the word “(re)reading” in that odd way. To quote my earlier post:

I like to claim that I’ve already read it one and a half times, because I have managed to get through three quarters of it twice.

You can be the judge of whether reading it again counts as “re”reading.

A college friend of mine said he was reading Joyce “even though his books are difficult.” I replied that I was reading Joyce because his books are difficult. After all, everybody likes a challenge, and reading Joyce is a good challenge for anyone immersed in linguistics. We’ll get to that point in a follow-up post, but first we need a very brief digression into Joyce’s novel writing in chronological order (which also corresponds to the order of difficulty). I’ll say a few words about each of his three completed novels, along with two randomly selected but representative selections from each (one easy selection, one difficult in each case):

  • The first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is remarkably accessible; it can be successfully assigned to a college-prep high-school English class. I open my copy and find these two examples:

    An easy sentence: “Father Arnall became very quiet, more and more quiet as each boy tried to answer and could not.”

    A (relatively) difficult sentence: “An earnest Jesuit had prescribed a clerkship in Guinness’s and doubtless the clerk designate of a brewery would not have had scorn and pity only for an admirable community had it not been that he desired (in the language of the schoolmen) an arduous good.”
  • The second novel, Ulysses, is of course the book that I have just started to re-read. Only the most ambitious high-school student (ahem) would attempt to read it, but it’s a good challenge in college. Most of it is in English, and there’s enough Latin, French, and German to make it appealing to an Indo-European linguist. I open my copy and find these two examples:

    A (relatively) easy paragraph: “Poor papa with his hagadah book, reading backwards with his finger to me. Pessach. Next year in Jerusalem. Dear, O dear! All that long business about that brought us out of the land of Egypt and into the house of bondage alleluia. Shema Israel Adonai Elohenu. No, that’s the other. Then the twelve brothers, Jacob’s sons. And then the lamb and the cat and the dog and the stick and the water and the butcher. And then the angel of death kills the butcher and he kills the ox and the dog kills the cat. Sounds a bit silly till you come to look into it well. Justice it means but it’s everybody eating everyone else. That’s what life is after all.”

    A difficult paragraph: “It was quite on a par with the quixotic idea in certain quarters that in a hundred million years the coal seam of the sister island would be played out and if, as time went on, that turned out to be how the cat jumped all he could personally say on the matter was that as a host of contingencies, equally relevant to the issue, might occur ere then it was highly advisable in the interim to try to make the most of both countries even though poles apart. Another little interesting point, the amours of whores and chummies, to put it in common parlance, reminded him Irish soldiers had as often fought for England as against her, more so, in fact. And now, why? So the scene between the pair of them, the licensee of the place rumoured to be or have been Fitzharris, the famous invincible, and the other, obviously bogus, reminded him forcibly as being on all fours with the confidence trick, supposing, that is, it was prearranged as the lookeron, a student of the human soul if anything, the others seeing least of the game.”
  • Finally we come to the third novel, Finnegans Wake. Note the non-apostrophe (yay!). This took Joyce 16 years to write, and he is reputed to have said that it should take 16 years to read. It isn’t even written in what you might call English, as Joyce had to create his own version of the language. I open my copy and find these two examples:

    A (relatively) easy paragraph: “What then agentlike brought about that tragoady thundersday this municipal sin business? Our cubehouse still rocks as earwitness to the thunder of his arafatas but we hear also through successive ages that shebby choruysh of unkalified muzzlenimiissilehims that would blackguardise the whitestone ever hurtleturtled out of heaven.”

    Wait! That’s the easy one???? You see why I never attempted to read Finnegans Wake and have merely dipped into it here and there. Nevertheless, I owe you this:

    A difficult paragraph: “And that there texas is tow linen. The loamsome roam to Laffayette is ended. Drop in your tracks, babe! Be not unrested! The headboddylwatcher of the chempel of Isid, Totumcalmum, saith: I know thee, metherjar, I know thee, salvation boat. For we have performed upon thee, thou abramanation, who comest ever without being invoked, whose coming is unknown, all the things which the company of the precentors and of the grammarians of Christpatrick’s ordered concerning thee in the matter of the work of thy tombing. Howe of the shipmen, steep wall!”

    Makes Ulysses seem like a relief, doesn’t it?

And so, on I go…

Categories: Books, Linguistics