Saturday, June 1, 2013

READING JOYCE READING À PARIS . . .

This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 24, Number 6 (June 2013), 6-7.
[It was written during my time as a Visiting Scholar at the American University of Paris.]

I am sitting on the terrace of a café in Paris—in Place de la Contrascarpe, to be exact.  In 1921, when James Joyce was putting the finishing touches on Ulysses, he lived just around the corner, in a flat loaned to him by French author Valery Larbaud on a courtyard at number 71, rue Cardinal Lemoine.  What better place to thumb through the French novel that purportedly gave Joyce the idea for what is known as “the interior monologue,” the predominant narrative strategy of Ulysses?  According to his preeminent biographer, Richard Ellmann, Joyce picked up Les lauriers sont coupés by Édouard Dujardin at a railway kiosk in Paris in 1903—and the rest is literary history: “in later life, no matter how diligently the critics worked to demonstrate that he had borrowed the interior monologue from Freud, Joyce always made it a point of honor that he had it from Dujardin.”

Originally published in 1888, Dujardin’s novel has been translated into English by Stuart Gilbert as We’ll to the Woods No More—and I am thinking of how helpful a basic familiarity with this book would be for readers engaging with Ulysses.  In his preface to a reissue of the novel in French in 1924, Valery Larbaud quotes Joyce explaining his admiration for how “the reader finds himself established, from the first lines, in the thought of the principal personage, and the uninterrupted unrolling (‘déroulement ininterrompu’) of that thought, replacing the usual form of narrative, conveys to us what this personage is doing or what is happening to him.”  Especially for first-time readers of Ulysses, that “damned monster-novel” as Joyce himself once referred to it, the narrative strategy that he labeled “soliloquy” can be disorienting.  Remembering my own first time reading the novel—around 35 years ago—I realize now how acquaintance with the relative simplicity of Dujardin’s narrative would have prepared me for the relative density of Joyce’s movement between the inner and the outer lives of his three major characters, Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, and Molly Bloom.

Even a few sentences early in Dujardin’s novel can provide the reader of Ulysses with keys to unlock the more advanced technique of Joyce’s narrative.  A good example is a scene on the second page of We’ll to the Woods No More, where Dujardin has his protagonist Daniel Prince arrive at the workplace of a friend with whom he hopes to spend the evening.  This is a very simple premise, but what Dujardin attempts to convey—and this is what Joyce emulates a dozen or so years later when he begins to write Ulysses—is the way that his character’s mind, like the mind of real person, does not operate in the strictly linear fashion that conventional “realistic” fiction tends to present.

Indeed, he shows us how even an act as ordinary as ascending a stairs involves much more than the act itself.  Taking us with his protagonist step by step (literally and figuratively), Dujardin records both the range and the depth of Daniel Prince’s wondering and worrying about whether his friend will still be at the office: “The stairs; the first steps.  Supposing he has left early; he sometimes does; but I have got to tell him the story of my day.  The first landing: wide, bright staircase; windows.  He’s a fine fellow, friend of mine; I have told him all about my love-affair.  Another pleasant evening coming on.  Anyway he can’t make fun of me after this.  I’m going to have a splendid time.  Now why is the stair carpet turned up at the corner here?  A grey patch on the line of upward red, on the red strip looping up from step to step.  Second storey; the door on the left.  Office.  I only hope he hasn’t gone; no chance of running him to earth if he has.”

The concrete and the abstract.  The factual and the conditional.  The observational and the conjectural.  The banal and the meaningful.  The past, the present, the future.  Even this brief passage illuminates how Joyce’s deployment of the interior monologue will operate in Ulysses.  Of course, as Dujardin himself admitted in Le Monologue Intérieur, a little book he wrote in 1931 in gratitude for Joyce’s acknowledging him as an influence, Joyce found a way to convey a similar texture to the consciousness of his characters without the awkward self-consciousness that Dujardin’s Daniel Prince sometimes expresses.  Does anyone really think “the first steps” when beginning to ascend stairs?  Joyce might have finessed this by letting his readers know the ascent had begun by having Leopold Bloom stumble or by having Stephen Dedalus wax philosophical on how the steps proceed nacheinander (one after another) as he does in the “Proteus” episode of Ulysses.

Still, the basic concept behind Joyce’s narrative strategy is evident in Dujardin’s novel, though other differences ultimately challenge the reader of Ulysses.  Some of those differences relate to the very nature of Joyce’s characters who embody the three principal centers of consciousness in the novel.  Late in the novel, Joyce himself makes a clinical distinction between Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom: “What two temperaments did they individually represent?  The scientific. The artistic.”  Bloom is the “scientific” one, as his inner engagement with the outer world is fueled by empirical observation and curiosity.  In fact, within a page or so of being introduced to Bloom, the reader of Ulysses can recognize in his attentiveness to his cat the distinctive way that Bloom’s mind works: “Mr Bloom watched curiously, kindly the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes. He bent down to her, his hands on his knees. . . .  He watched the bristles shining wirily in the weak light as she tipped three times and licked lightly. Wonder is it true if you clip them they can’t mouse after.  Why?  They shine in the dark.”  Bloom is utterly wrong about most of his assumptions regarding felines—but that is exactly what Joyce intends to convey by inscribing his character’s thought process: most of us are wrong in most of our casual musings, and we proceed through life accordingly.

As the “artistic” one, Stephen Dedalus presents a more densely packed challenge to the reader of Ulysses, as his mind is filled with both the raw material and the mechanisms of his literary ambitions.  “Dubliners,” Joyce has Stephen think in the “Aeolus” episode, an overt allusion to Joyce’s own landmark collection of short stories—the sort of writing that his quasi-autobiographical character might aspire to write: “On now.  Dare it.  Let there be life.”  That example is easy.  Not so easy, at first, is the opening of the “Proteus” episode: “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes.  Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot.  Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs.  Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies.  Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured.  How?  By knocking his sconce against them, sure.  Go easy.  Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno.”  But if the reader can recognize that the final phrase, in Italian, is Dante’s description of Aristotle—“master of those who know”—and then re-reads the passage, it can be paraphrased simply enough as Stephen’s musing on the challenges a literary artist faces when attempting to inscribe the complexity of human experience as described by Aristotle (and others).

And after that, Molly Bloom’s musings in the “Penelope” episode—eight “sentences” that weave and unweave themselves over the final thirty-five pages of the novel—might seem like a walk on the Hill of Howth.  That is where the episode ends, with Molly remembering Leopold’s proposal of marriage sixteen years earlier: “and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”  In this episode Joyce deploys “stream of consciousness” as his narrative method—essentially interior monologue without any filtering intrusion on the part of the author.  It is simply one more variation on the technique that Joyce recognized the promise of in Dujardin’s Les lauriers sont coupés.

After the publication of Ulysses in 1922, Joyce and Dujardin exchanged compliments and tributes, each praising the other over their literary achievements involving “le monologue intérieur.”  Privately, though, Joyce acknowledged, in a letter to his patron Harriet Weaver, that he was giving Dujardin “cake for bread.”  Reading Dujardin in Joyce’s old quartier, I feel that both writers go down well with a café allongé.

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