Mrs. Dalloway is one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing. This most recent read was not the first and won’t be the last. Like The Great Gatsby, this is a novel I’ll revisit over and over again throughout my life, gleaning new perspectives and a new respect for it every time.
What do I love? The balance of detail between physical actions and internal monologue, including how one influences the other. The empathetic rendering of not just the POV characters, but every character, so you feel exactly what they’re feeling, in the full context of their lives. The contrast between Clarissa’s life and Septimus’s life, both so important, so essential, although not in obvious ways. The weaving together of their storylines throughout this single day in London. Their reactions to love, to ambition, to societal expectations. Their interactions with the secondary characters, and the secondary characters’ reactions to them, which we also see in stunningly honest detail. And so much more.
I reached out for Mrs. Dalloway on instinct, like looking for a rocky outcropping after a shipwreck, as antidote to the state Ulysses left me in. Of course, Woolf was reading Ulysses while writing this, so that’s no coincidence. Although scholars, and even friends, may disagree, I think these two show Woolf’s blatant superiority to Joyce. He may have written an “important” novel, but it’s unreadable and unrelatable.
Woolf shows that, as a skillful, careful writer, she can tell a deeply personal story about a single day through multiple first-person accounts and make it enjoyable and emotional. Not just readable, it’s re-readable, over and over.
Episode 1: Telemachus
Ulysses opens on a sunny morning in June with the talkative, funny, and jovial Buck Mulligan getting ready for the day with his surly, rather emo roommate, Stephen Dedalus. Stephen’s cranky because Buck’s friend kept them up late last night, but also because Ireland is controlled by England, because the Catholic church exists, because he can’t make a living as A Great Poet, because he no longer lives in Paris, and because months ago when Stephen’s mother died, Buck said something thoughtless in Stephen’s earshot. And probably some other reasons. Stephen’s kind of a drag. Buck gives Stephen clothing and shoes, tries to cheer him up, forgives his overdue rent payment, and barely comments on the fact that Stephen hasn’t bathed since last October, and Stephen still acts like Buck is beneath him. Unfortunately, we follow Stephen, not Buck, for a significant portion of the narrative. But at least we’re still in a section that can be called a “narrative”!
Episode 2: Nestor
Remaining in a pretty straight-forward narrative style, Stephen heads to his day job shaping young minds. He’s a pretty terrible teacher, spending most of the class thinking about how clever he is. And it’s a half day, so after about an hour, he’s done. He talks with the school principal for a bit to collect his pay, and it’s exactly like talking to a conservative today who wants to tell you how everything really is and should be and would be if it weren’t for these uppity women or Jewish people or whatever. At this point, you’re thinking my dislike of this book is too harsh. But hang in there.
Episode 3: Proteus
This is the chapter that causes most people to walk away from Ulysses. And with good reason. The entire thing is Stephen wandering on a rather dingy beach, being self-pitying and snotty and composing poetry in his head. And, of course, still thinking about how clever he is. He remembers living in Paris, which seems to have been the highlight of his life, and he bitterly blames his family for pulling him back and keeping him in Ireland. He also ponders obscure Catholic philosophy and imagines himself debating fine points with dead scholars, then picks his nose. Take a moment to consider: is it worth continuing? If you found this chapter infuriating, give up all hope. There’s no reward for you here. Take back your time and read something more fulfilling.
Episode 4: Calypso
Okay, you get a short relief here. We’ve switched to Leopold Bloom’s point of view and, while not entirely relatable, he at least understands reality as something that exists beyond his own noble head. His relation to people and things around him seems maybe a little odd, but they develop him as a character. Then Joyce ends the chapter with a detailed first-person account of Bloom taking a shit, because we can’t have nice things.
Episode 5: The Lotus Eaters
Bloom wanders around the neighborhood, killing time before going to a funeral. He gets a suggestive letter from a woman he’s not really having an affair with. He stops by a church and a drug store. He gets a bath. We learn that he’s a bit kinky in a submissive way. The beat goes on.
Episode 6: Hades
Bloom becomes more vulnerable here. We see him interacting with acquaintances who don’t treat him particularly well, although he doesn’t have much reaction. This is setting a pattern—Bloom tends to let things happen to him, and doesn’t react much to others in his own defense. Personally, I find this frustrating in fiction.
Episode 7: Aeolus
The first chapter where the writing style takes a turn. No longer are we diving in and out of characters’ consciousnesses in the same way. Now, we’re keeping up with the headline-driven bustle of a newspaper office, curated by an outside hand. It doesn’t seem too flashy yet, but Joyce is going to show off his versatility a lot more throughout the rest of the book. In this chapter, the characters talk over each other, bump into one another, mock and admire each other, and ultimately head off to the bar—before noon on a Thursday. This seems like a good idea to everyone but Bloom, who is, of course, marginalized.
Episode 8: Lestrygonians
Bloom thinks about food a lot. He stops in one tavern and decides the people eating are too disgusting. So he goes somewhere else and has a sandwich and a glass of wine. People talk about him, kind of like they already have been, but different people. He also pees. You’re less than halfway done.
Episode 9: Scylla and Charybdis
You’ve been doing well. You’ve made it this far. You’re making connections—sometimes slippery—between Ulysses and The Odyssey. Welcome to an interminable analysis of Hamlet! On the recording, this chapter lasts more than three hours. Yes, fathers and sons and the life of a poet. We get it.
Episode 10: The Wandering Rocks
It took me a while to get into this chapter—I was still angry about the Hamlet thing—but it ends up being one of the more memorable in the book. Imagine a camera in a single-shot careen through Dublin, dropping in on conversations with major and minor characters and strangers. Pretty much none of this advances the plot, but if you’re still holding on for that, save yourself the effort of finishing the book. Oh, and some of this is in Italian, so good luck.
Episode 11: Sirens
The opening of this chapter is like an orchestra warming up, playing disconnected fragments of the pieces before the concert. But if no one tells you this, it sounds like the jumbled ramblings of a madman. There’s a lot of music in this one, and a lot of Bloom acting weirdly standoffish to one of the only characters who seems to want to spend time with him. Jingles, pats, taps, and farts throughout. Always farts.
Episode 12: Cyclops
And suddenly, we have a nameless first-person narrator we’ve never met before. Because that’s what you’d want an author to do, right? He heads to a bar to hang out with some nationalistic racist who also has no name. And, because this isn’t enough, the narrative starts taking on dramatically different tones, like old Irish myths, the Bible, Renaissance writing, early scientific studies of the supernatural, newspaper celebrity columns, etc. This game will be repeated later, with more intensity.
Episode 13: Nausicaa
Apparently, this chapter had a lot to do with the book’s banning in the US. It’s written in an overwrought, romantic style popular at the time, which actually makes it clearer than most chapters. But it does gloss over Bloom masturbating in public, and the girl, Gerty, who apparently gets a thrill out of encouraging this from afar. But that’s only because her period has just started, and you know how randy women get when they’re bloated and cramping and bleeding! Farting, pissing, pooping, menstruating, and now climaxing into one’s clothes on a public beach. A classic, I tell you!
Episode 14: Oxen of the Sun
A quote from SparkNotes: “The narrative technique of Episode Fourteen is meant to represent the gestation of the English language.” Is that a sentence you ever thought you’d read? It also calls this chapter “one of the most difficult in the novel.” Indeed, various sections of this chapter take us from old English (think: Beowulf) through the Middle Ages, Defoe, Dickens, and up to the twentieth century. All these words are describing Bloom and Stephen getting drunk in a hospital with a bunch of doctors and medical students while an unseen minor character gives birth upstairs. They say lots of crude things about women and pregnancy. Why are they getting drunk in a maternity hospital on Thursday night?
Episode 15: Circe
Oh god. The chapter that only works if you imagine John Waters and David Lynch as co-writers and directors. Stephen and Bloom have both had absinthe, which has apparently made them hallucinate. This makes their trip to the brothel… unsettling. Bloom mostly hallucinates, in long and vivid detail, about being humiliated, mostly in sexual ways. Stephen, naturally, hallucinates his dead mother’s rotting corpse. This smut takes up the longest chapter in the book.
Episode 16: Eumaeus
Well, Bloom and Stephen have had an adventure together, finally, so how will their relationship blossom? They sit in a cab shelter, talk past each other, and hear a sailor show off his tattoos. From SparkNotes: “The error-ridden and banal narrative is the main device by which this climactic meeting of Bloom and Stephen is rendered anticlimactic.” If someone ever writes that about a story of mine, I will know I have failed.
Episode 17: Ithaca
Nearly done. Only two chapters to go. Joyce rewards your endurance by framing this chapter in the form of more than 300 questions (asked by who to who?) and painfully detailed, often irrelevant answers. Stephen and Bloom go to Bloom’s house, sip a little cocoa, pee together outside, and then Stephen leaves. Bloom goes upstairs, notices evidence of Molly’s daytime affair, kisses her literal ass, and chats with her about his day. They go to sleep, he upside down on the bed. Ulysses has returned from his Odyssey, the day is complete.
Episode 18: Penelope
Molly, who has spent most of the day in bed, either sleeping or having sex, stays awake after Bloom’s return and thinks. She thinks of the men in her life, how men perceive her, how men perceive other women, and what she likes and doesn’t like about men. She farts, pisses, and also gets her period, which obviously explains why she’s always thinking about sex, according to Joycean logic. But it’s finally over: yes!
One does not simply *read* Ulysses. Because Ulysses is not simply a book. It’s in the format of a book, but I think that has more to do with the technology of the time than a conscious attempt by Joyce to find the medium that best expressed the artistic vision he had. Today, I imagine it would be some kind of interactive website or even museum space, filled with video, lights, music, and maybe some hallucinogens.
One needs a strategy for tackling Ulysses. A friend of mine swears she read Ulysses, in print, one summer while following along with Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated. She says she really enjoyed it, and that the 640+ pages of fine-print annotations made her feel like she was doing the detective work needed to fully understand the context of Ulysses. She’s likely both more intelligent and more patient than I am, because trying that made me feel like I was going insane. I couldn't get myself to care about the biographies and geographies and histories of every real and imaginary reference, some of which I’m pretty sure were supposed to be a joke anyway.
Since finishing this marathon, I’ve found that most other people who claim to love Ulysses took a class, usually during their undergraduate years, with a professor who almost exclusively studies the book. This intense, semester-long focus led by a knowledgeable and experienced tour guide seems to help make the whole thing more bearable. I imagine it’s a gift to have someone to tell you which parts of the text you can safely skip and which have something really interesting happening just under the surface. But if a book needs an expert guide to be made tolerable, then can it really be considered a “good” book? What about all the readers out there who don’t have first-hand access to such an expert?
I eventually developed my own strategy. I got the audiobook on CD from the library (with much thanks to Columbus Metropolitan Library for letting me keep it for 6 months!) and listened to it during my commute every day… or every day I could while still avoiding the temptation to drive my car into a river. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and this is the first one I recall with an intro explaining the process behind its creation. Apparently, Joyce’s heirs would only release the rights for the audiobook if Donal Donnelly was the narrator (he does a pretty great job), and the production staff spent way longer than usual on research and notes to figure out how the text should be read aloud. I can’t imagine it could be done any better than what Recorded Books managed to pull off. This made it much easier to keep up with the sound effects, songs, and dialogue than the printed text would have allowed.
Near the beginning of each episode, I also read the summary and analysis on SparkNotes. (Hey, if it’s good enough for Bob Dylan’s Nobel speech…) Really, this was invaluable to me. I could keep up with the incremental plot movements and character interactions without getting too frustrated with the layers and layers of obscurity piled on top of them by this sadistic author. OK, maybe I still got a little frustrated. But having a broad understanding of each episode in advance helped me push through.
As a novel, Ulysses is miserable. The characters don’t develop, many of them are indistinct from one another, and they don’t have stakes or goals. They mostly just get drunk, complain about the state of Irish culture all day, and entertain deeply repressed thoughts about sex. The plot is barely worth mentioning. The writing is (intentionally) inconsistent, obscure, and overwrought. You’re as likely to encounter a fart joke as a reference to Jesuit philosophers. There’s a whole chapter that critiques Hamlet, and another in which the main character masturbates in public. It’s a mess.
And the women characters are the worst. It made me wonder if Joyce had ever really spent time listening to a woman, let alone understanding her in any significant way. The very very few female characters exist entirely through a man’s lens. Even when the narration enters their heads (even Molly’s), they define themselves entirely by the attention they draw from men based on how they look and act and speak.
But I get why Ulysses is considered important. Joyce shows off a wide range of writing styles here, and he does all of them well (although I’m admittedly more familiar with some than others). It’s impressive that all these words and tones came from a single author. If Ulysses were turned into some kind of epic movie or mini-series, you’d need a different director for each episode; one person alone could not capture what makes Ulysses unique. That doesn’t mean it’s worth reading, just that it’s “important.”
I actually finished Ulysses in July, but I'm just now finishing this review. In a week or so, I’ll post my rather grumpy plot summary of Ulysses here. Stay tuned!
I usually try to read novels as stand-alone pieces of art. I avoid reviews and critical theories about the novel’s meaning/importance/symbolism/whatever. Sometimes, I’m aware of the context, or I’ll do little research on the setting, but not much. It’s not until after I finish a work that I try to find out how others interpreted it. Certainly, there are pros and cons to this strategy, and others may disagree with it. But it usually helps me to form my own opinion first and then let that opinion be influenced later.
However, I felt like I missed a lot in One Hundred Years of Solitude by following this strategy. This feels like a book that it best read in a college course, where a professor has identified a bunch of related readings and can lead a conversation about what it all means. At minimum, maybe it should just have a lot of editor’s footnotes in it.
Because I don’t know what this all means. I understand that it’s a reflection of Latin America, but I also know that I’m missing a lot of the context here. Even down to the title—time, in the novel, is presented as cyclical and repetitive, so who/what is alone for one hundred years? The language and the metaphors are beautiful throughout, but I can’t see what they’re obscuring.
I have more research to do here, obviously. At some later point, I’ll probably read this book again and re-evaluate my reaction to it. But for now, it has left me intrigued.
More of a poem than a novel, and a better poem than most. Virginia Woolf pulls threads of images through the fabric of individual characters’ lives in a way that exposes their innermost thoughts and feelings, impressions they may even hesitate to admit to themselves, let alone to the other characters around them. By exposing her characters down to their essences, Woolf creates a cast of distinct individuals that readers can relate to one by one through the common humanity of their anxieties and sudden waves of affection.
Although the narrative jumps frequently from one character’s mind to another, the impressions are distinct and clear enough that the reader doesn’t get lost in the translation of these cloud-like expressions to the printed page. We understand James’s seething hatred just as we understand why his father continues to tickle his leg. We understand Lily’s certainty about moving the tree toward the middle just as we understand Tansley’s insistence that women can’t paint, can’t write.
There’s not much plot to the story. In parts 1 and 3, the focus instead is on a microscopic view of a few hours of life. In part 2, the view zooms out so far that 10 years pass in an instant. These hours may not seem significant in the scheme of things—in parts 1 and 3, no one is born, no one dies—but they influence every life who experiences them. And Woolf‘s genius conveys this quiet drama beautifully.
I used to think Jenny Slate was referring to a compilation of EM Forster novels. Then I read The Portrait of a Lady. And yeah, that's definitely what she's talking about. I even tried to appreciate the feminist message here, but the truth is that I don't relate to that goddamn story! Once I figured out that Isabel and Henrietta weren't having a secret lesbian relationship, it got especially boring.
Just read a Dilbert and go to sleep.
I re-read Siddhartha after more than 15 years. While High School Me appreciated it to some extent, I think I got much more out of it as an adult. By now, I've had the chance to make some life choices the way Siddhartha did, and I've been able to see some of their results. During high school, I was still at the stage he was right before he joined the aesthetics. Now, I'm probably somewhere closer to his time as a wealthy merchant. I really enjoyed watching Siddhartha's choices, understanding his arrogance, and being at some points just a little closer than him to knowing what makes life worth living.
I pulled this off my shelf somewhat randomly, knowing I had a couple long plane trips coming up and looking for something smallish to carry around with me. How different travel can be when your head is still floating around Siddhartha's world! I think I smiled like a fool at everyone I saw.
Hesse's writing here is quiet and gorgeous. He's not following any of the rules we know about how to write engaging fiction. It begins with a montage of Siddhartha's happy childhood, being loved by everyone--not exactly the action hook we expect these days. And it proceeds in a soft, explanatory voice, interrupting a narrative that spans years with a few specific anecdotes here and there. When we think back on our own lives, doesn't it replay in much the same way?
By the end, I found myself reading more closely, wanting to really understand what Siddhartha is saying and doing, even as he was explaining the inherent shortcomings of communicating and teaching. You have to discover it for yourself through your own experience, not seek it from others. Not even from Siddhartha himself.
So who might be closer to a real-life Don Quixote? I think a better example might be George W. Bush.
I can’t claim to know his personal intentions, but my impression of him through his public persona is that he has (or at least had) a deluded view of the world. Given his upbringing, lifestyle, success, and the people he surrounded himself with during his presidency, this hardly seems surprising. And I think it’s likely that he really thought his actions as president were the morally right things to do, just as Don Quixote constructs moral justifications for everything from freeing the galley slaves to slaughtering the hotel wineskins. And Don Quixote too is quick to anger, unrepentant of his mistakes, certain of his understanding of right and wrong, and not convinced by reason.
But Don Quixote was one man, and his actions involved a very limited number of people. Unfortunately, I think Bush surrounded himself with Ahabs and trusted the information they gave him, maybe on the assumption that they also were knights of chivalry. By the time it became obvious that Bush’s giants were actually windmills (read: among other examples, that Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction), he’d already committed too much to the effort. Too much industry, money, policy, and rhetoric--and too many lives--to make any deathbed reversal meaningful.
(I recently saw [the first half of] Longford and read Lord Longford's Wikipedia entry, and he seems like another Don Quixote candidate. I haven't done enough research to make a good case, but what I've seen so far is quite interesting.)
Now that I've read Don Quixote, I keep finding references to him. They've probably always been there, but now I'm trying to understand more specifically what they mean.
For example, I recently saw Central Ohio's darling dairy farmer, Warren Taylor, referred to as Don Quixote. Was the writer saying that he doesn't understand the world around him? That he's delusional?
Then I saw Lost in La Mancha, the documentary about Terry Gilliam’s failed (so far) attempt to make a move of Don Quixote. The movie really wants to make a claim that Gilliam is Don Quixote, deluded into thinking that this movie dream of his is possible, despite the evidence to the contrary. But that never quite worked for me either.
And here's the reason. I get the impression from this movie that Gilliam understands exactly what he's up against. He has experience making movies, even big productions. Some of them have been hits, and others have not. He's pursuing one specific idea, one that he knows will be a challenge but one that he's willing to try again and again until he makes it happen.
Gilliam's not Don Quixote. He's Ahab.
Moby Dick's Ahab was an experienced whaling captain with years of success. After losing his leg, Ahab becomes obsessed with finding the whale that did it--a whale that happens to be white and therefore recognizable as an individual he can track across the globe. And he does. He charts his course through waters not based on where the best whaling is, something he understands from his previous experience, but based on where he's heard rumors that the white whale has been spotted. At one point, the Pequod comes across another whaling ship that requests assistance--the captain's son has been lost during a hunt, and the captain is scouring that part of the ocean to find him. Certainly, Ahab, who even has children at home, could relate to this desperation, but he can't tear himself away from his own search. (Luckily for Ishmael, the captain is still searching for his son after Ahab has battled and lost to the whale.)
Don Quixote would never do this. Don Quixote has a skewed understanding of the way the world works, but he tries always to do what is most noble and right, albeit by his own definition. When Don Quixote agrees to help (what he sees as) a damsel in distress, she makes him promise not to grant any other promises of help until he completes her mission. He has a really difficult time sticking to this, in part because of his short temper and in part because he so quickly recognizes injustices and feels a compulsion to right wrongs. After Don Quixote attacks his first giant, he doesn't keep attacking it once he sees that it's a windmill.
Don Quixote's actions are completely coherent *given his delusion*, but he is under a delusion. Ahab, on the other hand, understands perfectly well what he's facing and what he's asking of other people, but he is intent on reaching his goal.
I'm not recommending that Terry Gilliam give up on his white whale, a movie production of Don Quixote. If I can cross references here a bit, I feel a bit like the Duke and Duchess, encouraging him on in something that may not be good for him or others, but that is fascinating to watch. I want to cheer for Gilliam in a way I could never commit to cheer for Ahab, maybe because he's a real human and therefore more sympathetic. But he's still Ahab.
So who might be closer to a real-life Don Quixote? I have an idea, but I'd love to hear yours too. Tune in next week to hear mine!
There is so much to say about not only Part 2 but also about the entire story of Don Quixote, that I'll never fit it into one blog post. I'll try to limit this one to my thoughts on Part 2--the way Cervantes tried to limit himself from digressing into entire other novels after the first book--and instead include other thoughts in later posts.
The short version is: Part 2 is a significantly better read than Part 1, but you really have to read Part 1 to understand Part 2.
Part 2 starts with all those formalities that Part 1 lacked. The dedications in particular. And here Cervantes introduces us to an incident that evolves into a bit of an obsession throughout the work. After Part 1 became a success, someone else wrote a sequel without Cervantes's permission. He deemed it quite inferior, obviously, both in writing style and character development. The irony, of course, is that we're still reading Cervantes's Don Quixote 400 years later, and we would never even remember this counterfeit if he didn't harp on it so much.
In this world of Part 2, we encounter our Knight of the Rueful Countenance (later to be known as the Knight of the Lions) still in bed recovering from his second sally, just a month or so before. And somehow in this time, half of Europe has read the true history of Don Quixote (the one by Cide Hamete Benegeli, of course, the historian Cervantes claims to be translating through both parts) and is completely enamored with the protagonist and his squire. They discuss the short-comings of the book--specifically the crazy novel-within-a-novel part I complained about earlier and a plotting mistake--and it's funny to hear that the complaints of readers 400 years ago are so similar to today's.
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza decide to proceed on a third sally, and they sneak out of the house in order to do so. Since I promised to keep this brief, I won't recount their adventures here. The important difference between this and the first and second sallies is that they actually win sometimes. The reader cheers for them because not every adventure ends in a spectacular beating or a sheep slaughter. Not all (most) of their wins are objectively fair successes, but they think they're winning, and you can't help but want it for them. A lot of people play a lot of tricks on them throughout, but many of the tricks are harmless except that they increase the delusion of Don Quixote and Sancho.
We love them for their delusions. When Sancho occasionally contemplates walking away, the reader wishes him to stay. As mean as some of the tricks are, we are the trick-players. We want them to believe, maybe because we want to live in a world where their beliefs are relevant.
And that's the magic of Part 2. Despite all the cultural differences between early 17th century Spain and 21st century America, we can still relate to the emotions behind the characters and their stories. Maybe this is what earns Don Quixote the title of "the first modern novel," I'm not sure. But it feels modern.
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