The Shrinking Man, by Richard Matheson, 1956

You may be more familiar with this novel through the film adaptation (pointlessly retitled the Incredible Shrinking Man, as if the shrinking bit was otherwise credible). It tells the story of Scott Carey, caught in one of those freak nuclear accidents that were almost unavoidable in 1950s America. Instead of imbuing him with superpowers, he begins to shrink. Every day he loses one seventh of an inch in height and overall mass. Doctors are unable to halt his inexorable decline.Shrinking Man

Matheson focuses his narrative on the end of Carey’s experience, when he is less than an inch tall, and is trapped in the family cellar, menaced by a Black Widow spider hungry for a snack. A lot of attention is paid to the practical detail of moving around when you are less than an inch tall, finding food, water and safety. In brief moments of calm Carey remembers his slow decline from a strong, six foot two husband and father, through an inverted adolescence, finally being housed in a doll’s house by his towering but ever faithful wife.

The novel cries out to be read as a parable. Carey’s emasculation, as he shrinks in both size and status, leading him to be more and more impotent, is a thoughtful commentary on the role of men in 1950’s American society. He is unable to provide for his family, and he becomes vulnerable first to a drunken paedophile and then teenage bullies. He briefly rediscovers his sexuality by spying on his daughter’s babysitter, who has a convenient propensity to remove her clothing, and later has a brief affair with a fairground dwarf.

Size really does matter is the simple interpretation of this text, but to be honest I found the novel much more interesting if read as a commentary on the space race and the Cold War. Despite the seemingly impossible challenges Carey faces, he never gives up, and always ends up on top. He defeats his much larger enemies, and uses good old American pluck to win through. Each day’s shrinkage is another challenge to be confronted and beaten. At the end of the novel, he lies on his back looking up at the stars:

How beautiful they were, like blue-white diamonds cast across a sky of inky satin. No moonlight illuminated the sky. There was only total darkness, broken by the flaring pin points of the stars. And the nicest thing about them was that they were still the same. He saw them as any man saw them, and that brought a deep contentment to him. Small he might be, but the earth itself was small compared to this.”

Just at this time the USA and the USSR were both planning to launch satellites, and were contemplating the vastness of the challenge in front of them. The space race was a proxy expression of the Cold War. Matheson seems to say here that nuclear weapons will present a challenge for America, but that no matter what is thrown at it, it will survive and go on to conquer. The novel ends on a remarkably positive note in language which anticipates some of the purple prose used by the first astronauts:

“If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close — the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet — like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man’s conception, not nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!

Matheson came up with a superb idea here and has created one of the seminal 1950s science fiction texts (he also wrote ‘I am Legend’). Although the narrative can get bogged down with a “how tiny me climbed the side of the chair to recover some breadcrumbs” level of detail, I wasn’t too distracted by this, and enjoyed the adventure elements of the story.


The Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett, 2002

The Night Watch was the 29th novel in Terry Pratchett’s extraordinary life’s work, the Discworld series. nigthwatch

The regular publication of Pratchett’s novels formed part of the background pulse of my life (and I am sure of many others), a predictable and reliable event that one looks forward to, like birthdays or Christmas. Although like all the novels in the series it can be read as a stand alone text, it is not a good entry point for those new to Discworld. This is later Pratchett, more serious, and it assumes a level of knowledge of the characters and their traditions without which  some of the jokes won’t work. An example of this happens when Sam Vimes meets Cut My Own Throat Dibbler. Dibbler is one of the numerous well realised characters who people Discworld and bring it to life. Travelling back in time, Sam meets CMOT when he is just starting out in the pie trade, and accidentally gives him his nickname. This joke doesn’t work if the reader isn’t already familiar with CMOT and his infamous ‘pies with personality.’

‘Night Watch’ is one of the darker novels in the series (although in interviews Pratchett disputed that label). Sam Vimes, commander of the Ankh-Morpork police (the Watch) is pursuing a serial killer, when he is caught in an accidental time warp, and travels back to thirty years earlier when he first joined the Watch. He mentors his younger self, teaching him all the tricks of the trade. The time travelling aspects of the story are handled adeptly, and although as with all time travel stories it won’t stand up to much scrutiny, it is cleverer than most. It is written with love for the characters and the world they live in, not least Sam Vimes the world weary copper, trying to keep the peace and do the job in front of him, struggling with the moral complexities that sometimes presents him with.

Vimes’s time travelling accident happens on the 30th anniversary of the Glorious Revolution of the Twenty-Fifth of May, a small scale over by lunchtime affair in which seven watchmen lost their lives. Each year the battle of Heroes Street is commemorated by those who were there by wearing lilac sprigs in their lapels, and visiting the graves of the fallen. This poignant memory echoes through the novel, as the inevitability of history reasserts itself, despite Sam’s interference with the events of the past. We also meet a much younger Vetenari, an apprentice of the Assassin’s Guild, who goes on to command the City. As a cleverly constructed prequel the novel is really mostly aimed at Discworld fans, rather than new readers. I have huge affection for the whole series, and pretty much everything Pratchett wrote, and his tragic death in 2015 deprived us of one of our great comic writers. But his characters are so vivid and well realised that they live on in our imaginations. In the unlikely event you haven’t discovered Discworld before now, and I know there are huge numbers of fans in the blogging community, then I can’t recommend these novels highly enough. Start at the beginning with ‘The Colour of Magic’, and just enjoy!

Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury, 1962

I am trying to work out if this is a Young Adult book or not, and would appreciate any advice anyone can offer. Because if it is I clearly shouldn’t have read it. Only kidding of course – just pointing out that putting labels on novels is sometimes not helpful.

‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ (and what a wonderful title by the way) tells the dark, macabre story of Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, two appropriately nameBradburyd 13 year old small-town American boys, and their visits to ‘Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show’, a distinctly 1950’s American carnival.  Sneaking into the carnival after it closes, they witness the proprietors using a spectral merry-go-round with supernatural powers, specifically the ability to age, or reduce the age of, anyone who rides it. Discovered, they are pursued by the carnival owners and their enslaved exhibits (the Dust Witch, the Skeleton, the Dwarf, and Mr Electrico). The rest of the novel tells the story of their pursuit and their struggles with the malevolent carnival characters.

There are a number of themes here that have gone on to become standard features of gothic horror novels. I can’t be sure to what extent Bradbury  simply developed these traditions, or originated them, but he without doubt had a significant influence on writers such as Stephen King, (who wrote his own coming of age novel, Stand by Me) and Neil Gaiman, both of whom have acknowledged their debt to Bradbury. Characters bewitched into different, powerless, forms appear here, as does the idea of a community that mysteriously reappears every generation, once every thirty years. The novel even has the idea of a library as a supposedly safe space from which a fight-back against the forces of the night can be launched (Buffy, anyone?).

Carnivals are inherently spooky, particularly those with freak-shows. They come to life at night, appear overnight and disappear as quickly. They are not the kind of place you want to get lost in. Bradbury uses this carnival as a potent symbol of sin and evil – “(it) survives living off the poison of the sins we do each other, and the ferment of our most terrible regrets“(chapter 40).

The ‘however’ you have been expecting is now overdue. The element of genuine suspense, the belief that Will and Jim might actually come to harm, is missing. The dust-witch is killed with a smile, and laughter is used to make the night recede. Evil melts away in the face of a chuckle. The freaks and their puppet masters are conquered far too easily. The blurb to this edition quotes a Washington Post review which refers to this text as a “timeless rite of passage” novel. More specifically it is a coming of age story – in the course of the few hours span of the novel, Jim and Will quite literally grow up, taking an inadvertent circuit on the time-travelling merry go round. Which brings us back to the Young Adult question. Evil that is defeated without too much stress, and teenagers growing up – these are classic ingredients of the YA genre. If further proof were needed, the film of the book was made by Disney! But I still liked it.


Casino Royale by Ian Fleming, 1953

As you know, I have been reading a lot of pre-war novels recently. Even in those published more recently, in the 50’s and 60’s, the use of offensive terms to describe black and ethnic minority people and others is common place. Quite often the terms are used casually, not actively intended to offend but as part of the speaker’s everyday idiolect, Casino Royalshowever brutal that may have been. Authors setting the events of their novels in the past have to make a difficult decision whether to have their characters talk ‘authentically’ – that is using offensive words that were common terms- or to sanitise their portrayal of how people spoke and thought. As a result of all this I’ve become a bit de-sensitised to authors using offensive terminology or hateful language. In any event I knew not to expect James Bond to be politically correct or sensitive to other people’s feelings and ideas. But the venom and sheer unpleasantness of his portrayal in ‘Casino Royale’ was still shocking.

This short novel is the first of the Bond franchise, and sets the template for many of what were to become clichés about Bond. The repressed public school boy, the cold blooded killer (although he kills no-one in this novel, he does boast (twice) about his killings to date, two to be precise) his lechery, his misogyny, his tendency to drink and drive. We are told of his 00 designation, although here it is not a licence to kill, (that would come later), but rather confirmation that he has killed in the course of his work; in other words it is a designation of work experience, not an indication of authority. The femme fatale sidekick fated to die by the end of the novel is here, but missing are the dead-pan quips in the face of danger, and the gadgets provided by Q.

The novel’s plot is flimsy. The villain, Le Chiffre, a Russian Agent, controlled by SMERSH, is treasurer of a French trade union. Some villain. He is morbidly obese, and just to round the characterisation off, a sexual predator. He has lost the union’s money by investing in a chain of loss-making brothels, so tries to recover his losses at the baccarat tables at the Casino Royale. Bond’s master plan is to beat him at cards, bankrupt him, forcing into becoming a double agent. The novel is very clear that the trade union members he represents are a communist fifth column under the control of the Soviet Union, and must be broken up as part of the defence of the realm.

As a plan this obviously has its flaws, depending as it does on the luck of the draw, and is in any event always vulnerable to either Le Chiffre cheating, which is the sort of thing corrupt trade union officials are prone to, or violence after the event. The latter is the option chosen – after fluking a win at chards, Bond is kidnapped, stripped, tied to a chair and then tortured at length in a bizarre homoerotic sadomasochistic fashion which threatens his manhood painfully and literally.

As a spy novel this is flimsy stuff, but the portrayal of women, and Bond’s Neanderthal attitudes, is what I wanted to focus on. As I have said, I am not naïve enough to have expected Bond to have been a feminist. But he is an appalling throwback. When he hears he is going to have to work with a woman, he is dismayed.

“These blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work. Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men”. (15)

Lynd, the female agent in question (Vesper Lynd is a homophone for ‘West Berlin’ by the way, a clue that she is a double agent) is in turns lusted over and treated with contempt by Bond. His reaction when she is kidnapped is:

“For Vesper to fall for an old trick like that and get herself snatched ad probably held to ransom…the silly bitch. “

He imagines sex with her as having the “sweet tang of rape”. (23)

The final line of the novel is the blunt “The bitch is dead now”. (This of a woman who he was planning to marry a few pages earlier)

It’s important obviously to avoid the mistake of assuming that the thoughts and ideas of the novel’s central character are those of the novelist. But equally that doesn’t mean that sometimes authors don’t use their characters to articulate their prejudices. It’s not too difficult to spot the difference between this happening, and a character being constructed to represent prejudices which are held up to ridicule or contempt. If Bond was being presented as a misogynist in order to demonstrate how out of date these ideas had become, someone in the novel would challenge him, confront his chauvinism. That never happens. Alternatively his bigotry would be confronted by the events of the novel – for example when he consistently under-estimates women they go on to prove him wrong. Again, no such thing happens – by the end of the novel the reader is invited to agree that staying at home minding pots and pans and sticking to her frocks would indeed have been the better course of action for Vesper. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Fleming, the wealthy, Eton and Sandhurst educated former naval intelligence officer, was using Bond to express his own chauvinism.

The later Bond novels do nothing to dispel this idea. These are his thoughts on lesbians and gay men in ‘Goldfinger’, all caused apparently by giving women the vote!

Bond came to the conclusion that Tilly Masterson was one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed-up. He knew the type well and thought they and their male counterparts were a direct consequence of giving votes to women and “sex equality.” As a result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to the males. Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were. The result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits – barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied.”

Would you like a reading challenge?

Lots of bloggers use reading challenges as a way of testing themselves – how hard-core are you, that you can read the whole 12 volumes of ‘The Dance to the Music of Time’, or the 4,215 or so pages of Marcel Proust’s ‘Recherche du Temps Perdu’, without tearing your eyes out?

Having just finished a 100 books challenge, I have no appetite for anything of this order. But at the same time I found that a reading challenge provided a helpful structure for my choices, took me places I would not otherwise go, and gave a simple answer to that perennial question “What am I going to read next?”books

As a best of both worlds compromise, I have created my own personal reading challenge list. It has only 20 books (which I know for some will be far too lightweight) and yes, some of the novels could be classified as ‘young adult’ or young adult friendly. But it includes some ‘proper’ literature alongside the more accessible texts, and it includes a nice smattering of books not written in English. Incidentally, every one of these books appeared on the BBC’s Big Read list from a few years ago.

What do you think?

  1. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  2. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
  3. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
  4. Animal Farm, George Orwell
  5. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
  6. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome
  7. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman
  8. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
  9. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
  10. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
  11. Holes, Louis Sachar
  12. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
  13. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
  14. The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks
  15. The Day of the Triffids,  John Wyndham
  16. Possession: A Romance, A. S. Byatt
  17. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
  18. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  19. Atonement, Ian McEwan
  20. The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells





Breakfast at Tiffany’s, by Truman Capote, 1958

Enjoying my new-found freedom to read what the hell I like, I decided on a whim to try this wonderfully short (less than 100 pages) novella by the author of ‘In Cold Blood’. Turned into a memorable film with Audrey Hepburn only three years after it was published, it is one of those books that is better known in its cinematic version than as a novel.

The novel tells the story of the narrator’s brief friendship (but not romance)Tiffanys in 1940’s New York with the irrepressible Holly Golightly. Holly is an American geisha, a girl of negotiable friendship, who bursts into the narrator’s life one year, and is almost as quickly gone, flying off to Brazil to avoid having to give evidence against a gangster acquaintance. This is Holly’s story.  She is vibrant and has an enormous appetite for life:

“Be anything but a coward, a pretender, an emotional crook, a whore: I’d rather have cancer than a dishonest heart.”

In other words she is true to herself, to her appetites and instincts, even if this means that she crosses the line of what society considers acceptable. The narrator admires her from afar, and hardly emerges at all as a character; he is dubbed Fred by Holly, after her brother abroad somewhere distant fighting in the Second World War, but remains otherwise anonymous, a lens through which we watch Holly and her adventures. This technique reminded me of the way Fitzgerald uses Nick Carraway in Gatsby – an observer bearing witness to the social whirl around someone larger than life.

The film version of the novel sanitises and romantises Holly. In the novel she has a hard edged protective outer shell, and realises that she cannot afford any sentimentality or even romance in her life. The only times this façade is pierced is when she receives news of her brother’s death, and at the end when she asks ‘Fred’ to care for her cat, a request he faithfully carries out.

Penguin published this short novella with three short stories, House of Flowers, A Diamond Guitar, and A Christmas Memory.  These are harmless enough, very different in tone from the principal story, but I can’t avoid the impression that they are padding, some odds and ends added in to give the impression of a longer novel, without adding much if anything to the main event.

Capote was a journalist, and only dabbled in novel writing: as such this is really just a sketch. You could probably watch the film in about the same time as it would take to read the novel, and I suspect it would be a more rewarding experience. Why not do both?

Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup, Rosa Prince, 2016

First published in 2015 shortly after Corbyn’s election to theComrade Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party. read in a paperback edition updated with the events of the leadership challenge, although not the outcome, in 2016.

I paid £1 for this clearly unread) paperback edition (in a charity shop. I think I overpaid. It is a classic cuttings job, thrown together quickly following Corbyn’s surprise victory in the race to replace Ed Milliband as leader of the Labour Party.

Rosa Prince is the online political editor for the Daily Telegraph, and as such is unlikely to have had much of an understanding of the complex world of the non-Parliamentary left from which Corbyn emerged. The biography contains no interviews with anyone close to Corbyn. The nearest Prince gets is Tariq Ali, a fellow traveller in the shores of the far left, but hardly close to the man, and he has nothing interesting or indiscrete to add. Prince has to fall back on the cuttings file that forms the bulk of this book. Which means that if you read the papers occasionally in the summer of 2015, or watched the news on television, there will be little new to you in this account. Yes it brings it all together, and reminds you of some of the details you may have forgotten, but I am not sure that is enough to justify the full £1 paid.

Cuttings job it may be, but this isn’t the hatchet job you might expect from a Telegraph journalist. On the whole it tries to be balanced. Each critical analysis of Corbyn’s actions or policy positions is followed up with an “on the other hand” paragraph or two. Despite this Corbyn emerges as someone who has made mistakes and political misjudgements in the past – although who hasn’t? As the Guardian review of the book said at the time:

“It is pretty well impossible to spend your life on the side of the underdog and not end up having shaken hands with people who at least advocate blowing things up, just as it is well-nigh impossible to spend your life on the side of authority and not end up having sold arms to dictators. These are things that only bloggers and the Daily Mail pretend not to understand, and she didn’t fall into that trap.” I am not sure this is right, but at least it avoids demonising Corbyn in the way he is treated elsewhere in the media.

The heart of the book is not of course Corbyn’s middle class childhood in leafy Shropshire, with his two grade E A levels, nor the half a lifetime championing unpopular causes in darkest Islington. The 2015 leadership campaign provides all the drama needed, even though it is the easiest thing in the world to portray the outcome as an inevitability once it happened. Prince charts the events of the campaign fairly and a bit dully, failing to capture any of the excitement or improbability of the result. If you were under a rock for several months in the summer of 2015 and need a crash course in the Labour Party’s leadership campaign, you could do worse. Books like this get out of date incredibly quickly, and the Corbyn story has some way to run before it ends in either Downing Street, or more likely back on the backbenches. We will know how it all ends on June 9th.

P.S. As part of the preparation for this review I read the review the New Statesman published in February 2016. It is bizarrely positive – for  example here:

“But after over a dozen interviews with the leader’s friends and opponents (he himself would not speak to her), she has produced an accomplished study and the most lucid explanation yet of the Labour Party’s present state.”

Is over a dozen interviews really that high a number for a biography of an active politician who must have hundreds if not thousands of people who know him or have something interesting to say about him?  I thought the book had nothing whatsoever of interest to say about the state of the Labour Party. So why the ridiculously positive review?


Slade House, by David Mitchell, 2015

“A board game co-designed by M. C. Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever.”

‘Slade House’ is an unexpectedly old-fashioned ghost story. Mitchell has previously written novels in a variety of styles: ’Cloud Atlas’ was a highly successful experiment in form; ‘The 1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ was a more traditional historical novel, albeit with a twist, and his 2014 ‘The Bone Clocks’ was a supernatural thriller. Perhaps Mitchell Sladehas still to settle on a preferred form, but a ghost story is a fitting addition to his ‘uber’ novel’, even if its origins in a short story are all too apparent. The theme he returns to time and again is the one in the foreground here, the paranormal. Slade House’ is a ‘sort-of’ sequel to ‘The Bone Clocks’, in that it continues the story of a psychic war of good against evil.

Ghost stories are comforting fare. They scare us just a little, but we always know who is levitating the table, and that the creepy janitor is going to be behind the mask when it is removed in the final scene. I half expected to see Shaggy and Scooby skitter down Slade House’s long hallways at one point, so heavily does Mitchell lay on the shtick. The premise is that ‘Slade House’ destroyed in the Second World War, was preserved in time using some astral hocus pocus. Brigadoon-like it re-appears every nine years for its inhabitants, spooky vampire twins Norah and Jonah Grayer, to feast on the souls of their latest prey. We see each group of victims wander haplessly into their trap, taking the literal bait, and slowly realising they are latest in a long list of psychic entrees. The penny usually drops when they see their portrait as in a series of missing person’s pictures. (At least Mitchell avoided having the portrait’s eyes follow them around the room!) The twins are pretty incompetent evil masterminds, and are easily tracked down and despatched by the universe’s spiritual detectives, Marvel-like superheroes dedicated to balancing the force, or something along those lines.

The narrative point of view is that of the victims, which leads to several clumsy “the last thing I saw before my soul was feasted upon by the twins was…” type conclusions. If you can work your way past all this nonsense, the novel is harmless enough, not in the least disturbing; the Guardian’s review called it “The Bone Clocks’ naughty little sister in a fright wig”, which will give you a good idea of the playful tone of the text. This might have made a half decent chapter of ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ or the outline for a ‘Doctor Who’ episode, but as a novel the concept is stretched too thin.

I recall objecting to the exploitative nature of some of the content of ‘The Bone Clocks’. Looking back I can see I said that “well researched historical romances are fine, but they are not normally my preferred choice of reading. Rape/murder/infanticide/torture/time travelling thrillers also have a specialised audience. Mashing the two together, as this novel does, goes beyond bizarre.” The same concerns persist with this novel. It’s a timely reminder that while ‘Slade House’ doesn’t take itself seriously, it does nevertheless deal with serious themes, and that the grief of the relatives of people who go missing and are presumed dead is not to be treated light-heartedly. Mitchell recognises this, but it doesn’t allow it to constrain him.

“We’ll never give up, never stop looking. Always I wonder. Sometimes I envy the weeping parents of the definitely dead you see on TV. Grief is an amputation, but hope is incurable haemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed.”


Finishing the list

I’m not going to make a big fuss about completing my read through the 100 best novels written in English as chosen by the Guardian, but I did want to mark the moment with a few thoughts:

  1. It was harder than I expected. 100 novels in two years, or one a week, sounds straightforward. But of course life gets in the way, and for every 150 pager than can be read in an afternoon, there was a Victorian three volume 800 pager to be navigated.
  2. The quality of the novels on the list was varied, to say the least. But I was pushed firmly out of my comfort zone, particularly in tackling some American authors I was aware of but had not read before, and of course having to go back to the 18th Century and the beginning of the novel as a narrative form.
  3. Was the list a fair roundup of the best 100 novels written in English? The definition of novel was stretched to breaking – I don’t think Pilgrim’s Progress belonged there, for example – and there were other choices such as Hadrian 7th which were tosh. My main concern was the strange constraint of only allowing one novel per author, which meant having to make the impossible choice between Emma and Pride and Prejudice.

So what next? I have decided to avoid any major reading challenges for the time being. They place a lot of constraints on one’s choices. I am looking forward to being able to choose anything I fancy to read. I have a dozen or so books from previous holidays and birthdays that I am planning to read, but after that….?

Ulysses, by James Joyce, 1922

“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.”

‘Ulysses’ was a hard read, 933 pages of Ulyssescomplex,allusive text, full of echoes, references, challenges and puzzles. Reading this novel passively, without paying full attention, is pretty pointless, and even with three weeks of concentrated reading, most readers, myself included, working without the benefit of one of the many guides available, will probably only scratch the surface of this novel’s complexity.

The novel’s reputation as being unreadable, on the other hand, is unjustified. A parallel with Shakespeare’s prose might help – Shakespeare is often described as being hard to follow, but if you take care and pay attention there is little in the canon that can’t be understood by a native speaker. ‘Ulysses’ is the same. (Incidentally, Shakespeare, and specifically Hamlet, echoes repeatedly throughout the novel)

Take Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness chapter at the end of the novel. Joyce attempts to capture Molly’s thoughts as she drifts back off to sleep after being woken by Leopold, returning worse for wear from his adventures. Her thoughts range widely from her childhood memories to the events of the day. We all know that as we fall asleep our thoughts become incoherent and even bizarre. But the thread of Molly’s thoughts can almost always be followed, if one takes the time to do so.

“and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another 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.”

Remove some of the conjunctions, add in a full stop or two, and this is a simple memory of her first kiss and more. It is a lovely memory to close the novel, life affirming and positive.

I first read ‘Ulysses’ several decades ago, and had inevitably forgotten large chunks of it – although I was surprised at how much still remained familiar, most strikingly the chapter Nausicaa. Here Leopold watches poor lame Gerty MacDowell, on the rocks and on the shelf. This is a wonderful, tender portrait of a delusional young woman, affecting to feel superior to her friends, but sadly unable to wish away of her lameness, which is likely to make it difficult for her to marry and have children. Equally I little realised how much Stephen Dedalus’s thoughts on Shakespeare in chapter 9, Scylla and Charybdis had influenced much of my own thoughts (not really mine, Stephen’s/Joyce’s) on the subject.

Other chapters are less accessible. Chapter 12, Cyclops, includes streams of legal jargon, biblical passages, and elements of Irish mythology, and Chapter 14, Oxen of the Sun, is bravura attempt to capture the entire history of the English language, from latinate prose to Anglo-Saxon alliteration. It ends in a long paragraphs gibberish, which I will be kind and avoid quoting. I think Joyce is predicting the decline of the language into a yahooish form of slang, but I could be missing the point?

The character of Leopold Bloom is at the heart of the novel. He doesn’t appear until chapter 4, and often slips out of view, but is a likeable, easy going chap. His wife is being unfaithful to him, but he doesn’t seem to mind very much. His thoughts touchingly often wander back to the death of his baby son Rudy. He is subjected to anti-semitic abuse, but doesn’t let it get him down, and pursues his narrow life and interests with an amiable persistence. The drawer of memories and effects that he reflects on at the end of the novel is a little pathetic, but Poldy is an everyman who bounces back and survives, a humanist but puts up with being christened three times, a pacifist prepared to stick up for himself, and a bit of a dirty old man. He makes the novel ultimately worthwhile.