Monday, 24 December 2012

Bloom's Odyssey: more than meets the eye


"Never know whose thoughts you're chewing." 
 James Joyce, Ulysses

A classic movie poster for Homer's Odyssey

Now we get to one of the cleverest aspects of James Joyce's Ulysses.  

In my earlier posts, I wrote that Ulysses wasn't about Ancient Greeks -- and that's certainly true -- to a point.   

At face value, Ulysses is about a Jewish adman named Leo Bloom who journeys through the streets of Dublin on a single day: June 16, 1904; but there are deeper dimensions to the novel.     

Behind the scenes, Joyce based Bloom's
 comings and goings on the structure of the epic Greek poem, The Odyssey by Homer.  Each chapter in Ulysses corresponds to a chapter in Homer's Odyssey, and most characters in Ulysses are based on parallel characters in the epic poem.

If you're like me, you grew up remotely familiar with Homer's Odyssey, but never actually read it.
I came to learn that The Odyssey was written by Homer in the 8th century B.C. and tells the story of King Odysseus's ten-year journey back to his kingdom of Ithaca after his success in the Trojan War.  On the way home, Odysseus encounters a series of adventures with a variety of gods, giants and monsters, and uses his skills and cunning to return to his queen, Penelope.  Back in Ithaca, a rowdy mob of suitors sense that Odysseus isn't coming home, and they gather at Penelope's palace to court her.  The restless suitors pillage the palace, eat Penelope's food, and demand she choose one of them to be her new king.  In the end, Odysseus makes his way back to Ithaca, disguises himself as a beggar and meets up with his son Telemachus -- together, they defeat the suitors, and Odysseus successfully returns home to Penelope's bed.

What's brilliant about Joyce's approach is that he takes this epic hero's ten-year journey in The Odyssey and uses it as a guide to write about the adventures of a common man during a single day.

Bloom is, of course, the modern-day Odysseus, who travels throughout Dublin.  Bloom's wife Molly is Penelope, who spends the day at home (and has an affair with a suitor named Blazes Boylan).  Stephen Dedalus corresponds to Telemachus, and by the end of the book, we see how Stephen and Bloom form a quasi-father-and-son relationship.  In both books -- Ulysses and the Odyssey -- the first three chapters focus on the Stephen/Telemachus characters, and the Bloom/Odysseus characters don't enter the picture until the fourth chapter.

I can just imagine how Joyce created the structure.  He must have made a list of the 18 episodes in The Odyssey, and used it as a guide to figure out what Bloom could be doing during each hour of the day. 

Here are a couple examples of how Joyce draws parallels with Homer:

Cyclops: In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus is held prisoner in a cave by a monstrous Cyclops.  When the Cyclops gets drunk and falls asleep, Odysseus takes a spear and pokes out his eye.  Odysseus escapes, and the furious -- and now blind -- Cyclops grabs a boulder and throws it at Odysseus, narrowly missing him.  In the corresponding chapter in Ulysses, Bloom gets into an argument in a pub with a bigoted Irish National, known only as "the Citizen".  The Citizen wears an eyepatch, making him a modern day cyclops.  When the Citizen questions Bloom's loyalty to Ireland, Bloom holds his cigar to his face in spear-like fashion, almost poking him in the eye - but in the end, Bloom punctures the anti-semite's arguments with his sharp comebacks.  As Bloom escapes, the angry Citizen heaves a biscuit box at him, once again, narrowly missing.

Hades: In the Hades chapter, Odysseus travels to the depths of the land of the underworld to receive a prophecy from a blind seer.  In the corresponding chapter in Ulysses, Bloom travels to a cemetery in traditional Irish style (a horse drawn carriage); at his friend's funeral, Bloom's thoughts are on death, burial and what lies beyond.

This hidden structure is similar to scaffolding used to erect a building, which is later removed without a trace once the building is complete.  Except for the name of the book, there's little actual evidence in the pages of Ulysses that this scaffold ever existed (if you're wondering why Joyce's book is called Ulysses, the Roman name for King Odysseus guessed it...Ulysses).

So, if you're setting out to understand what Ulysses is all about, it's almost inevitable that, early on, you'll start reading Homer's Odyssey.  It's one of the first stops of any journey with James Joyce -- and one that will bring you a great deal of joy.

The Odyssey by Homer, Translated by Robert Fagles
I started off by reading Robert Fagles' translation of The Odyssey, and it's exquisitely written.  In the oral tradition of the ancient Greeks, Homer's poem is best when spoken aloud.  So, after reading the book once, I read it aloud to my oldest son (who was then about 9 or 10 years old).  He grasped the story easily, loved the characters; we both looked forward to our nightly readings of this ancient tale.  To this day my son still clearly remembers the stories, and (unlike his Dad) has the benefit of knowing one of Western literature's greatest stories from an early age.

One more thing: not too long ago I picked up an audio version of The Odyssey performed by Ian McKellen, the great Shakespearean actor, better known as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings.  His voice is unbelievable, and he does great justice to Homer.  You can't go wrong buying a copy of the audio book, and maybe you'll discover a few correspondences to Ulysses along the way.

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