The Ultimate Novel

William Empson

  • Ulysses by Hugh Kenner
    Allen and Unwin, 182 pp, £10.00, March 1980, ISBN 0 00 480003 6
  • A Starchamber Quiry: A James Joyce Centennial Volume 1882-1982 edited by E.L. Epstein
    Methuen, 164 pp, £9.50, February 1982, ISBN 0 416 31560 7

It is wonderful how Professor Kenner can keep on about Ulysses, always interesting and relevant and hardly repeating himself at all. His book gives a survey of books about Ulysses, mentioning only two previous ones by himself. He weeds out bad ideas and adds more promising ones, always with acknowledgement to other critics: and it is impressive that he had plenty more material available for the centenary collection, A Starchamber Quiry, just after printing his own book. He puts a new idea of his own into both of these books, and it urgently needs refuting. Stephen, he says (Kenner’s Ulysses, p. 152), is practically blind all through the book; his eyes without his glasses focus eight inches in front of his nose, and he broke them ‘yesterday’. This proves that whenever he claims to see anything he is only remembering what he usually sees. He is thus merely a windbag. (‘Yesterday’ comes on page 546 of the Modern Library 1942 edition. I need to give references because some of my assertions are controversial, but Joyce deliberately made it difficult. Kenner gives a welcome assurance that a definitive edition will soon at last appear.)

This disability in Stephen would soon become obvious in the book: but he can recognise people when they meet, he can catch the glint of the dusty jewels through the shop window. Indeed the strongest refutation comes at the start, when he and Malachi look out from the Martello tower at the morning sea. Malachi tells him to revere our great sweet mother, and Stephen looks at the mail-boat clearing the harbour mouth. Kenner is right to insist elsewhere that the ‘stream of consciousness’ method reports what the subject thought at the moment: Stephen must have recognised the mail-boat. Malachi then says his aunt believes that Stephen killed Stephen’s own mother by refusing to pray for her. Stephen regards the sea as the green bile which her coughing had torn up from her rotting liver (she died of cancer). Kenner, with very bad taste, I think, calls this ‘a brilliant example of Joyce’s scrupulous care for the limits of a character’s perceptions’. Next they quarrel over a phrase which had been used by Malachi as soon as Stephen’s mother was dead. Malachi goes, but Stephen ‘stood at his post, gazing over the calm sea towards the headland. Sea and headland now grew dim. Pulses were beating in his eyes, veiling their sight ...’ When Malachi has gone he becomes calm, and can look again: ‘Woodshadows floated silently by through the morning peace from the stairhead seaward where he gazed. Inshore and farther out the mirror of water whitened, spurned by lightshod hurrying feet. White breast of the dim sea ...’

Kenner says that Stephen is merely ‘trying out phrases, outdoing Yeats’, or perhaps imitating Homer (Starchamber Quiry, p. 26): but Kenner is the one who has no eyes here. Joyce often expresses fascination at the incessant slight movements of water around the tidal estuary of the Liffey: consider the reappearances of the throwaway pamphlet in the Wandering Rocks chapter, consider the end of Finnegans Wake. The brief description here is as vivid as it is beautiful.

The explanation is simple. Kenner’s evidence is that Stephen fails to light a cigarette in Nighttown and says: ‘Must get glasses. Broke them yesterday. Sixteen years ago.’ It was an hour ago, or a little more, but he is amused by the technicality that a new day begins at midnight – as when he tells Bloom he hasn’t dined since the day before yesterday, ‘improving on himself’ (Ulysses, p. 640). Also he remembers being unjustly beaten over breaking his glasses when he was a new boy at school; in a blurry way, he is reflecting about time. The glasses were broken in a scuffle at Westland Road station, where Malachi was taking the last train back to the tower. It left at 11.10 p.m., and Stephen had arrived there in time to quarrel with him; Bloom was following Stephen, thinking he might need help, and is our only source of information about what happened. Kenner does well to draw attention to this part of the story, and it is a pity that he missed the further point. Stephen feels triumphant when he arrives at the brothel, led by Lynch, but about two-thirds of the way through the chapter he begins to say that his hand is hurting. It would be numb at first, but he would feel it ‘after an hour or two’, says Kenner (p. 116), and he feels it just after he has mentioned the broken glasses. The girls have just said that it is ‘long after eleven’. Probably Stephen merely shouted insults at Malachi, who knocked him down and left him on the platform, but the bruised hand seems to represent an honourable wound. If the glasses had really been broken on the day before, the incident would have nothing to do with the novel.

This is not quite the end of it. One might ask why the glasses were not mentioned in the first chapter, when other needments were being assembled. Well, there are larger questions to answer there. Stephen’s mother has been dead for a year, all but ten days, and he is still in strict mourning for her, though it is hard for him to get clothes: but why does no one mention the eccentricity of this prolonged mourning? Why has Stephen waited a year before quarrelling with Malachi over a phrase used just after the death? They have been in close contact for most of the time. And why does he not shave, when Malachi does? Malachi had coaxed him into giving up his Paris beard (Ellmann’s Joyce, p. 136), and this was to have been a gala day for Stephen, standing treat with his earnings. Kenner himself gives the answer (p. 31): that the first page of Ulysses is like ‘the first page of a novel’, meaning a short story for a magazine. It must be smart and ‘gripping’, with stock sentiments (Wyndham Lewis jeered at them heartily, not realising that they were intentional). This is enough reason for it to leave out the detail of the spectacles. Ellmann also reports that he disliked having to wear them, leaving them off at parties apparently, but surely he would wear them when taking a class, at which he notices a boy using a crib.

Kenner has long been inclined to take the mickey out of Stephen, and still maintains here that he was incapable of becoming the great novelist. This theory is a step towards the right answer, but taken alone it is absurd. Joyce was a self-important man, as he needed to be, and he had described Stephen in a book title as a portrait of himself when young: he would not trivialise the character without warning, in a continuation. Actually, the book confronts Stephen with a grim necessity: for a time at least, he must commit himself to becoming a concert singer, a companionable life, but one from which the novelist would be unlikely to emerge. Joyce himself had escaped it, because he saw Nora walking along a street and at once stopped her and took her name and address. With Nora behind him, he could leave Ireland and teach English abroad (with his BA), but without her he would sink. Bloomsday, as Ellmann discovered, was the day she first consented to walk out with him, and he expected his friends to celebrate it as a sort of private Christmas. The story of the book is sad, but it can be treated with satirical gaiety because it did not happen: instead, a goddess had descended, and Joyce had reacted with instant vigour. But it would be foul to drag Nora into his autobiography; impossible, too; the only way to demonstrate her importance was to tell what would have happened without her. Molly Bloom, of course, is not a doctored version of Nora; as Nora remarked when asked the question, with her usual command of brevity: ‘She was much fatter.’ Because Nora enabled Joyce to leave Dublin, he can survey it as from a pinnacle. All this should have been obvious since Ellmann published his great biography, in 1959.

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