April 10, 2011

And the head coach wants no sissies...

Unlike Ron Rosenbaum, I'm quite fond of Ulysses, but I agree with a lot of what he says in the process of trying to trash it in this piece.

As an ironic commentary on the Odyssey -- something Rosenbaum doesn't even mention, for some reason -- it's brilliant, and clever, and hilarious, and (I really believe this, honest) fun. As a detailed portrait of a "day in the life" it is perhaps less obviously fun and accessible, though it is pretty impressive that it manages to be both of those things at the same time.

The weakest line of criticism here, and one that pretty much every Ulysses-hater brings up eventually, is that it owes a lot to Tristram Shandy. It does, but beyond the fact that it allows you to boast about the fact that you know what Tristram Shandy is (the main reason it is ever mentioned, I believe, including here, by me) why bring it up? That's like saying you're not allowed to like the Rolling Stones because you've already heard Chuck Berry. There's room for both, in other words.

That said, I'm the kind of person who'd much rather curl up with a Ruth Rendell or Elmore Leonard than slog through a lot of pretentious, artsy pages. But if you're going to slog, you could do a lot worse than Ulysses. Plus, you know, I have heard of Tristram Shandy. I'm Mr. Tristram Shandy. And I slog through that, too, between murder mysteries sometimes. I should get a medal just for being me.

Posted by Dr. Frank at April 10, 2011 12:50 AM | TrackBack

Hear, hear! I fell in love w/ Ulysses as an undergrad (ie. When I had time); one of these days I'll slog thru Tristram Shandy. This article pissed me off for a few reasons: he says there's only one good chapter, then backpedals on that, he doesnt address the enormous influence it's had, & he talks as is he's the only one who's ever really read it, like the rest of us are all just faking enthusiasm to be cool, or something. Grrrr.
Anyway, I'm glad you said this. I feel better now.

Posted by: Stevie at April 10, 2011 04:33 AM

I enjoyed Ulysses a lot more after I had abandoned any pretensions of reading Great Works. After I approached it as just a book I could read or not read, it turned out to be, like you said, kind of fun. That said, I like Portrait and Dubliners better. Totally don't understand why Joyce is considered The Best Ever.

I think an interesting-er question is whether the line between high and low art isn't completely superficial? As in, it seems like you're viewing the Ruth Rendell/Elmore Leonard type as judged according to different criteria, literary slog criteria vs. 'books I like to read' criteria... But if one has to slog, can it really be called Great Literature? I think people tend to fault themselves if they don't get a book, but isn't the onus on the writer to remain relevant, and all that?

Posted by: Nate Pensky at April 11, 2011 05:40 PM

Yeah, Nate, I think Ulysses is so known as a "difficult" novel that people don't even consider the possibility that you could just pick it up and read it, just like a regular book. I know that's how it was for me. I find all the gimmicks and parodies and such -- the stuff that makes people think it's so difficult, I guess -- to be the fun parts. Portrait of the Artist, on the other hand, is an effective study of a pretty tedious and pretentious individual, and while I respect it, I don't savor the notion of re-reading it and getting back inside that annoying head. The stories in Dubliners are elegantly written, but conventional, verging on pedestrian, as I recollect, and not to my taste. Maybe I'm just in it for laughs more than most people.

Anyway, it's hard to believe that all three were written by the same guy, which is a real achievement. (As for the other one, I can't comment, for that is quite literally unreadable, by me anyway. Maybe one day.)

I dislike the attitude that attempts separate art into "high" and "low." I cringe when I see, in a bookstore, a "literature" section separated off from the "fiction" section. It's all literature. But some books take more effort than others. You're not going to find Ulysses on a list of "great beach reads." Some books are page-turners, and some require some stick-to-it-iveness and a lengthy commitment, and even considerable frustration. (I'm glad I read Gravity's Rainbow, but I don't think I'll ever do it again. And I've been working on Infinite Jest, bit by bit, for close on seven years with not a whole lot of joy or enthusiasm, or success. It's subjective, but for me, Ulysses is a cakewalk compared to those.) I like both experiences (though I'm more impressed with the page-turners, in a way, because it is so difficult to do.)

Posted by: Dr. Frank at April 11, 2011 07:19 PM

Interesting that you seem to place a high premium on a diversity of style, even if highs and lows of quality come with this diversity -- something I absolutely agree with. Is this the Auteur theory, or something like it? I find that once I really enjoy one work, I'm in it for the long haul, even if subsequent efforts aren't as good. The less good things inform the thing I like, you know?

I also really admire writers/artists who do one thing, who aren't diverse at all, who seem to understand that one thing extremely well. Shapeshifting itself seems a special kind of discipline that is not unlike sticking to one thing, I think. Kind of like the distinction between character actors and "leading" types. Both are difficult. I wonder if there's some correspondence between the "shape-shifters," like Joyce, and "high art," and those who do one thing very well, like Wodehouse, and supposedly "low art." If so, this is probably where the superficilaity is, that it's probably not an important correspondence. I could never think Wodehouse is low.

I do think a book that becomes impossible to read unless one constantly reminds oneself, "this is great, this is great," is not actually great. Then again, what worries me is that the Great Books would have been real page-turners in another age, and that it is my whole culture which has changed, and me with it, in which case I should fight against the impulse to want the pages to turn, and buckle down and "improve myself." I think in deciding what is entertaining, as opposed to just distracting, one has to try to assess what the whole of one's culture is, in relation to the past and other cultures. Try, at least.

I don't know, has "fun" really changed very much? I wonder about this a lot.

Posted by: Nate Pensky at April 12, 2011 08:42 AM

What's your take on Finnegan's Wake? Nonsense or utter nonsense?

Also, I put down Gravity's Rainbow after about ten pages. I presume the words on the page were trying to convey something, but life is too short to try to figure out what that something is.

Posted by: josh at April 13, 2011 01:06 PM