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I hadn’t done due diligence in advance, but friends had told me about it – local film, interesting old house, elderly parents. Well, I thought, many a good cheese fiddled on an old player.
It was probably the best decision I’ve made all year. The festival programme quotes a local publication – ‘a darkly comic examination of family life, marriage, age and love.’ There are no clichés in the film. The opening long shot of protagonist Daniel striding through the rough moorland beneath Carrock Fell, from one side of the rock steady frame to the other is a suitable metaphor for the steady gaze that the film will hold as it confronts the absurdities of mortality and old age.
Radiator is full of these visual assertions: the breath of the wind on a water surface, home-made model boats drifting apart on the wide ocean of a lake, morning sunshine on a toothbrush in its glass. In places the poignancy is almost unbearable, and the humour cuts you to laughter like a shard of Lakeland slate. The subtle wordplay as Daniel spars with his father, Leonard – played by Richard Johnson – reminds me of my own mother’s last years: testing words, delivered with a sly, almost child-like, upward glance from wary eyes; the most unreasonable demands couched in the most reasonable of terms.
The uncredited star of the show is the house in which nearly all of this action takes place, buried beneath the real lifetime’s clutter of writer and director Tom Brown’s own parents’ lives. A ripple of laughter spread through the theatre from those in the know, as, during the question and answer session after the showing, someone asked about the ‘props.’
The named stars, Richard Johnson and Gemma Jones – playing Mariah, Daniel’s at-her-wits’-end mother- were totally believable with Johnson, I think, getting a mangy lion’s mane share of the good lines and the on-screen time. As in a classic novella there is a palpable and shocking turning point, beyond which the story rattle sticks its way to an inevitable conclusion.
If you get to see only one film this season, make it this one (if you get to see more, count your blessings!): no blocks are busted, but world weary cynicisms and emotional up-tighteries are simply blown away.
When I was at school we had one music lesson that stood out from others long forgotten, in which, exasperated, the teacher sat down at the piano and began to play the blues. He told us of his playing in clubs in America where the crowds ignored him, eating and drinking and talking.
Contrast this with the concert hall, where we sit in silent awe while the orchestra performs. There is an interesting comparison here too, with the literary concert and the live-reading club. Speakeasies of one sort or another are common these days. We have one in Carlisle. Lancaster has its Spotlight Club. Liars League runs in London, New York and Hong Kong, and elsewhere!
In all these cases, so far as I have experienced, the audience is more like the concert hall one, than the one in the noisy blues club to which my music teacher played. Yet that might be a cultural phenomena. There’s an interesting account near the opening of James Fenton’s ‘An Introduction to English Poetry’ (Penguin, 2002) in which he describes a discussion between an African and an America poet. The American has criticised the African for his drumming and singing, which makes it harder, the American says, for the following ‘voice only’ poet. The African points out that in his culture the audience must be subdued by the performance; that there is no automatic grant of attention, such as the American poet (and the European) expects.
Fenton rather favours the African, and suggests that ‘the words may be no more than a notation for a performance’ or ‘may be written for the page’. The implication, seeming to distance the page from the possibilities of reading aloud, which in its turn is conflated with ‘performance’.
My own experience, and I’m sure I’ve cited this before, threw up a ‘performance’ in which I had my wife throw a flat cap up on to the stage for me to wear while reading a poem about a Lakeland shepherd. Years later I bumped into a man who remembered that performance – you’re the chap with the cap – but not the words of the poem. Norman Nicholson, in his poem ‘The Whisperer,’ says he cannot command our attention by the ‘force’ of his work and personality, but must look for those ‘lit’ with the ‘grace’ of listening.
The confrontation between the African and the American might, in part, have been a misunderstanding of what they were both doing. If the performance is to aid presentation of the words there are different criteria than if the words are to aid the presentation of the performer. In an age of celebrity this latter case might be considered the norm.
The reading of words aloud might be a performance, and thinking back to my music teacher, I’m reminded that there was a popular song a few decades ago which told us explicitly that it was ‘the singer, not the song’, but surely it could also be ‘the writing, not the writer’.
The Christmas Jumper
She had knitted him a Christmas jumper every year since he was two. She took great delight in poring over possible patterns and yarns.
He answered the door and took in the parcel, recognising his grandma’s shaky handwriting. He unwrapped her woolly creation and felt a surge of warmth as he admired the garment fashioned with such care and love. He admired the intricate design for a few moments, before folding the jumper and adding it to the pile for Oxfam.
(sent in by Janet – our most recent recruit to Facets of Fiction!)
The Plausible Explanation
When I was very young my parents warned me that if ever I caught a glimpse of Father Christmas, I should keep quiet about it. If ever, they told me, he caught a glimpse of you catching a glimpse of him that would be the last time he ever called. So I resolved to keep my eyes closed and my head down under the covers if I heard anyone moving around in my room on Christmas night. Besides, there were no Father Christmas suits in our house, and if I’d seen who was leaving the presents beside the bed it would have been game over there and then.
Janey was the daughter of a friend of the family. The friend’s name was Betty. I can’t remember how we met Betty, nor why we lost touch with her, but for a few years we saw each other pretty much on a weekly basis, visiting each other’s houses and sharing meals together. Betty was a divorcee who had thrown out her husband, who was one of the nice guys, and had replaced him with a string of unsatisfactory boyfriends, who were not.
Betty always had plenty of cash and liked to spend it. She believed that five shopping bags full of cheap crap was better than one half full of quality. In fact we took to using the word Betty for an assembly of shopping bags. That’s a real Betty of bags we’d say, when we came out of the supermarket with a trolleyful.
Discussing the redecorating once, Betty was horrified to learn that my wife had paid twelve pounds a roll for wallpaper, for the spare bedroom. You can get woodchip for fifty pence a roll, she said. I don’t like woodchip, my wife told her. At fifty pence a roll you can learn to like it, Betty said.
Don’t get me wrong. Betty was generous. She bought a lot, but she gave a lot away too. I would guess that she passed on to us almost as many children’s clothes as we bought, and I mean unused children’s clothes, still sealed in their plastic bags, and that Janey had outgrown, rather than grown out of.
At the age of fifteen Janey was balanced on that dangerous knife-edge between childhood and adulthood. She was a sensible kid though and not in the least rebellious, leastways not obviously so. There was just one thing that my wife and I could never get our heads around. That was the fact that, at fifteen, Janey still claimed to believe in Father Christmas.
Our little girl, who, as you’ve probably guessed, was a couple of years younger than Janey, had twigged the scam by the age of five. Don’t be sad. She’s in her twenties now, and come Christmas time we still play the Father Christmas game with the same childlike enthusiasm as we did when she was four, all three of us, whenever, that is, we get the pleasure of a Christmas visit these days. When she’s not there, my wife and I play it on our own. By which I mean, we hang up our Christmas stockings, and creep around in the early hours, trying not to wake each other, pretending we have not been woken, and stuffing, in the dark, a dozen or so small and generally not valuable presents into each other’s. When I say stockings here, I’m being traditional. I’m not talking about your nylon stockings. Those are for entirely different sorts of games. The Christmas stockings are usually hiking socks which, being large and stretchy, will accommodate the necessary presents.
Sometimes we get a bit sophisticated, and set up duplicate stockings, using the other one of the pair, so that in the long reaches of the night we need only work a quick switch. Once I had a to substitute a Wellington boot, my wife having taken the second stocking out of badness; but I thought the boot was a pretty good revenge, and if it hadn’t had her name written on the inside in black felt tip, I would have passed it off as one of Santa’s, and cited it as evidence of the lengths he would go to for his clients. Think of it, having to visit the rest of the world, on a night like that, with one bare foot.
Betty’s house at Christmas time was done up like a Christmas present! It was done up like a Christmas stocking! It was done up like a Santa’s grotto! There were garlands of fake greenery. There were swags of red and gold fabric. There were waterfalls of lametta. There were streamers and baubles, and fairy lights, and we haven’t got anywhere near the tree yet, which filled the entire bay window of her Edwardian terraced house, from which the curtains were drawn back for the whole season, so that the entire street could benefit from her efforts. Background music of a seasonal persuasion, both secular and divine, played relentlessly.
The decorations were not what amazed us though. It was the Santa Clauses, the Father Christmases, the Pere Noels, who, from life sized to miniature, made of cloth, pot, painted wood, plastic, metal and several unidentifiable materials, stood, lay, sprawled, sleighed, skied, dangled and abseiled, upwards of a hundred of them at our last count, on every horizontal surface, from every vertical one, and off the ceiling as well, and which filled every recessed nook and cranny, every flung open cupboard, and every bookshelf in the room. Some of them emitted intermittent ‘ho-ho-ho-and-a- merry-Christmas-to-you’s, in Hollywood voices, while others produced snatches of Christmas songs that were neither naughty nor nice, but had sure as hell arrived in town. One, fat, large and recumbent, merely breathed stentoriously, his ermine and red swathed chest rising and falling rhythmically, accompanied by the sound of snoring. Perhaps he was as overcome by it all as we felt sometimes.
But this was only the window dressing to what really intrigued us, which was how Janey, despite the undoubted efforts of her school friends to disabuse her, could still believe in this mythical figure; that and why on earth her mother should want to prolong such an illusion so far into her daughter’s adolescence.
With that many fake Father Christmases on show, you’d perhaps be forgiven for thinking that Betty always managed to persuade someone to dress up and do the business vis-à-vis Janey, but of course her problem would have been the same as that of my parents, except in her case the game would have been blown on account of it being a familiar face wearing the suit, rather than one not wearing it. Although, as you can imagine there were a lot of movies played, on TV and video, every Christmas, in which the most surprising people turned out to be the real SC.
Perhaps we needed to lighten up a little, you’re thinking? After all, it was only a harmless little subterfuge, wasn’t it? Or was it? What about science, I used to ask when we got home from a visit? I mean if nothing else, what must it have done to the girl’s grasp of objective reality? Did she really believe that there was some man, who once a year visited, within the space of a single night, every house in the world? I mean, look at the logistics of it. It’s absurd. It’s crazy. How could she have believed it?
We considered the possibility that she did not. That she merely went along with the sham in order to preserve her mother’s illusions. But which illusions did she think she was preserving? Illusions about Father Christmas? Illusions about her? Was it her mother that she was trying to protect? At fifteen she was beginning to take subjects like psychology at school. Could she have come to the conclusion that her mother was subject to chronic, though arguably harmless, delusions that must be pussy-footed around rather than confronted, at least while they seemed to present no difficulties for her in terns of making a living, or having a sustainable social life?
Or did she think, which was the interpretation that we were coming around to, bit by bit, that the whole thing was a doomed attempt to hold back the tide of womanhood that Betty must have known was about to sweep her daughter away from her? This seemed a good theory to us, but not one that a fifteen year old girl would have been likely to formulate. Having said which, Janey must have been well aware of her mother’s general dissatisfactions in the area of adult heterosexual relationships.
But there was always that haunting feeling that perhaps Janey did believe in Father Christmas, for all her apparent level headedness and maturity; that she had this one blank space in an otherwise logical mind, that was filled, not with the usual illogicalities of the human condition, those spiritual beliefs that send us on lifelong quests for understanding and knowledge of what can neither be understood nor known, but which was filled instead with the image of the fat man in the red suit who claims to have entered your bedroom via a chimney, that you, as a child have examined well enough to know that not even a thin man, in or out of the suit, could have a hope of squeezing into; and what about the issues of fireplaces, open and closed, leaving aside wood-burners, radiators, gas fires and electrics?
You can see that the issue is one that wound me up, and still does. Because the fact is, that when Janey fell pregnant and gave birth about three weeks into September of the following year, having just turned sixteen, and her mother asked her, not unreasonably, who the hell the father was, and when it had happened, Janey told her that it was on Christmas night, and that it was a man in a red suit, who had come down the chimney, and whom she thought, naturally, must have been the real Father Christmas.
And what, out of that, either of them believed, I don’t have the foggiest idea.
For the last three years, around this time, the Facets of Fiction crew has been getting together for a Christmas dinner, organised by fictioneer Alison Twigg. This year was no exception. To while away the hours between courses, or over coffee, we set ourselves a task, to tell who has written the anonymously submitted 100 word micro-fictions on a theme provided earlier by Alison…This year’s theme was The Christmas Jumper.
As usual, I guessed all but two wrong…and one of those was the one I wrote…So here are 9 The Christmas Jumpers, for your amusement….written by (but not in this order): Alison, BHD, Carol, Lizzi , Marilyn,Hazel, Hugh, Deryn & Zoe. Fictioneers are rumoured to ape the style of their co-writers, which may explain something, but not particle physics or global warming.
The Christmas Jumper
The three men had gone before her, following the star into the snowy night. But the old woman had left later, for she too had wanted to take the child a gift. When she’d finished she packed away the needles and the wool, wrapping the gift in cloth. Swaddling herself in blankets she left the cottage, setting out into the bitter cold.
And when tiredness overcame her, and when the winter decided to take her as his own, she lay down in the crisp snow. Gazing at the heavenly blaze in the sky, she lifted her gift to the light.
The Christmas Jumper
Soft, so soft… reminds me of our mother; she knitted wool, angora, cashmere, mohair… Fair Isle patterning, or the twisting cables she crafted on four double-pointed needles… their clack-clacking the backdrop to evenings bickering with my brothers in front of the telly – Starsky and Hutch, Bodie and Doyle, The Dukes of Hazzard… male buddies sorting out the bad guys. Car chases, fist-fights, shoot-outs, explosions. Women like my mother knit our lives for us, and if we’re lucky, we take notice of their gentle crafting, learn from them how to knit our own lives, if not quite these jumpers…
The Christmas Jumper
We don’t use the cradles when there’s ice and snow about. The last thing you want when you’re sat twenty-seven floors up against the glass is compacted ice and snow under the pulley wheels. It can lift you off the cables like it was peeling a banana.
So it’s my job, when the mercury hits zero, to go up on the roof and check out the winding gear. That’s when I see that Christmas Jumper, arms stretched wide on the ledge. Just what I need on a day like today, I tell myself. Just what I need
1000…2000…3000…4000…check. Above me the orange and white canopy is reassuringly swollen. Below me the farmland is spread out like a patchwork quilt, and beyond lies the glittering sea.
Suddenly I am flat on my back, with the feeling that I am motionless, and the world is spinning around me. Did I pass out? Crash land? I hear stamping and snorting behind me and hope that I am not about to be trampled by cows.
“Are you ok?”
I open my eyes. The man standing over me looks rather hairy for a paramedic. And shouldn’t paramedics wear green…not red?
The Christmas Jumper:
Working on Christmas Day; Michael couldn’t have been more annoyed.
He was stuck flying rich businessmen half-way across the world to Molokai, in a cramped flight deck,
with a grumpy co-pilot while his family and friends would be sitting down to succulent turkey with all
the trimmings. No presents, no crackers, no twinkling lights. Michael was missing everything he
loved about Christmas.
Although, he mused, thinking about last year. No presents means nothing from Mum. Nothing from
Mum means no Christmas jumper. He sighed, a small smile touching his lips.
Maybe this isn’t so bad after all.
THE CHRISTMAS JUMPER
Where is it?
The bloody gun you’re minding for me!
Oh, that gun – I’m looking after it, right.
You’d bloody better be looking after it.
He wanted it, right now.
When he called again, two days later, I knew I had a problem. He wouldn’t call again to say thank you. I’d posted it, hadn’t I? made sure it didn’t feel like a parcel with a gun inside? I remembered being surprised – the parcel felt so soft and light.
His voice cracked.
I didn’t ask you to send me a fucking Christmas jumper.
The Christmas Jumper
‘How long has he been up there, PC Pickering?’
‘Twenty minutes, sir.’
‘Says he wants time off at Christmas.’
‘Don’t we all!’
‘And he’s not happy with the outfit.’
‘Who does he work for?’
‘No sir, he wants a new outfit – anything but red.’
‘On their way, sir, and a vet.’
‘There are animals with him, sir.’
‘So there are! Hang on, they look like…’
‘Is that one wounded, it’s nose is red… it almost glows… Oh my God, Pickering, think of the children? We have to stop him!’
The Christmas Jumper
He snuggled in further – this was a nice warm place to relax. The smell of turkey was making him sleepy.
Just as he was nodding off he felt movement, they were being lifted up in the air. Then a voice close by said
‘Do you think Fluffy would like the giblets?’
A large hand appeared through the fur. It wasn’t turkey but it did look tasty.
A piercing shriek filled his world
‘EEEEEKKKKKKK Fluffy’s got fleas’
And in a moment a huge flat object came down towards him.
The Christmas Jumper
The first time I found the sixpence in the pudding I was seventeen and thought you were kidding around, as brother’s do. “You can go back to any Christmas you want, just for the afternoon. Stand beneath the old pine and wish hard. We won’t know you’re gone.”
Instead of choosing a year when we both believed, I chose the year they were divorcing. Remember, mum lost it and everyone went to the pub without her? This time I stayed home. Just me, mum and the pudding. She laughed with delight at my sixpence and shoved it in the pudding.
A few weeks ago I heard Clive James on Radio 4, talking about poetry. Among other things, he was bewailing the proliferation of Creative Writing Courses, which he said were leading to the creation of much poetry that was not quite good enough. We should leave it, he was more than suggesting, to thoise who do it (as judged by?) best.
I’ve been a fan of Clive James for years, though I haven’t read any of his poetry, and the fragment he read on air was, well, too fragmentary to sell it, but I can’t agree with his opinion on CW courses, though he might well be right about the poetry they produce. The fact is, what I don’t buy is the idea that the creation of the superlative is the only reason to write, anything. It might be so for the individual. Probably it must be so, but we never all agree on what that superlative is in my experience, and there’s no reason why we should. The act(ivity) of writing, and more specifically, of creating in language, is part of being human, and the more people that do it, the better.
Moreover, I don’t think he would have taken the same tack about almost any other human activity. In my childhood kids played football and cricket in the street, and played it badly, as well as not quite well enough. It was out of this rag-tag rag-bag assortment of amateurs (amo, amas, amat, and all that) that the ‘greats’ of those sports emerged – and emerged at least as well as the graduated of our present day exclusive academies I suspect. More importantly, the audience for those players, was in a sense, their peers; and more importantly still, it remained those amateurs who were the owners of the games.
Telling stories, whether in poetry or prose, or in an illuminating hybrid of the two is a fundamental human activity, and so is listening to them. Writing them down comes later, and it’s this sophistication that has enabled the idea to creep in that less done better is better than more done enjoyably. The need to learn to read and write has created the class of mediators with their arcane knowledge, and the gate-guards of taste and excellence. But we may not need them as much as they need us.
I was at a country wedding a few years ago, and in one of the speeches were some lines of what would have to be called doggerel, written by the speaker. They were excruciatingly bad, but they were his words, spoken to us, at an important turning point in his life and in those of his family and close friends. They reminded me that poetry belongs to us all, good, bad, and indifferent, and we should never, ever try to take it (or short stories) away from anyone, and we should resist with all our might when people try to take it away from us.
Ulysses, for me, is a man’s book. It is a novel about being a man, by someone who focussed his attention on that issue, because, being a him, it was central to his understanding of himself. He was also, so far as I am aware, a hetero-sexual man – if there is a distinction to be made – and I take this novel to be an insider’s view of that condition. For me, it is a book about being a hetero-sexual man in relation to women, and to other men.
Molly Bloom’s monologue, therefore, occupies a key position both in the novel, and, I suspect, in our opinion forming in relation to it. Placed at the end of the story it attracts attention because of that placement – and here I find another unusual quality in Ulysses, unusual that is, in relation to the novel form in general. I’m very happy to argue that the fundamental difference between short stories and novels can best be summed up by the analogy with a journey: the novel is about the travelling. The short story is about the destination. Yet here is a forty page tour de force that, on a first couple of readings, seems to be both destination, and culmination of Bloom’s wanderings. Getting back to Molly, in however many ways you want to interpret that idea, is what has driven Bloom throughout the day. She has never left his, or our minds, except temporarily. She is ‘the woman’ in his life, despite all those others that jostle his consciousness, of his own concupiscence, of his own emotions.
I have heard people talk of Molly as some sort of ‘earth Goddess’, a symbolic mother figure, the Alpha and Omega and all that clever elevated stuff. I have heard them also damn the book, because Molly fails some test of credibility or authenticity, from a woman’s perspective, or as an objective presentation of some putative female essence.
But Molly is not some character dreamed up by a committee of Feminists, nor by a laboratory full of scientists, nor an academic Department of Sociologists. She is neither objective, nor representative, of anything except James Joyce’s understanding of his own feelings, transmuted, transmigrated even, into the fictional mind of his fictional character, Leopold Bloom. Molly’s authenticity does not lie in her credibility as a woman, but in the effectiveness of her presentation as a fictional character. Do not look for an explanation of what woman means in a universal sense, in Molly, but rather look to understand what it means to Bloom, and, if you must, through him, to Joyce himself. Compare that with your own understanding, and your own feelings, by all means, but recognise that the differences will not discredit the character created in his imagination – though they may challenge the one forged in your own.
In fact, as I have read the book again I have found progressively that I see Molly more as a reflection on Bloom himself, than on any notion of woman. It is what Bloom thinks about that the mirror is being held up to. It is what we, as men reading a man’s book, as women reading this man’s book, think of him, that is central to our response to the book. The suitors that Molly runs through in her mind are defeated by Ulysses Bloom, by virtue of not being him. Bloom is his own man, warts and all, and Molly’s monologue, for me at least, is part of Joyce’s telling of that story. His Odyssey is not a means of us understanding or perceiving her more clearly. Her monologue is another device for us to get clearer view of Bloom. Her final ‘yes’ confers victory on him.
Last week our Ulysses readers tackled Circe, the long chapter – as long as many a paperback novel – that leads Bloom and Stephen to the brothel and the savage streets of Nighttown. Set out as a play script, we read it as such:
Circe as a play reading worked well, but I had to devise a casting that would fit the size of the group (7 only!), and there are a lot of speaking parts in Circe, plus the narrator. I settled on the following scheme (like a butterfly on a rotting steak).
Narrator, Bloom, named males, named females, objects and un-named people in the singular, ditto in the plural. When you have kisses with speaking parts….
I sense a change in the novel from this point onwards. Circe has several parts. Bloom pursues Stephen into the red-light (why that shouldn’t be a green light I’ll never know – as everything goes!) district. He fantasises about this, that, and the other (mostly, the other!). Inside, Stephen, who has already brought light to the world with his ashplant (which I think of as a place for coaling steam engines), eventually uses it to bring about the end of the world. In the process he damages Bella Cohen’s lampshade (the least of her problems). Bloom covers the damage, and sets off in pursuit of Stephen again, who has fled into the arms (or should that be fists) of Private Compton & Carr – representatives of the British Empire. This is another one of those scenes that seems so different in Strick’s film – which, I must stress, I enjoyed, and recognised as a sincere attempt to render the book into a show, instead of a tell. As with Gery MacDowell’s knickers (panties for my American readers), the transchronologicalisation of the story (met him where?) into a more recent past – into it’s own time I suppose, when the film was made – has caused the problem; for Carr and Compton seem out of place in the Republican Dublin, and can no longer represent what they did for Joyce, in a novel written during the last years of British rule, published while the resultant Irish Civil War was still unfinished, and set in a time when those paroxysms were being prepared for.
Bloom rescues Stephen and takes him onward into the third and final part of the novel, the two sections, Eumaeus, and Ithaca.
The first of these sees them seek shelter in a cabman’s hut, and really it reads like an ‘ordinary’ piece of prose fiction. It’s as if Joyce is taking a break from hitting us with experiment after experiment. Ithaca too, on a sentence level, reads ‘normally’, though its structure, a series of questions and answers – a catechism in essence – is quite clearly unusual! This is the final act of Bloom’s journey. Over hot drinks, Stephen and Bloom sit at the kitchen table at number 7 Eccles Street. Bloom has re-gained the son that he lost, at least symbolically. He has returned home after many adventures. Upstairs Molly, Penelope to his Odysseus, sleeps, and Joyce has one more segment of story to offer us. This, apparently, was an afterthought, a doubtful addition to the Odyssean peregrination.
If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that film/text adaptation interests me. Especially, that D.W.Griffiths cited Dickens as the source of his inspiration for the techniques of movie making that Griffiths became famous for.
A commonplace idea about movies is that they can do, at a glance, what it takes pages of text to achieve. Most obviously, this relates to the backgrounds against which the foregroound action or dialogue takes place. Authors are left with the choice between heavy handed description, which is said to bring narrative to a halt, or the provision of vague statements and very narrow details, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps.
So it was a surprise, when approaching the Oxen of the Sun chapter in Joyce’s Ulysses, that I found the movie backgrounds, in Strick’s film, to be much less detailed that the text in Joyce’s original. There’s a strange reversal here and it reveals something about the way the novel Ulysses works, a methodology that gives to the text a sense of real life – what perhaps Joyce was referring to when he talked about ‘refining himself out of existence’ – that we might more easily associate with a moving, and sounding, picture.
This is that Joyce builds up the reality of his novel by a series of repetitions. Sometimes whole sentences, often phrases or even single words, these references to times present and past, if we notice them, become like the echoes of memory in our own lives, being triggered later by other events. Text, in this case, triggers our recollections of text. The unusual word or phrase, the striking sentence, takes its meaning from a previous reading, gives meaning to a later one. Of course, this can be done in film too, but, unless I’m missing something – always a distinct possibility – Strick’s film doesn’t do it on anything like the scale, of variety and frequency, that Joyce’s novel does. In fact, if it tried to, we would be cutting so often, and so briefly, to visual equivalents of Joyce’s well placed prompts in the background of the scenes, that it would obscure the actions, and lines of the actors in the foreground. Some, I suspect, might say that Joyce’s writing itself suffers in places, from this tendency.
Stuart Gilbert, in his study, makes the point, that in the fantasies of the Circe chapter – which our little group will tackle, unaided by alcohol, next week – experienced by Bloom, and Stephen, (and us!), all the images have been drawn from these earlier references. Fantastical they may be, but each one is grounded in a verbal theme that Joyce had already planted in our minds. The line by line, one word at a time, telling of a story in language is difficult enough to follow. For a film to attempt the same depth and intensity in the showing of one might be completely overwhelming.
There’s a lot to like in Cyclops, but perhaps not much that bears directly on the Boylan, Molly, Bloom triangle.
For a start there’s Garyowen, the dog; a mutt the like of which hadn’t been seen since Dickens wrote Bill Syke’s bull terrier. In Strick’s film the hound becomes a German Shepherd, which to my mind wasn’t the right sort of dog at all, even though Hitler had one! Worth remembering the name of that dog: it’ll crop up again soon; only a mention, but another thread that binds the disparate characters into this whole Dublin.
The Citizen is known to us all. He sits a corner, with ‘the friends we love (are) by our side and the foes we hate before us’. Life for him is simple, and the enemy always there. Identities change, of both friends and enemies, but so long as you can see the world as being made up of those two entities, and can attribute each label somewhere, anywhere, then you’re never in quandary about what to do. The Citizen is the antithesis to Bloom, and, antithetically, Bloom tries to reason with him. Beneath all this ‘grand politic’ though, something very personal is going on.
Bloom is being accused of something of which he is totally innocent, and ignorant. It’s one of the most elaborately planted time-bombs in any novel that I have read, and it concerns the horse that won, in actual reality, the grand horse race that is was being run on 16th June. That time-bomb goes off in Bloom’s face at the Ormond Bar, but we have to go way back into the novel to see it’s careful, and subtle planting. If you’re lost, take a look again at the section where Bloom encounters Nosey Flynn, and see what he does with that rolled up newspaper. Not only a wonderfully constructed plot device, it’s also a clever example of how words in English can take on quite different meanings when used, or understood, in different contexts.
This week the group are reading on through the Nausicca episode. It is eight O’clock of a summer evening in Dublin, and Leopold Bloom has not gone home. Neither will he for several hours yet. His wife is being gone through by Blazes Boylan – the euphemism is Joyce’s– several times. He can’t do anything about it, except imagine.
This is a potent brew, for Joyce catches his hero on the multiple hooks of pain and pleasure, something he seems to have experienced, and which, I think, he expects us to have as well. I knew an old woman – it’s not the opening of a nursery rhyme- who used to say ‘a standing prick has no conscience.’ From what I remember, that might well be true! And, I suspect there are other organs, that Mr Bloom might relish, that might also be lacking in that department, standing or supine.
Bloom, in the gathering dusk stands by the sea wall watching young women on the beach. One of them, Gery MacDowell, leaning back, lifting her knee, exposes her Edwardian undies to him. Bloom masturbates at the sight. As Gerty walks off, and fireworks explode over Dublin, Bloom sees she is lame.
Joyce’s encounter with a lame woman is documented, though any possible sexual response on his part is not. But the fiction’s the thing, and its importance to us. How does Bloom’s encounter resonate with us? With me? With you?
This is one of those scenes that might well be seen differently through modern eyes, compared to the way it would have been viewed in when the novel was published.
In the nineteen twenties publishing such encounters might have been thought indecent, though there would have been plenty of smutty books around that would tell of worse – or better, and many respectable ones that dot, dot, dotted the implications of such scenes. There’s a possible deeper difference to: our attitude to the incident in a post-women’s lib world, in a post-Saville world.
It would be easy to use this scene as a springboard to discussion about abuse. I’ve seen several headlines recently that suggest that male arousal by the public display of the female form is ‘perverted’. The most recent I noticed was ‘pervs’ caught by a photograph online of a man’s buttocks, presented, as if they were his wife’s breasts. There is an interesting issue here about our reactions, as men or women, to what we see, or experience in any way, with our senses, and how society expects us to mediate those reactions into responses that are deemed acceptable. These expectations change, and I suspect for most of us, in any generation, they will change noticeably during an average lifetime. 1904 begins to look a long time ago, not so much in how people act and react, but in how they are expected to.
Bloom has already ogled, surreptitiously, two women: the woman in the butchers, and the lady about to mount (sic) her carriage. Joyce has referred to a man with a mirror in his hat – for looking up skirts! Something which he’d be arrested for, and possibly put on the sex offenders list today, but which, before the First World War would have been ‘acceptable’, in that sense of being ‘normal’, even if unwelcome.
If attitudes have hardened, clarified, does the book unintentionally diminish Bloom as a hero in our eyes? Should it?
My thinking is that it should not, and for the reason that something is happening here that neatly displays the fundamental difference between fiction and reality. It is not merely that there is no Bloom, no Gerty MacDowell, that there is no exposing and masturbating, but that we, the readers – who are not really watching an incident, but having one created in our imaginations – are told the motivations, and sensations of both participants. This is something that we could not at all know if we were to hear of, or indeed witness, what the book portrays.
E.M.Forster in that gem of a book about the novel, ‘Aspects of the Novel’ touches on this: that we know far more about fictional characters than we do about real ones. He uses Moll Flanders as his example, but this scene in Ulysses, it seems to me, is a perfect example of the reader knowing what could not be known in reality.
When we read Gerty’s and Bloom’s thoughts, we are reading their creator’s authoritative version of them. This is what they are thinking and feeling, what they are doing. It is not their version, nor any ambiguous speculation by some outsider. And Joyce is quite clear, that they are both playing a game of their own fantasising. They are both depicted as recognising the motivations, and actions of the other, something that we cannot really replicate in our real lives.
Yet, Joyce does not suggest that either knows what the other is doing. They only have belief in it.
This is one of the scenes that did not work well for me in Joseph Strick’s sincere film adaptation. Transposed into a short-skirted nineteen sixties just about everything that Bloom, and this imagining onlooker, found alluring was notably absent. When I first read the book, as a teenager, questions of abuse/exploitation did not enter my head! Nor when I read it ten years later, nor even ten years after that. After a gap of twenty years though, returning to the book, I found that the scene did raise the issue. Another example of the context in which a book is read making a difference to the way it is perceived.
I began to sense this week that I was making some headway in evangelising the Joycean eye for language, when one of the group (no names, no blushes) asked me if I thought the phrase I used to title this blog post was a Joycean pun: