Sunday, August 19, 2007

Terence Killeen's "Ulysses Unbound": Book Review

Often, readers fear "Ulysses." I wonder how many of you checking in at The Blanket have managed to make it through? This short article will be one in a short series that shares ways that recent scholars, reciters, and non-specialists all have managed to make the labyrinth less frightening, threads leading you into the Minotaur's lair and back again to the harbor's safety, as it were. I wonder why so many indulge in a reverse snobbery about a book that shows you the power of the particular to illuminate the universal. In everyday trivia, we can guess at how to unravel connections back to enormously complex systems. A century that around the time of Joyce's creation of his greatest works also delved into quantum physics. Our last century ended with telescopes seeking the limits of human perception. It's also a century that at its beginning had one Dubliner's quest on paper to follow a journey, another Theseus more than a failed Dedalus, as it transpired. The Irish Times online site about the novel features famous novelists (foolishly to me) boasting about their inability to finish the purported masterpiece. Here's your chance for one upsmanship, to prove that-- as with Shakespeare-- literature can be meant for everyone. Put down the tear-jerker or the true-crime paperback! It'll be there when you need a break from Joyce, anyway.

Terence Killeen, a sub-editor at that same Times, offers a compact "reader's companion to James Joyce's Ulysses." This book can be ordered direct (see below) for 15 euro plus 5 s/h overseas-- a bargain for this sturdy, well-edited, handsome and handy guide. ISBN 1-869857-90-9. Second printing. (Bray. Co Dublin: Wordwell, 2004)

[What follows is my Amazon US review; what preceded it was prefaced to this review for The Blanket.] This offers a reader much criticism concentrated into one compact volume. It lives up to its subtitle. After a brief overview of the composition of "Ulysses" and its author's own life, the book proceeds chapter by chapter. A guided summary previews highlights, followed by Homeric correspondences, an examination of the rhetorical style, an elaborated-- within the limits of this short book, however, this is only a few paragraphs-- historical/ biographical gloss on mentions of real characters. A glossary of terms concludes each of the 18 main sections. It's deep enough to reward the return reader to Joyce, but light enough not to overwhelm newcomers.

Killeen, a Joycean specialist, pitches his study towards non-specialists in the manner that Anthony Burgess' "ReJoyce" had four decades earlier. I used Burgess as my first companion when reading the novel; Killeen serves as a fine update, integrating the scholarship of the subsequent decades smoothly, eschewing footnotes or critical controversy, but, as he notes, nevertheless distilling the essence of research into 250 pages. He argues that one should not approach the novel with "paternity, or androgyny, or colonialism, or Irish freedom, or many another thematic word one could summon up." (254) Instead, it's a "change in tone." We move from the seriousness of earlier chapters into a liberation of attitude, and style.

Where Killeen may prove most welcome is for those entering the novel for perhaps not only the first time. I tested it when needing to re-read "Penelope" yesterday for my own academic interests, and found that Killeen had prepared me for a much easier, more focused, and surer path through this challenging final prose outpouring. While those wanting more details line-by-line will turn to Don Gifford's "Ulysses Annotated," or Hugh Kenner's "Ulysses" which analyzes the book in detail for the beginning reader, sometimes you do not want a tall stack of books to take about with you every time you open the novel. Killeen's handy vademecum can "be taken with you" to read before and after each chapter as you wind your way through the labyrinth with Dedalus, Bloom, and Molly through 1904 Dublin.

Maps are not included, however. This means another volume such as Gifford's would be needed; there are also walking tour charts that could help, in print and online. Clive Hart & David Hayman's topographical guide could also be consulted for a larger resolution of cartographical minutiae. The short list of books at the end of Killeen leaves out many works I'd find necessary, and is rather old-fashioned, but if you add the old-fashioned Burgess to the list, you'll have plenty of interpreters for now. More can always be added as your fascination grows!

The typeface is handsome, the pages laid out efficiently, and the book is a good value, and can be purchased direct from the press. This book is published in conjunction with an exhibition at one of the sites featured in the novel, the National Library of Ireland. Well-chosen period photos begin each chapter in Killeen, noting the time and place of the events, and a thoughtful conclusion places the curious shift of the prose around the pivotal "Sirens" chapter as where the tonal alternation reminds us, perhaps to our surprise if we recall beginning with Stephen, that "Ulysses" is a comic work. Killeen concludes that the work is cyclical, not linear, and that this may be a more advanced form or paralysis rather than its remedy! He places the novel within "eternal recurrence," and leaves us to wonder if come the next morning it may well not happen all over again. (254) A one-page epilogue added to the 2005 reprinting neatly presents another open-ended possibility; Joyce's manner of composing the work, we learn from textual critics, integrated word lists in units, so that the result is less a novel only. It's more akin, he suggests, to Northrop Frye's "complete prose epic" as a lexicography, a mini-encyclopedia. This "sheer text," in turn, leads into the Wake.

P.S. Blog image credit: the National Library's stingy with their snap of the Reading Room, but the site has the same postcard that you can see larger-- but not copy-- online. 
(Post slightly revised 6-22-11)


Terence Killeen said...

Dear Fionnchu,
Many thanks for your perceptive comments on my Ulysses Unbound. For some reason, I have only now come across them. You have clearly read the book with an open mind and with great care. I am considering a new, expanded edition of the book; as you say, it's rather compact, which in some ways is an advantage, but there really is scope to say more.
With renewed thanks,
Terence Killeen

Fionnchú said...

Mr Killeen, I appreciate your remarks. I found recently your insightful essay in the DRB on Vivian Mercier's Beckett critiques; I published an article in 2005 on "Beckett's Purgatories" addressing Mercier's conception of "How It Is," "Play," and "The Lost Ones" as "purgatorial." (I differed with him somewhat.) For some reason, I was thinking about this research the same morning, before I opened my blog to find your kind observation.

Best wishes on an expansion of this, as I'd say it's needed-- Declan Kiberd's book's perhaps too weighty for many beginners, and as a genial counterpart to David Pierce's student-friendly guides to all of Joyce's work, I'd welcome a revision of "Unbound" to recommend.