Joyce’s Ordinary Mode of Writing

October 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

In the interest of getting past literature’s hype and getting to its substance, I want to write about the unheralded parts of Ulysses — the parts that aren’t flashy or obscure or contrived, but are simply Joyce being Joyce.

Many of Ulysses‘s chapters are parodies or rational experiments of some kind: a chapter of newspaper ledes, a chapter of catechistic question-and-answer, a chapter of a swooning girls’ magazine… But most of the book is just Joyce narrating things, and giving voice to his characters’ thoughts in his way, like any other writer. These sections are as unmistakably Joycean as Dickens’s writing is Dickensian.

So — how does Joyce describe things? Take almost any passage from the first half of the book, which is more representative of his style and less explicitly experimental. Here’s a bit from the second chapter, where the character Stephen is teaching a class:

Stephen, his throat itching, answered:

–The fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush.

He stood up and gave a shout of nervous laughter to which their cries echoed dismay.

A stick struck the door and a voice in the corridor called:


They broke asunder, sidling out of their benches, leaping them. Quickly they were gone and from the lumberroom came the rattle of sticks and clamour of their boots and tongues.

Let me mark a few features:

  • There is nothing obscure. The action and narration are totally straightforward. Things happen, and Joyce describes them in his particular way of writing.

  • There are no out-of-place or contrived details. To Joyce’s writing anyway, the itching of Stephen’s throat and the “stick struck” at the door are features of the story’s world as essential as the Tin Man’s creaking is to the action of The Wizard of Oz.

  • There is a great and very Joycean economy of phrasing in the narration. Phrases like “sidling out of their benches, leaping them” and “clamour of their boots and tongues” are a delicate balance of brisk cadence and richness of detail.

    In fact much of the musicality of Joyce’s prose depends on this calibrated terseness. Ulysses is a big book, but its density of moment-by-moment beauty is only possible because of the economy of its detailed constructions.

This is the Joycean voice. Higher highs and swoonier climes like Molly’s soliloquy (“yes I said yes I will Yes”) or Stephen’s arcane intellectualizing (“Ineluctable modality of the visible”) aren’t half as revealing and rich in their marrow as Joyce’s real, true blue, nuts and bolts storytelling. Don’t accept the hype. Look for the real writer.

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