|From my 1934 Modern Library edition of Ulysses, gift from my stepfather.|
Such was Australia’s largely British orientation in 1958 that when I emigrated from the States to Australia in my late teens and enrolled in Sydney University I lost all but two of the credits I’d piled up at UCLA. I’d been on the semester system but Sydney Uni still operated on the three-term Oxbridge year and that as well other adjustments put me well behind. I was allowed to progress in English and history on the basis of my UCLA marks in them, but hadn’t the faintest clue about how these subjects were organised here. There was no continuous assessment then and we were marked for each course solely on the terrifying end-of-year final exam. Now that Australia’s universities operate on the American system I suspect our many foreign students (those with a good command of English at least) are less likely to experience such radical pedagogic dislocation.
My aim in mentioning this is not to plunge into a discussion of how universities have changed, however vital I believe such discussions are, but to illustrate how the passions of those long-ago days still affect the way we read and write today. When I came to third-year English, Sydney University’s English department was bitterly divided, although being a part-time student I had no idea there was a schism or the burning issues it entailed. The catalyst was the appointment of a formidable new professor from Melbourne University. This was Sam Goldberg, who soon blew the Sydney department apart. Goldberg, who died in 1991, was a Leavisite, meaning in a nutshell that he emphasised the moral heft of literature and whether any particular work measured up. Succinctly, this meant interrogating the work’s moral compass above any other consideration. What it boiled down to in the department was a vigorous championing of D.H. Lawrence over James Joyce.
This was to prove troubling for me, though, as said, I had no idea why. Blithely unaware of the hidden agenda, I was delighted to be studying Joyce. The Dubliners and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man were straightforward if impressive reads for me, but Ulysses was a challenge. If I accepted that Joyce had written a modern Odyssey, an ambition that itself excited me, many of the classical and Christian references were lost on me, barbarian Angeleno Jew that I was. And in addition to the Leavisite strictures we were deep into New Criticism then, which firmly dictated that a text be evaluated on the basis of its internal workings only, regardless of the historical, political, or even aesthetic considerations influencing or inspiring its author. The text was to stand or fall on its own, divorced from any context. Of course, this was ridiculous, tantamount to trying to understand a person by studiously avoiding any knowledge of her childhood or background. Though warned against accessing explanatory material when grappling with the novel, I happened upon, buried in the university library, a treasure of a book: Stuart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. Gobbled up in secret, it was the miraculous Rosetta Stone to my understanding, and, more, to my appreciation of Joyce’s art.
Stuart Gilbert was an English scholar living in France who became friends with Joyce after offering to translate Ulysses into French. Joyce helped with the translation, providing in detail the intricate substructure of each of the 18 chapters, which he based on episodes in Homer’s epic. According to Gilbert’s schema, Joyce had assigned to most of these a body part, a colour, a symbol, an art and a ‘technic’, or technique. There are exceptions. The last chapter, Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy, has only an organ (flesh), a symbol (earth) and a technic (monologue), and the first three have no body part, and some of the middle chapters are missing a colour, but you get the drift. Take just one of the chapters – Nausicaa – which does tick all the boxes. This is the one where Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s modern Odysseus, jerks off while spying on the beautiful but lame Gerty MacDowell at the Sandymount shore. The scene is The Rocks (on which Bloom is resting while watching the unsuspecting Gerty), the time is 8 pm (towards the end of Bloomsday, June 16, 1904, when Joyce took his wife Nora Barnacle on their first date), the designated body parts are the eye and the nose, virgin is the symbol, painting the art, and the technic tumescence/detumescence.
I should stress that none of this is essential to a rewarding reading of Ulysses, a novel that works on many different levels. Nevertheless, the introduction to its arcana set my mind alight. More, it set my own writing on its own perhaps opaque path. Because what Joyce’s method impressed me with (through Gilbert’s crucial mediation) is the idea that a story is more than a story, and that everything in it, from its language and physical elements to its characters and plot points, has an underlying often hidden meaning that’s the actual glue binding together its parts.
Joyce was a modernist, arguably the modernist par excellence, and over the years modernism went out of style. (I think it’s creeping back again – the 2013 Man Booker prizewinner, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, has a schema similar to that of Ulysses.) It was going out of fashion by the time I published West Block, the novel, my first, based on my experiences as a femocrat. Yet it was only natural for me, impressed as I’d been, to make use of a Joycean template. My overarching symbol was the Canberra building that in the capital’s earliest days housed the whole of the public service, with the public service itself representing the nation, Australia. I did restrict myself, though, to merely giving each of my chapters an art. The opening one, for example, with its central character the mandarin George Harland, has gardening (the abstract his lesbian daughter puzzles him with is heart-shaped like Canberra); the next chapter, with Henry Beeker foregrounded, uses sculpture; the third has music; the fourth, economics (arguably less a science than an art); and painting marks the fifth. There are other Joycean touches, like the economist Jonathan Roe’s gold cigarette case, based on Lady Denham’s from which she plucked the name ‘Canberra’ and gave it forever her own pronunciation, which in turn was inspired by the cake of soap Leopold Bloom carries throughout a good deal of Ulysses. And so forth and so on.
It would be wholly wrong to assert that a writer’s work lives because of these quirks of cohesion. They’re ways of making our work live for us far more than they do for readers. They’re games we writers play; at their simplest, the names we saddle our characters with, but it often goes further. Writing a novel is arduous work and there has to be something apart from our egos that pulls us along. For me, and many others I think, these symbolic keys open doors to greater resonance. Apart from anything else, they’re fun.And fun, I now see, was at the bottom of the rift between the Joyce-lovers and the po-faced Lawrentians in my long-ago English department. For the Leavisites, Joyce just wasn’t serious enough. The fact that he gave the last word to a woman and the woman said yes to life, with all its imperfections, rejoicing (yes he loved puns too) in the mess ... well, this was somehow deficient. We could argue the toss about this endlessly, and should. But the legacy of this is a readership, with its satchel of tools limited for the most part to narrative arcs, how characters behave and respond, beauty of expression and emotional appeal, that isn't quite as rich as it could be.