So the cover of this album has James Joyce on it (and a hilarious pastiche of the rest of the band). I guess we know what we’re in for, then. This is the Pogues third album and the one that tamed the wildness of their first shambling discs into a (somewhat) presentable collection of songs. And, jaysus, it’s fantastic.
The Pogues seamlessly blended punk and traditional Irish music (and on this disc they expanded into latin & middle eastern motifs too). The first track opens with a fast paced Irish whistle playing what is pretty darn close to a jig. And then Shane MacGowan (whose teeth are not to be believed–or if you are lucky, not to be seen) sings his slurred, fantastic lyrics. MacGowan always presented such a contradictory figure for this band of well dressed resctable players. And it’s often confusing wondering how he became the front man of this band. But he adds that certain something to make the band unforgettable.
“Fairytale of New York” is one of the most gorgeous, sad Christmas anthems ever. It’s a duet with the much missed Kirsty MacColl and it’s moving and charming, even with the lyrics: “you scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot, happy Christmas me arse, I pray God it’s our last.”
Then you get a crazy instrumental, “Metropolis” fast paced, manic energy and a great riff (and of course, let’s not forget the quoted musical passage too).
What’s surprising is when you get a tender ballad like, “Thousands Are Sailing.” Lyrically it is stunning, and you wonder why is Shane singing it with that slurry voice of his. And then you realize it works perfectly as a drunken lament. And then you get to the chorus, and you stop caring and just enjoy the song.
They even throw in a couple of traditional songs, like “South Australia” and “Medley” (which incorporates “Rocky Road to Dublin.”) But after “Fairytale,” I think my favorite track is “Fiesta” which is a Spanish/Mexican sounding song with loud horns and absurd faux Spanish lyrics. Ole!
And, just so we know, it’s not all drinking and rollicking, Shane also wrote “Birmingham Six.” ”There were six men in Birmingham / In Guildford there’s four / That were picked up and tortured / And framed by the law / And the filth got promotion / But they’re still doing time / For being Irish in the wrong place /And at the wrong time / In Ireland they’ll put you away in the Maze
In England they’ll keep you for seven long days”
The Pogues would release two more albums before Shane MacGowan took off. And they’re all pretty darn good, but I’ve always been partial to this one.
[READ: Week of July 12, 2010] Ulysses: Episodes 1-3
This is my third time reading Ulysses. The first time I was a freshman or sophomore in college and I signed up for a James Joyce class because, get this, the Canadian band Triumph had released a CD called Thunder 7 which was supposedly based on the 100-letter words in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (which I had bought and found impenetrable). Our teacher was intense and tried to scare everyone off (which worked for some, but not me). The class was hard (first assignment : read The Odyssey over the weekend for a quiz on Monday). I enjoyed Dubliners and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, but I thought Ulysses was pretty daunting.
I read it again when I re-took the class with the same teacher (not for credit this time, but because I wanted to, imagine that). And that time I learned to really appreciate what Ulysses had going on for it. I was also inspired by it to try to write challenging fiction, paying careful attention to every single word, and even possibly using different writing styles in the same book. (The world appreciates that that never panned out).
But so the careful attention thing: Joyce spent seven years working on Ulysses. Every single word was charged with meaning. He even made up his own words. And it’s very apparent that he was the inspiration for countless modern authors (for better or worse).
I’m excited to pick the book up again. In part, because it was ranked number 1 on the MLA list of books, but also because for twenty-some years I’ve felt the book was fantastic. And I wanted to see if I would enjoy it without guided instruction.
I was curious about which edition to read. Since my class, when there was only really one edition available, many many editions have been published. There’s a great discussion about this at Infinite Zombies, and I considered getting the third one Judd mentions. But when I consulted with my old professor, he said the Gabler edition is still the best, so I went with that one. And that edition is littered with all the notes I took from class and from the supplemental resources.
I decided not to read the supplemental resources this time (although I can;t help but look at my notes), to see what I can get from the story AS A STORY.
I remember a bunch from the class, but one thing that I distinctly remember is that to get everything out of Ulysses, you need to understand Catholicism (the mass in particular), The Odyssey, European history–especially Irish history, and popular Irish culture circa 1920. It also helps to know Latin. And these are all things that Joyce would have known and his audience probably would have known. Every year we move away from its publication, means we know less about what he was writing about. But that’s all the little details and jokes and blasphemies. I wanted to see (with some background, which certainly gives me an advantage) if I could enjoy the story without all the help.
Episode One “Telemachus” (The Episodes sort of correspond to chapters of The Odyssey (although there are more in The Odyssey than in Ulysses)).
We’ve got three characters: Buck Mulligan, a loud, boistrous doctor who is crass and very funny. Stephen Dedalus, an introspective young man whose head we are in quite a lot, and Haines, a British gentleman living with them. All three are well-educated, in a post-graduate world, and are given to showing off their smarts.
I’ve always loved the opening: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan….” From there (I remembered a lot of this from class), we watch Buck (Malachi) mock the Catholic mass on top of the martello tower while shaving. He calls Stephen (nicknamed Kinch, the knifeblade) up to the tower top. We are also introduced to Joyce’s language and new words: “The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea.” (4).
The two roommates kvetch about things in general, especially their roommate Haines, who keeps them up all night with his nightmares. They also try to grub money from each other, with Stephen clearly being the poorest of the bunch (he borrows Buck’s clothes as well as cash); however, Stephen is supposed to get money from work today.
The lads all go downstairs to have breakfast (just in time for the milkmaid to bring them their daily supply). Through the course of the breakfast, Haines tells Stephen he would like to publish a book of all the strange things he says.
The three go down to the water where Mulligan jumps in for a swim; Stephen only bathes monthly, so no chance of him going in; Haines has just eaten so he doesn’t go in either. So he and Stephen walk on, talking.
Probably the most significant thing that we learn is that when Stephen’s mother died, he refused to kneel for her in prayer. Even the blasphemer Buck teases him for that.
On this read through I noticed a lot more commentary about Jews. [Minor spoiler, maybe? Leopold Bloom, who appears first in Episode 4 is the other major character and he is Jewish, so that is a concern in the story]. But I noticed that Haines mentions Jews in Episode One: “I’m a Britisher, Haines’ voice said, and I feel as one. I don’t want to see my country fall into the hands of German Jews either. That’s our national problem, I’m afraid, just now” (18, Gabler edition).
This Episode offers a lot of confusion with regard to whose head we are actually in. Thoughts abound, but they are not always obviously assigned to anyone. This makes for fluid, but often confusing, reading. ANd, as others have suggested, with this book, it’s not always essential to know who is speaking. Which sounds absurd, but which allows for a more relaxed read.
Episode 2 “Nestor”
In this Episode we see Stephen at work as a teacher. The unassigned thoughts are still prevalent in this Episode, but this time they are clearly Stephen’s, since the point of view is his throughout.
Stephen’s class is bored by him; the boys are just waiting until hockey next period. One of the students asks for help with his math after class. Stephen finds him quite ugly but thinks that even his mother must have loved him once. (There’s a fairly lengthy interior monologue about love).
When the students have cleared off, Stephen goes to see Mr Deasy about his payment. Deasy pontificates about the value of money, encouraging Stephen to get a change purse of some sort (which sounds far too expensive for the likes of Stephen, were he inclined to get one, which he is not). Mr Deasy then proclaims that “the proudest word you will ever hear from an Englishman’s mouth” is “I paid my way. I never borrowed a shilling in my life… I owe nothing” (25). Stephen had guessed the answer was that the sun never set on his empire.
Mr Deasy asks if Stephen can boast that about his money; Stephen proceeds to tally up all he owes to everyone (it’s quite a list) and says, in fact, no.
Mr Deasy, who tries to chum up to Dedalus by claiming to have an Irish side of him, then asks if Stephen will take a letter to the newspapers for him. The letter is about the foot and mouth disease and that his cousin can cure it, regardless of what the authorities say.
And then, as with Haines, Deasy expresses anti-Semitic sentiment: “Mark my words, Mr Dedalus…England is in the hand of the jews. In all the highest places: her finance, her press. And they are the signs of a nation’s decay. Wherever they gather they eat up the nations’ vital strength…. As sure as we are standing here the jew merchants are already at their work of destruction” (28).
Stephen remarks, “A merchant is one who buys cheap and sells dear, jew or gentile, is he not?” (28).
Deasy replies, “They sinned against the light…. And you can see the darkness in their eyes”
To which Stephen wonders, “who has not?”
This leads to one of the best quotes in the early Episodes. Stephen states aloud that “History is a nightmare from which I a trying to awake” (28).
After all this banter, Mr Deasy predicts that Stephen won’t be a teacher there for very long. Stephen says that he is more of a student, and then agrees to go to the two papers with the letters. As he is leaving, Deasy runs after him and says one of the funnier anti-Semitic remarks in literature:
–I just wanted to say, he said. Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?
He frowned sternly on the bright air.
–Why sir? Stephen asked, beginning to smile.
–Because she never let them in, Mr Deasy said solemnly (30).
Episode 3 “Proteus”
Any Episode that starts out “Ineluctable modality of the visible” (31) cannot be an easy one. I tend to think that this is the hardest Episode in the book (others are certainly weirder, but there’s so much, well, language, in this Episode, that I am lost most of the time).
This Episode is pretty much Stephen walking home from work, thinking. It sort of compresses all of the narrative styles from the first two Episode into one dense section.
He thinks about stopping by his Aunt Sara and Uncle Richie’s (or is it Walter?) house. He even remembers a previous visit there which was awkward, but not unpleasant.
And then we’re back into Stephen’s thoughts. And even though I find this Episode so difficult, the language (when it is clear) is really striking (and funny!). He thinks to himself, “You were awfully holy weren’t you? You prayed to the Blessed Virgin that you might not have a red nose. You prayed to the devil in Serpentine avenue that the fusby widow in front might lift her clothes still more from the wet street.” This stream of consciousness switches to “On the top of the Howth tram alone crying to the rain: Naked woman! Naked woman!” (34).
Another fun passage concerns his desire to be an author: “Books you were going to write with letters for titles. Have you read his F? O yes, but I prefer Q. Yes but W is wonderful. O yes, W” (34).
Stephen is walking on the beach by the water and he spies two dogs. A dead one, bloated, and a living one running toward him. The live dog (which Stephen is afraid of) is leading a woman and a man “I see her skirties” (38) who he deems “cocklepickers.”
The description of the dog is really wonderful, very genuine, from sniffing the dead dog to peeing on a rock to the kicking and scratching of the dirt after peeing. And then the couple moves on.
So what’s so hard about this Episode? Well, a paragraph like this one:
Better get this job over quick. Listen: a fourworded wavespeech: seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss, ooos. Vehemnet breath of waters amid seassnakes, rearing horses, rocks. In cups of rocks it slops: flop, slop, slap: bounded in barrels. And, spent, its speech ceases. It flows purling, widely flowing, floating foampool, flower unfurling” (41).
It is so much fun to say aloud. But what the hell?
Stephen determines that since he gave his house key to Buck, he will not be returning home tonight. And so, after picking his nose, “he laid the dry snot picked from his nostril on a ledge of rock, carefully. For the rest let look who will” (42).
Thus endeth the lesson.
So, it’s not a spoiler (I trust) to point out the whole book takes place in one day. And given that, it’s funny to think how little has happened so far today. Basically, Stephen (for it is he we will be concerning ourselves with) eats breakfast, goes to work, gets paid and then wanders on the beach for a while. And yet we learn so much about him and his attitudes (he’s quite preoccupied with sex and has a bit of a Hamlet complex).
But it’s the language that I find so wonderful: lyrical and flowing. Even if it doesn’t make sense, it makes music. And that’s something.