James Joyce

Modernist novels that I love and hate

A Conversation Between Two Modernists

I’ve been reading a handful of modernist novels lately. In fact, I picked this as the theme for the book discussion that I hosted for our book club last month. Currently, I’m reading some palate cleansers to resume my modernist streak. But I want to go back soon. It’s evident with my choice of topic for today’s Writing 101 challenge.

Write a post based on the contrast between two things — whether people, objects, emotions, places, or something else.

Bringing together two different things — from the abstract and the inanimate to the living and breathing — creates a natural source of tension, and conflict drives writing forward. It makes your reader want to continue to the next sentence, to the next page. So, focus on your two starkly different siblings, or your competing love for tacos and macarons, or whether thoughts are more powerful than words, or…you get the idea.

Today’s twist: write your post in the form of a dialogue. You can create a strong opposition between the two speakers — a lovers’ quarrel or a fierce political debate, for example. Or you could aim to highlight the difference in tone and style between the two different speakers — your call!

Disclaimer: This challenge is no attempt to capture the personalities of the great writers I picked who are going to have an imaginary conversation. They are merely representatives of my feelings for their works, at least the ones that I’ve read. There are bound to be misrepresentations here, so I suggest not to cite this post as a reference for anything.

Knut Hamsun: I’m Knut Hamsun, one of the early literary modernists. I’m the author of Hunger and our host blogger loves this novel. I say he’s a great intellectual.

James Joyce: I’m James Joyce, one of the high literary modernists. I’m the author of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and our host blogger hates this novel. I say he’s a dumb bore.

KH: Had you sustained the tone of your novel as it were in the early chapters, perhaps he would have at least been okay with it.

JJ: I really couldn’t care less for the common readers. My novels are meant for academicians. An I.T. major who has forgotten how to write a single line of code has nothing to do with this.

KH: That’s a little condescending for someone who’s supposed to have written a coming-of-age novel.

JJ: You don’t really expect me to write a YA novel, do you?

KH: I see where you are coming from. As it is, I feel that I have a more harrowing subject matter.

JJ: Now that is condescending.

KH: Themes of self-preservation and transcendence have been recurring in all of literature. And yet readers are intimidated by them.

JJ: I like that you chose hunger as a means for transcending, but seriously? An unreliable mad man? That’s very predictable.

KH: He is not merely mad. He is a man who can live comfortably if he wants to. But he didn’t. Now that is contrast.

JJ: That’s not contrast, that is stereotyping.

KH: And what about your Dedalus? It seems to me that his issues are non-issues.

JJ: Here you go talking about transcendence, and dismissing religious and artistic crises as non-issues at the same time.

KH: You have to admit that it has to do with how you wrote it.

JJ: We both wrote it using stream of consciousness, although yours sounded more like an interior monologue.

KH: Yours sounded like it was patches of scenes collated from various sources.

JJ: Which is exactly the point of psychological novels dealing with metamorphosis.

KH: Which also is exactly my point. I just managed to be cohesive and not too alienating to push away the reader.

JJ: As I mentioned, I am a meant for academic readings.

KH: So are we going around in circles?

JJ: No, unless you want to discuss Finnegans Wake. So why are we here again?

KH: Our host blogger is listening to us. Do you think he will still read you?

JJ: He attempted to buddy read Ulysses. But he failed. Ha! And you?

KH: He has also read Mysteries and he seems keen to read Growth of the Soil.

JJ: I’m pretty sure he’s going to pick up Ulysses again so that he can piss himself off.

KH: I don’t know why you have to be so difficult with everyone. No wonder you didn’t win the Nobel.

JJ: And here’s a Nobel laureate who sympathized with the Nazis.

KH: Didn’t you?

JJ: Don’t ask me. I just drank and drank.

My Pre-Christmas Pile

I hoarded just a bit before the Christmas shoppers go crazy

I will try my best to make this pile (plus the secret pile that I bought for exchange gifts) to be my last book shopping for this year. For us bibliophiles, there’s nothing wrong in shopping for books that you know you won’t be reading anytime soon, but you see, I’m planning two trips in the next few months, so I have to save whatever money that I have remaining. Besides, it has been some time since I last shopped for books. It must have been four weeks ago, so you can just imagine those agonizing times when I go out of a book store empty-handed.

This pile is one of my favorites for this year. First, there is a collection of poetry. Second, there are two short story collections. Third, there is an assortment of trade paperbacks, mass markets, and hardbounds. Fourth, there are gifts. Fifth, there is a number of novels by a single author. Sixth, there is a study guide. Hmm, need I say more?

  • Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda (November 17) – given to me by Kwesi. Thanks! This is supposed to be a Christmas gift. But I wonder why he gave it to me a month earlier? Probably because he felt the need to give back something when I bought him a copy of…
  • No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (November 18, Fully Booked – Gateway) – Yes, I also bought myself a copy. I promised Marie that I will attend her book discussion of this. So yes, my attendance makes me a participant of two book clubs, and I don’t think that’s bad. It’s actually fun. You have two sets of people that love talking about books.
  • Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (November 8) – sent to me by a representative of Doubleday Publishing as a review copy. You probably know that I am not attracted by HBs, but if it’s free, why not? And oh, I first thought that it was an ARC, but no, this is the real thing. Thanks!
  • On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (November 9, Book Sale – Makati Square) – I felt that I had to start buying every Ian McEwan book that’s on my wishlist the moment I got the book above, so when Aenna alerted me that she saw a copy of this at a nearby Book Sale branch, I ran to get it. And I did that during office hours.
  • Saturday by Ian McEwan (November 24) – I got this at a book bazaar inside the University of the Philippines campus. I can no longer recall its price. It’s either Php 250.00 or Php 300.00.
  • The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan – I just wanted to include this here because I didn’t realize that I already have a copy. If you are wondering what McEwan novel I still have to buy, that would be Black Dogs. Looks like I’m going to be a fan despite the fact that I’ve only read one McEwan novel.
  • Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley (November 24, Php 110.00) – I also got this at another book bazaar inside the UP campus. I’ve been hunting a copy of this for a long time, so I don’t mind that it’s a mass market edition. I’m shocked by its length though. It’s close to 500 pages, and the font size is so small.
  • Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (November 24, Bookay Ukay, Php 120.00) – I was targeting the trade paperback edition sold at regular book stores, but I decided to buy this mass market edition because it’s the ones at regular book stores are so expensive, and I feel bad paying a huge amount of money for slim books.
  • Cathedral by Raymond Carver (November 25, Fully Booked – The Fort, Php 630.00) – I have a feeling that I will become a Raymond Carver fan. I’ve already listed the Carver  books that I have to buy. Unfortunately, this is the only one that I could find, but it will do. I can wait for other titles to make their appearance at our book stores.
  • Sparknotes: Ulysses by James Joyce (November 24, Bookay Ukay, Php 60.00) – Okay, I admit that I felt like a loser when I paid for this. I’ve already mentioned in some of my posts that I am having a hard time with Ulysses, so I figured that I should seek help in understanding it. Some of the great writers that I’ve read revere this work, and as of now, I can’t see why. I want to know why, hence, this study guide.

How about you? What do you feel about study guides? Do you think they are necessary in understanding certain books? Do you think that they are merely the perspectives of other readers? Do they make you feel incompetent? Do they make you feel like a cheater?

The Classics Club Monthly Meme: September 2012

The Classics Club

Hello! Wow, it seems like a long time since I said hello to my blog readers. There must be a handful, right?Anyway, it’s been quite a long Sunday, one of those Sundays where you wake up really late and get up to eat your lunch, do some housekeeping, and then do nothing.

And suddenly, you remember your reading and blogging tasks. I am not in the mood to do neither, which is outrageous because I just posted my reading plan yesterday. Good thing that The Classics Club‘s September meme is already up. I thought of putting this back until the next week, but I guess I should deal with this already, no?

So here’s the topic for this month:

Pick a classic someone else in the club has read from our big review list. Link to their review and offer a quote from their post describing their reaction to the book. What about their post makes you excited to read that classic in particular?

Looking at my Goodreads currently-reading shelf, there’s this one book that’s been stuck there since April. It’s James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’m on the verge of completely abandoning it, but I keep reminding myself that it’s not like me to do that. So I looked for good but non-professional reviews (read: not from a published writer or from a book review column in the papers). The ones that I found were either plain lazy and short (I doubt that they even tried to read it) or pretentious. I want an honest and sincere review.

I haven’t checked for it in the big review list, and I’m glad that this meme came up. It gave me an opportunity to look it up, and whoah! There’s one review of it.

It’s impossible to think of waysUlysses would have been improved, because every little detail that I didn’t like makes the book the book it is. For example, I didn’t like some of the styles Joyce used because I found them confusing, but if you take the experimental parts away then it just wouldn’t be the same.

This is taken from Charlotte’s review at her blog, Charlotte Reads Classics (hello there!). This quote, I think, addresses my problem with the book. There are lots of details in the novel that test my patience (and I’d like to think that I am a very patient reader). I do not approve of Joyce’s style (but I do like Woolf’s). I even go as far as saying that Joyce could have come up with a better version had he written this with a sober head.

But yes, Charlotte is right. We would have a different Ulysses then, or maybe even none. And to convince me further:

And I’ll just mention again how great Molly’s soliloquy is… just so you know I really mean it. IT’S WORTH IT.

So I’ve heard a lot about this soliloquy, which is unfortunately the last chapter. It’s that notorious chapter about Molly saying what’s inside her head in four (?) sentences. What’s amazing is that this chapter runs for 50+ pages! Just imagine how long the sentences are.

I resolve to pick Ulysses up again maybe on December. I won’t promise to reread it though, except for my notes. And thanks to Charlotte. You did me a wonderful favor in sharing a balanced review. :)

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Before Ulysses, there was a portrait – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

There was an occasion when one of my commenters pointed out that I haven’t finished Ulysses yet when I claimed to have finished all the books that I list on my monthly reading plans. A keen observer, I should say, for yes, the book completely slipped off my mind when I made that claim.

I went ahead to explain that I still do read Ulysses, but only during the weekends. But when these weekends come, I find myself procrastinating, especially if I am in the midst of a book that I am enjoying so much. Why stop reading and replace the entertainment with tedious labor?

Before I read Ulysses, I already have my prejudices dead set against it although there’s still a flicker of hope that I could somehow appreciate it. These prejudices have been formed when I read his other slimmer work, A Portrait. It is somehow a prequel to Ulysses for one of its main characters is the former’s hero, Stephen Dedalus.

–You made me confess the fears that I have. But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too.–

This is Stephen Dedalus. He is someone that has the qualities of the character that I would like: an outsider, introspective, strong liking for literature, a nonconformist, and has a passionate longing to pursue his interests regardless if he is alone or not. I actually like the first third of the novel, but somewhere, I got lost. Or more likely, I got very impatient and annoyed.

It has to do with the narrative. I used to say to my friends, particularly to one friend whom, I think, is spiting me by giving this book a completely opposite rating, that this has one of the clumsiest narratives that I’ve ever read. Is it even about the stream of consciousness technique? It could be, but why was I able to follow the more incoherent and inattentive thoughts of the child Stephen than the maturing one?

Although I still managed to at least get through the last few pages mentally unscathed, I decided that I don’t like this novel at all. Finishing it felt like watching the opening of a film, falling asleep, and then waking up to catch the ending. I could never like a movie that makes me fall asleep, unless I lacked sleep prior to watching it, because I would only fall asleep if the movie failed to engage in me in some sort of mental conversation, or provide me some vicarious thrill and suspense, or at least make me hum okaaay.

I hold the same principle for books. It is quite pretentious to like something that I fear I did not really understand. So let’s get to it: what is this novel about? To answer that, I will just say the themes that I got from it, for I think that is the most effective way to answer such a question. First, there’s religion. We see Stephen grow in a Catholic family, and then he starts going out to brothels, and then he reforms, and then he stops believing and caring for the teachings of the Catholic Church. Stephen’s religion is a cycle, a metamorphosis of four stages.

Second, alienation. Of sorts. We see Stephen’s internal struggle caused by his way of thinking. He thinks differently from everyone else. He doesn’t like most of his nationalist classmates and feels that their sentiments are not as deep as his. He also feels some resentment for his family; the squalor that ate through them makes him helpless, which only strengthens his desire to leave them. It does not necessarily follow, but what can we do? Stephen is different like that.

And third, the artist thing. Well, kind of. After all, I was expecting more of this because of the novel’s title. So yes, he is willing to pay the price to pursue his dreams. He will forsake his family and friends, he will leave his country, he will sacrifice his religion just so he could become a writer, an artist. Which brings us to a debatable point: is it necessary for an artist to commit self-exile? Is this a means to escape the contrariness of the things surrounding him, or is it a struggle for artistic independence?

1 star - didn't like itSo there. I think I got enough out of the novel. It’s just that I value style, and I don’t like the Joycean School of Narrative. I experienced the Faulknerian and Woolfian Schools, so I was surprised myself when I realized that with every page, I was getting exasperated with the narration.

Joyce is not my kind of writer, which is somehow sad because he is a literary giant. One bookish friend even pointed out who am I to diss Joyce. I did not respond to that because I got a little sore, because this friend ultimately pointed out that I had no right to air an opinion. It will ultimately go to that point, even if takes a lot of meanderings to drive to it.

On the other hand, I think I am taking a bold move here by saying that Joyce is not The Writer. The Modern Library panelists may have hailed one of his novels as the greatest novel of this century. I do not agree. I am also a reader and I have as much right as anyone to diss a work or an author that made my reading an irritable occasion.

Ulysses Diaries, I

In which disinterest called for a hiatus – Ulysses Diaries, I

I am concurrently reading Ulysses with Jane Eyre, but since I got so absorbed with the story of the headstrong lady protagonist of the latter, I deprioritized the reading of the former. At least I got myself to episode 5, which is a measly 70 or so pages. I will definitely go back to this after Jane Eyre. I just think that it needs my undivided attention.

So far, it’s not as promising as the people behind Modern Library’s Top 100 Books make it appear. Yes, they hailed this as the No. 1 novel of their list, probably its difficulty being the foremost reason. But yes, let’s still give it the benefit of the doubt, however doubtful one’s comprehension may get.

Note: I am reading this with the blogger of The Misanthropologist.


Episode 1, Telemachus:

I’ve been bombarded with too much information by the lengthy introduction that I decided not to finish it and get a start on the novel’s text. I was quite bored, mostly because I am expecting to get bored.

We read about the morning rituals of Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of A Portrait whom I hate with such intensity. He eats breakfast with a cantankerous guy and a guy who annoys him. He thinks about his mother’s recent death. He is asked of his theories on Hamlet. I haven’t read Hamlet.

I’ve only read a digest of Odysseus. Edith Hamilton’s. I barely remember it. Good grief, I think this will be a hard reading.

Episode 2, Nestor:

Here’s a novel that talks of anti-Semitism. Like I care about that. Forgive me, but I just can’t understand why there’s so much hatred toward the Jews. Should I blame myself or should I blame the absence of Jewish culture in this country?

There’s also something about misogyny here. The contrast of Stephen’s thoughts about his mother, and a mother’s love in general, and the schoolmaster’s prejudice against women is presented here. There’s also some talk about history, about teaching and learning, and what else?

About saving money. I think I should start working seriously on that. I have paid my own way. Will I ever be able to say that, especially in this country where reciprocity, or debt of gratitude, is an unshakable virtue?

Episode 3, Proteus:

Gawd. Gawd. I have to admit that I largely depend on the dialogues to understand what’s going on, but with the scarcity of talking in this part, I didn’t get anything. I think I hear something melodious here and there, but I fail to catch what it’s trying to say.

All I know is that Stephen is thinking of random things, looking at random things, and what else? Watching a dog smell the carcass of another dog, contemplating of going to the dentist, picking his nose, and looking at a passing ship.

So far, in the three hours of the novel, Stephen shaves, eats breakfast, goes to work at school, gets his salary from the schoolmaster, visits his uncle, stares off to the sea. This ends the first part of the novel, and there’s nothing promising about it. Novels that deliberately make the text hard to understand just for the sake of being hard to understand do not garner my respect.

Episode 4, Calypso:

I like Leopold Bloom better than Stephen Dedalus. I usually like moody, depressing characters, but reading a difficult book makes me want to see something positive in it. And Bloom acts as that one who would also counterbalance the traits of Stephen.

The opening of Part II is more promising than that of Part I. Perhaps this is due to my hatred for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen is the protagonist there, and I think Ulysses picks up around two to five years after the events of the former novel.

Both Bloom and Stephen are eating breakfast, so I guess it is right to assume that this episode and the first episode occurred at the same time. Instead of the wife preparing the breakfast, Bloom does it all, even the shopping and picking of letters. And oh, I quite cringed at that part about Bloom defecating. Is it necessary to count the number of attempts to get the turd out of your bowels?

Episode 5, Lotus Eaters:

I sort of appreciated that part where Bloom is nursing thoughts of his pen pal while inside the church. That seems to me yet another proof of religion as an opium, either an addictive or mind-numbing substance. Or both. I am not too sure if the church service is for the funeral of poor Dignam. Everyone seems to call him that, and what is so poor about him? Is he literally poor or is he poor because he’s already robbed of his earthly existence?

Another thing that I liked is the flower language, where parts of the letter that Bloom received from his pen pal are replaced with names of flowers. The type of flower that you give someone speaks a lot of your motives, whether intentionally or not. I just don’t know yet what the pressed dried flower, smelling nothing, symbolizes. Probably a relationship that would never prosper?

Bloom and his wife are in a kind of infidelity game. The husband is entertaining an unseen pen pal while the wife is, or was, flirting with her manager of sorts. That I only gathered from the introduction of my edition.