Blogging My Way Through Ulysses (aka, “The Mt. Everest of Novels”): The Khumbu Icefall


Image credit: “Inside Khumbu Icefall.”  Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via

In my introductory post for what is apparently going to be a series, I likened Ulysses to Mt. Everest.  So I figured I would just keep rolling with that metaphor, because it makes me feel like I’m doing something much harder than I really am.

The first post was from base camp.

Today’s post is from the Khumbu Icefall, elevation 19,000-ish feet.  The air is getting thinner, but I’m not pulling out the oxygen tanks just yet.  It’s cold and windy, and the footing is tricky.

But the views are spectacular.

I understand why Ulysses is a classic and why people who’ve read it make a big stinking deal about it.  The prose is as sensual as poetry, richly textured with allusions and images.  Check out a few of these gorgeous phrases:

“On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins…”

“Sun flung spangles.” Does it get any better?

“They are coming, waves.  The whitened seahorses, champing, brightwindbridled, the steeds of Mananaan.”  Apparently it does.

“I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame.”  Devastating.

“Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts, secrets weary of their tyranny; tyrants, willing to be dethroned.”  That sentence alone is worth reading the whole book for.

Sentences like these you linger over, read and re-read, whisper to yourself to discover how they feel on your tongue.

And the compound words Joyce invents are amazing:

“checkerwork of leaves”

“fists bigdrumming”

“upwardcurving path”

“basiliskeyed” (Harry Potter shoutout!)

But let me tell you, people, it hasn’t been all rainbows and unicorns.  There are legitimate reasons I was daunted by this book.

First of all, there are dashes to denote dialogue.  Who invented that punctuational monstrosity?  Was it Steinbeck?  Paton?  Joyce himself?  If there is ever a competition for “Stupidest Idea Ever,” my entry into that competition will be “Using Dashes to Denote Dialogue.”  Dashes are just fine to indicate that someone has started talking, but how are you supposed to know that they’ve finished?  And in a stream of consciousness book, if the protagonist, Stephen, is talking, you sometimes don’t know when he’s speaking out loud and when he’s speaking in his head.  So confusing.  (Rant over.)

Second, there are Russian nesting dolls of allusions going on here: allusions within allusions within allusions.  To begin with, the whole book is an allusion to The Odyssey, which is actually quite helpful, because it sets up a nice interpretive framework.  I knew that it would be an episodic journey narrative that would culminate in self-discovery.  I knew that it would have a protagonist who encountered external obstacles that would complicate his internal conflicts, and would probably include versions of gods, goddesses, demigods, warriors, and monsters.

But I realized early on that I was missing a crucial piece of gear for my trek up this literary Everest: detailed knowledge of the episodes of the Odyssey.  While I was mulling over the meaning of the third episode, I looked up the tales of Nestor and Proteus.  It was amazing how reading the referent made seemingly random pieces fall into place.  For example, when Stephen is walking on the beach in the Proteus episode, there are all these references to animals–a horse, a pigeon, a dog.  In the myth, Menelaus captures Proteus, the old man of the sea, and holds onto him while Proteus shape-shifts into a variety of different animals.  Proteus gives Menelaus crucial (classified!) information about the gods who are angry with him and how he can appease them.

It doesn’t stop with the classical Greek allusions.  There are many direct and indirect references to Hamlet, which makes the fact that Stephen is haunted by the ghostlike memory of his mother more significant.  I don’t know yet if there’s going to be a revenge subplot, but Stephen has already looked at another character in the book and thought “usurper,” which could either be a connection to Claudius or to the suitors who plagued Penelope or maybe even to the English.  See what I mean about the layers?

There’s also a ton of religious imagery and references to God.  Most of it is included in an ironic, often jesting way.  For example, the opening scene has a character doing a mock mass with a shaving bowl.  It makes me suspect that Joyce has a long and complicated history with God and/or religion–mockers usually do.

Speaking of history, there’s also a whole lotta stuff about Irish politics that I just don’t understand.  I do get that the English are the “bad guys.”  There’s already been some repetition of one Englishman’s careful linguistic sidestepping of responsibility when he murmurs something about how “it seems history is to blame.”  “History,” remarks Stephen later, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”  Definitely not getting all the significance here. (By the way, if you’re reading this and you know the history of Ireland and would be willing to provide some insight–that would be fantastic.)

Sparknotes tells me that the scenes in which historical conversations trigger personal memories or in historical musings happen because of real-time events are meant to link history and memory.  I’ll be interested in watching this connection unfold.  Will it point to mankind’s helplessness to oppose to massive tidal forces of history?  Or will it suggest that major historical events hinge on the smallest choices (butterfly effect)?

I think the latter is more likely.  One section of the book presents the idea that crucial events in history are “fettered” and “branded” by Time, “lodged in the room of infinite possibilities they have ousted.”  But was something really possible if it never happened? “Or was that only possible which came to pass”?  Most of the book is that deep and that mind-bending.

And some parts are downright baffling.  I find myself having to read whole sections two or three times just to figure out what in the world is going on.  There’s a whole scene in a schoolroom that I thought was flashback that turned out to be real-time.  And then sometimes when you’re in Stephen’s head, following his thoughts, it just goes down the rabbit hole of absurdity.  Some prime examples:

“Thought is the thought of thought.”  Huh?

“Limit of the diaphane in.”  Google tells me that diaphane is “a woven silk stuff with transparent and colored figures; diaper work.”  Diaper work?  Limit of the “woven silk diaper work” in?

“Warring his life long upon the contranmagnificandjebangtantiality.”  Jimmy. What are you smoking?

And then there’s deeply uncomfortable anti-Semitism expressed by a couple of the characters.  Check out this speech from a character named Mr. Deasy: “England is in the hands of the Jews…and they are the signs of a nation’s decay.  Wherever they gather they eat up the nation’s vital strength.”  Really Deasy?  Jewish people sap a nation’s strength?  More than, say, xenophobia, bigotry, and the fear and hatred on which those prejudices are founded?  Stephen mumbles a weak defense against Deasy’s unjust accusations, but Deasy runs after him and gets in the last word with a tasteless anti-Semitic joke.  Not sure how this theme is going to play out.

Then again, Deasy is the center of the Nestor episode, and Nestor was someone who gave Patroclus advice that led to Patroclus’ death.  So there’s that.

Phew.  I’m winded.  It’s a intellectually demanding trek up a literary mountain, but I believe it will be worth it in the end.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go work up enough contranmagnificandjebangtantiality to read the next episode.  See you on the Lhotse face.



4 thoughts on “Blogging My Way Through Ulysses (aka, “The Mt. Everest of Novels”): The Khumbu Icefall

    • Ha ha, yeah, if I weren’t blogging my way through it, there’s a distinct possibility that I might have given up already. Like that children’s poem, when Ulysses is good, it is very, very good, but when it is bad, it is horrid. 🙂 A very Merry Christmas to you as well.

  1. My eyes passed across the words of this novel decades ago when I was in college. What was my prof thinking assigning that? It’s a miracle I still wanted to be an English major afterwards! I much prefer reading your thoughts on it. So I’ll just keep scampering up the mountain behind you, stepping where you’ve already done all the work!
    Have a wonderful Christmas break!

    • “Eyes passing across words” is a perfect way to describe my experience with this book. It can’t rightly be called “reading,” because that implies comprehension. I am very surprised you stuck with the English major after something so dreadful. But now I’m really wishing I was in a class where this book was bring taught so that I could understand more of what’s going on, especially historically. Hope you’re having a wonderful Christmas break too! Give Maddi a big hug from me!

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