CCCB: Ulysses

This is the last entry in this blog series (where I read an old unread book and bake something, because that’s a thing), and I wanted to bake something non-sweet for a change. But not bread. After considering a lot of things that straddle the baked goods/dinner continuum it all of a sudden occurred to me: Pretzels!

Pretzels are more salty than sweet, so that’ll do.

The recipe has a bunch of steps, but the most curious one is that you’re supposed so simmer the pretzels (before baking) in solution of lye. To make the lye we’re supposed to bake some baking soda to make… er… carbonate? From bicarbonate? 2 NaHCO3 => Na2CO3 + CO2 + H2O? What!? Chemistry is a mystery to me.

Anyway, this step doesn’t look suspicious at all, does it? HONEST COPPER I WAS JUST BAKING BAKING SODA! IT”S NOT METH! HONEST!

And after baking for er more than an hour (I forgot it was in the oven), it looks… just the same! That’s a let-down.

STILL NOT METH!

Anyway, with that done, all the ingredients are assembled. It’s all the usual yeasty bready stuff, except that the dough has Muscovado sugar in it.

So that’s all the dry ingredients (flour, yeast, salt and the not-quite-dry Muscovado sugar)…

The recipe says:

Tip out onto a floured work surface and knead for 10-15 mins or until smooth and elastic.

Yeah, that’s not gonna happen. Instead I just used the kitchen machine with the kneading hook attachment.

Looks OK, doesn’t it? Then it’s proofing time; one hour.

Let’s pick out a book while it’s proofing.

We have finally reached the final book in my oldest-unread (and now very dusty) nook. It’s Ulysses by James Joyce, and I think the reason I haven’t read this yet (both over the years and during this blog series) is…

IT”S FUCKING ULYSSES!

Some wit once wrote that it’s the most-attempted book in the history of the world: People buy it, intend to read it, and perhaps start reading it, but then they abandon it. (Number two and three were Dhalgren by Samuel Delany and Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.) That may, indeed, be why I bought it: I’d read both of those books (they’re great), so it was time to tackle number one.

I think… but I’m not quite sure… that I bought this while in London in 1993. It might have been later, but I’m pretty sure I bought it there while visiting some book store. I probably felt really interlechtual while doing so, too.

Hm, it’s the third printing of a 1992 edition… That makes 1993 unlikely. Probably more like 1995.

The introduction and notes on the text goes on for lxxxviii pages, all of which I gleefully skipped. I think texts about books belong at the end.

Let’s read the first two pages together.

The first thing we notice is that the margins on this 930 page novel are quite wide.

The second is that… the text seems fairly straightforward? I mean, it’s no Danielle Steele, but I had expected full-on stream of consciousness stuff. Did I have it all confused with Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses is all fun and narrative and stuff? Was that wit all wrong and I believed them all these years!?

Heh heh heh. “And when I makes water I makes water.” We all loves us some jokes about peeing.

*snicker* Pot.

Anyway, it’s more stream-of-consciousness than the initial pages led me to believe. The text is basically narrative — straightforward storytelling, but we dip into certain characters’ thought processes at the whim of the author. And our thoughts are very digressive, so it’s mostly digression and half-thought things. And then we drop to all-stream here and there, as when Stephen Dedalus gets drowsy (at least that how interpreted it) at the end of the first section when he’s listening to that guy playing a song.

I don’t know — that schtick made me laugh out loud. But is it because it’s hilarious, hilariously stupid, or just because it’s just not what I expected?

OK, I’m not going to write extensively about every single section in this book, I think, because that would make a very very long blog post. But the section where Leopold Bloom makes breakfast (with cat) and serves his wife if bed is just glorious. It’s fabulous! It’s the best making-breakfast scene in a book ever!

I’m almost starting to believe that this Joyce guy is pretty good at like writing and stuff.

Joyce does vary the style the text is written in quite a bit, but it’s not a cut and dried “here he does this and then he does this” kind of variation. For instance, here he’d doing a bunch of people working for a newspaper, so the text gets these kinds of headlines… but the text style is the same as in preceding sections.

Since this is set in Ireland, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that so much of the text is the dialogue (and thoughts) of very drunk people. This is a pretty good one, but I found my enthusiasm for listening in to drunk thoughts start to wane after a bit.

That’s not to say that it’s not accurate, because it’s scarily so. As with Joyce’s uncanny way of being able to write down half-formed non-drunken thoughts in a way that both makes a kind of obscure sense and is also convincing transcription, his drunken people are also on point.

I’ve found myself trying to trace my own thoughts a bit after starting to read this book, and it’s amazing how incoherent my internal monologue is. Whenever I can’t really think of the proper word my brain just papers over that part because I know what I’m trying to think, right?

Right.

A pet rant of mine for some years has been that basically nothing has changed much in the daily lives of middle-class people of western countries since, like, 1930. We live in flats in cities and go to work in offices on public transportation, etc, and you could transplant somebody from 2019 to 1931 and it’d be just fine. Transplant that person to 1840 and it’s EEEEEK.

I think perhaps I should adjust that timeline back to 1920: Joyce is such a thoroughly modern writer. Most literature I’ve read from around this time has been written about the super-rich and the aristocracy (think Virginia Woolf) and seems a bit… exotic… Joyce writes about a bunch of normal people, and they do normal stuff. They’re ad salesmen or writers, and they go shopping for groceries or clothes, and they sit in pubs talking nonsense at each other.

It’s so now.

About halfway through the novel, Joyce starts dropping in lists of people and stuff at random. I can see that Joyce finds these lists amusing, but it baffles me why. Was he a tweaker? Had cocaine been invented? Diet pills?

The vast majority of the characters in the book that we listen in to (and all characters in general, really) are male. In this section we’re introduced to three presumably teenaged girls, and it’s all pretty amusing. But interestingly enough (well, I think so, at least) is that instead of listening in to these thoughts in the first person (as with most (all?) of the male characters), these are third person thoughts. Joyce didn’t want to do the “I” thing with these girls? Odd.

But back to the pretzels!

The dough has arisen!

So I divided it into eight parts and then started rolling. I haven’t really rolled yeast dough before, and it’s a bit… springy? When I made croissants, the recipe stressed that whenever the dough is fighting you, you should put it into the fridge to make the gluten rest or something. I didn’t do that here, so it had a tendency to snap back into a shorter length…

Pretzels!

And then let it proof again for 20 minutes.

And then we come to the strange bit in the recipe where I put the pretzels into the simmering lye for 20 seconds on each side.

Which made the pretzel puff up even more, and not there shape is er less pretzely.

I think… there’s a different way to describe that shape…

But! After baking these are indubitably pretzels, although a bit on the big side.

Saaaalt.

So how does it pair with the book?

Mmm… It’s crunchy on the outside and soft and nice on the inside and it’s salty and satisfying. I think that’s how you’d describe Ulysses too, right?

I like “molestful”.

The section that takes us through English writing styles through history is the only section I found annoying. Sure, Joyce has a lot of fun here, but I didn’t.

I’ve read my share of avant garde novels, and the most annoying kind is where the author apparently sees themselves in an abusive relationship with the reader: They’ll punish the reader by throwing out a bunch of “difficult” text, and they’ll pull back and let the reader relax with something straightforwardly narrative for a while. It’s a thing. But Joyce isn’t like that at all, I feel: He takes tender care of the reader throughout, and isn’t a self-indulgent writer. As a reader, I feel all the trust in the world that whatever page I’m reading is going to be a pleasurable reading experience… because it is.

Except this section, which I found to be a chore.

OK, this blog post is already 10x too long, so I’m not going to keep on quoting fun bits, but I just love this exchange between Biddy the Clap and Cunty Kate.

Oh, yeah, I wanted to mention one thing that’s befuddling about reading older books from this part of the world: The monetary system. Whenever I’m reading these books I have to refresh my knowledge about how it works, because I’m just not able to retain the data in my head for more than a few hours at a time, apparently. And if you don’t know how the system works, the action can become even more befuddling than it’s meant to be.

For instance this section, which I just didn’t understand. So let’s take it from the top, after I googled and refreshed my pound/shilling/penny/guinea/crown knowledge. That they had so many words for the same concept doesn’t help.

So:

“Stephen: (Hands Bella a coin.) Gold. She has it.” So he hands Bella
a gold coin; presumable a pound coin (i.e., a sovereign). Bella then
says “Do you want three girls? It’s ten shillings here.” Stephen then “hands her two crowns”.

A crown is five shillings, and there’s twenty shillings to a pound, so he’s now paid thirty shillings, right?

Then there’s a section with Bloom etc of “chattering and squabbling”, and somebody says “this gentleman pays separate”, so somebody else also pays. And then finally Bloom lays “a half sovereign on the table” (i.e., half a pound, i.e., ten shillings) and then takes of “the poundnote” and then gives it to Stephen, since everybody paid for themselves anyway. “Three times ten.”

*phew*

Hm… Oh! When re-reading I missed that this all started a few paragraphs up with Stephen “taking out a banknote by its corner”! That must be a pound note, then? Or…? So a pound note, a “gold”, and “two crowns”?! Gaaah! So… er… Oh, a “gold” could be a half sovereign, which means that he paid 20 + 10 + 5 + 5 = 40 shillings, and then Bloom gave him back 20, so Stephen paid for himself and his friend, but not for Bloom. Well, that… makes sense…

And then there’s half crowns, which are, of course, two shillings six pence, but I won’t mention that. Or guineas, which are twenty-one shillings. And, of course, a half-guinea, which is ten shillings six pence.

BUT! Then in a later section there’s an account of all the money spent and earned, and the ten shillings paid to the hookers aren’t mentioned at all, so perhaps I got it all wrong.

On the other hand, lots of things in this section seems to be… untrue… so perhaps this is just another one of those things.

And then we come to the final section of the book, where Molly lies in bed and thinks. And this is what I assumed the entire book would be like. Instead it’s just about fifty pages.

There’s virtually no punctuation in this section, but it’s more coherent than some of the other sections, really. I wish my brain was that clear in its reasoning. If you tweaked it slightly, and added some commas, it’d basically be like sitting listening to a motormouth talking to you about you know stuff.

It’s a riveting section; not only because Molly seems pretty interesting, but because she touches upon many of the things that have previously happened in the book, and gives us a second (perhaps truer) view of them. It’s like getting inside gossip on something after having read the official version.

So there you go: Ulysses isn’t that scary a book at all. But it did take me over a month to get through it, and I had to discipline myself to do it. I soon found out that if I have a laptop in the same room as I was sitting, the temptation to look well, everything up was overwhelming. And that destroys the rhythm of reading. As well as slows me down to a crawl.

I had to set some strict rules: Whenever I planted my ass on the couch to read some Ulysses, I wouldn’t get off the couch until I’d read at least 30 pages, no matter what. And then I could take a pause and Bing and check email for er a few hours, before returning for another 30 pages.

I haven’t had to do something like that for any of the other books I’ve been reading for this blog project, but there’s something about the digressive nature of Ulysses that just makes the brain go off in all directions at the same time, and you have to tamp that down.

I’ve tried avoiding reading articles about Ulysses while reading the book, but I’ve now (as I’m typing this) looked up a few. I have to say that I find this plot summary wildly inaccurate. Or perhaps it’s just me that got everything wrong? This one is just incomprehensible: For instance the section where Bloom is hiding behind some rocks on the beach, masturbating while watching some teenage girls (one of whom is aware of Bloom), is summarised as “a brief dalliance at the beach”.

This one’s pretty good, although the terminology used here and there is a bit on the wink wink side.

ANYWAY.

I’d suggest avoiding reading anything about Ulysses, including this blog post, before reading Ulysses.

Yes.

3 thoughts on “CCCB: Ulysses”

  1. Now look here lars you know far too much and migod there’s nothing you cannot do and it makes me so inferior I want to spit and taste your pretzels which no normal man would ever try to bake when you can buy ’em from tesco.
    Must’ve been a nightmare to proofread the novel and who’d know if there were errors because sometimes he rambles so incoherently…
    I salute you sir — I’d rather read your blog than most novels…

  2. > Some wit once wrote that it’s the most-attempted book in the history of the world: People buy it, intend to read it, and perhaps start reading it, but then they abandon it.

    Haha – I’ve pinched Finnegan’s Wake once and bought it at least three times in addition, but I’ve only read a couple hundred pages of it so far (and understood ab-so-lu-te-ly nothing, but it is fun to read a page and then tell yourself: “What the hell was that? I did not understand one word. At all.” and continue. You really must concentrate, otherwise it is impossible for your brain to follow how far your eyes have read.)

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