Ulysses

The New Statesman reviewed Ulysses for the first time on 7 April 1923. Desmond McCarthy, the literary editor at the time, wrote under the pen-name Affable Hawk. Presented here is the full text of the review.

Last week I was disconnected in the middle of my discourse. I had just reached Mr. James Joyce and Ulysses. The hubble-bubble of talk round it has subsided, but its influence is likely to be far-reaching. Although copies are destined to find their way into the libraries of those who collect books described in catalogues as “very curious,” it is far from being pornographic in intention. It is perhaps the most obscene book ever written, but it is not a lascivious on; it is, almost dismally indeed, the opposite of that.

The author has been compared to Rabelais. He has only in common with Rabelais a gust for and an exuberant command of words; a like avidity for verbal analogies and assonances, which he carries to a point characteristic of a peculiar mental aberration which used to be called puns, alliterations, or repetitions, which here and there flash into wit, or form an amusing or brilliant collocation of vocables, but more often make an echoing rumble which is not addressed to the intelligence; he flings about a lot of dirty words as well as crashing learned ones. And here all resemblance stops between the author of the inestimable life of the Great Gargantua and that of Ulysses, though one must add they are both born parodyists, the former of general ideas, the latter of literary methods. Indeed, in spirit, two books could not be wider apart.

At bottom, though the most extravagantly fantastical of men, Rabelais was as sensible as it is possible for an alarmingly solid human being to be, and of a downright direct simplicity which makes even Montaigne seem a coquettish, cat-and-mouse writer beside him. If you examine what lies behind Rabelais’ art as a great story-teller (he excelled there) and as a care-destroying buffoon, what is revealed is the philosophy of common sense, a gay stoicism. In the case of Ulysses there is a gloomy background to those exuberant verbal torrents, a morose delectation in dirt; I touch no intellect below, only a mass of nerves and a haunted imagination.

Aussi eût-il été bien forissu (sorti) du déifique manoir de raison si autrement se fût constristé au alteré. Car tous les biens que le ciel couvre et que la terre contient en toutes ses dimensions, hauteur, profondité, longitude et latitude, ne sont dignes d’émouvoir nos affections et troubler nos sens et spirit; that is the essence of Pantagruelism. Above all, Rabelais is fearless; he has no more fear of the body, its functions and secretions, than a doctor. The exhilaration which he imparts is largely due to the laughing indifference with which he handles what others shrink to touch. Amusement at, not horror of, the body is the infection which the reader catches from his pages. He tells us he wrote his book to cure with laughter sick people; sick or not physically, the imaginations of many are sick and queasy, and perhaps the sickliest and most queasy imagination which has found expression in literature is that of Mr. James Joyce himself. The Portrait of a Young Man as Artist, one of the few really remarkable and best written of recent novels, throws light upon Ulysses. It enables the reader to measure the depth to which a superstitious horror of the body and sex has been branded into his mind, and explains why passages which appear pointlessly nauseous or exaggeratedly horrible in Ulysses came to be written: to us they may seem messes, to the author they represent, no doubt, the most difficult spiritual victories over private inhibitions. One thing that spoils Ulysses as a work of art is that it is far too much a self-administered cathartic. The author may have freed himself, but he brings no freedom to anyone not in his predicament. There is wit in it, just as there is an amazing acid precision in nailing down with a phrase – especially whatever disgusts – but of laughter there is only an approximation – a croak or a derisive snigger. The quality of its humour may be measured by the fact that in making, according to preposterous plan, each of Bloom’s adventures during twenty-four hours correspond, by some far-fetched analogy, to the consecutive subjects trated in the books of the Odyssey, Bloom, when the Æolus episode occurs in Homer, is represented onomatopoeically as troubled by wind while looking at a picture of the dying Wolfe Tone in a shop window. Silly? Yes, very.

I do not say that at the base of every good book of this kind must lie a robust and fearless philosophy. Out of hag-ridden horror, and cold hostile curiosity the adventures of the body can also be written, but let us once and for all drop any comparison of Mr. James Joyce to Rabelais.

Modern fiction, in so far as it is adventurous, tends to become more and more rhapsodical, episodic, and psychological. The importance of Ulysses lies in its carrying these tendencies to the very last limit. It is instructive to see what happens. Of course “the story” disappears (the story has already disappeared from the work of many contemporaries), but, in a very real and significant sense, “characters” have disappeared also. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, and during this one there has been a continually increasing tendency to go deeper in what is called the “psychology” of characters in fiction, to get behind the motives of which the characters are conscious and to which they would confess if they asked why they did such and such a thing. Ever since Tolstoi made Anna Karenina think of bathing when she threw herself under the train, the tendency to find irrelevant thoughts and feelings important has increased. Human beings, no doubt, do their thinking and feeling in the interstices of long wool-gathering processes, and at moments even of intense emotion the mind may fly about in the most erratic fashion. The older novelists ignored this fact completely; they did not attend to such phenomena, because they did not conceive them to be part of rational human life, the only thing worth writing about. Nevertheless it was discovered that some suggestion of this fact helped enormously to give vivid actuality to emotions described in fiction. Those who wrote later went farther; and latterly we have had novels written by authors who are fascinated by this irrelevant helter-skelter of thoughts, half-thoughts and sensations. Now the fact that Anna was inconvenienced by her little red bag when committing suicide, and that Vronsky’s spiritual misery was swamped by the toothache, adds nothing to our grasp of either as “characters”; Kitty and Levine might have had the same thoughts and sensations in the same circumstances; we have got to know Anna and Vronsky thanks to touches of a different kind. What these incidents illustrate is not “character,” but the nature of the human machine itself common to all humanity, however much individuals differ. The greater space therefore the novelist devotes to such facts, and the more he relies upon them exclusively, the more he tends to destroy his figures as “characters.” His novel, especially if he follows a system of interpretation like Psycho-Analysis, tends to become a pseudo-scientific discourse about imaginary cases; utterly worthless, of course, to men of science, or to anyone in the least scientifically minded, and utterly uninteresting to all except to those young readers to whom such partial revelations of possible truths about human nature come as a startling surprise.

Mr. Joyce has carried this process farther than anyone else. In retailing the thoughts, half-thoughts, perceptions of inattentions of Bloom and Mrs. Bloom, he has sunk a shaft down into the welter of nonsense which lies at the bottom of the mind, pumped up this stuff and presented it as a criticism of Life. 

Affable Hawk.

McCarthy was the literary editor of the New Statesman in the early 1920s. Writing under the name Affable Hawk, he also contributed book reviews to the magazine.

Show Hide image

Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear