In a crucial chapter of Ulises there is a reference to Cervantes, an intuition of something that arises and disappears in the great verbal torrent: “They remind one of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Our national epic poem has yet to be written… A gentleman of the Sad Figure here in Dublin… And his Dulcinea?” The chapter is a tumultuous and at times exasperating conversation in the National Library in Dublin, one of those diatribes of quack slackers that run through the novel, focused in this case on young Stephen Dedalus’s theory of Shakespeare and Hamlet, of authorship and paternity. . In Dedalus’ consciousness, his own tortuous ramblings blend with the voices of those around him; his intellectual brilliance, inseparable from youthful arrogance, contrasts with a state of absolute penury, shoes with holes, torn socks, borrowed pants. Stephen Dedalus is very poor, very intelligent, very pedantic. That is why the passages in the novel told from his point of view are often the most difficult, irritating even, in the way that a very self-centered young person, intoxicated by their own verbal sharpness, always reveling in the most difficult still of his elucubrations. While Stephen Dedalus amazes his interlocutors with his erudite acrobatics, in which, however, there is always a thread of truth, a figure appears and disappears, just like the Cervantine reference: someone has passed through those offices of the National Library mentioned but not named, a visitor the attentive reader recognizes, Mr. Leopold Bloom, whom young Dedalus is to meet many hours later, though neither of them now know this. “Now” it is just after two in the afternoon, on this June 16, and the meeting of Dedalus and Bloom will take place well into the night.
“Future events cast their shadows first,” says Joyce. Thanks to that reference to Don Quixote we understand that it is Bloom, the gentleman of the Sad Figure who walks around Dublin dressed in black: he has gone this morning to the funeral of an acquaintance, and he cannot go home to change his clothes because he knows that this is the day his wife had an appointment there with a lover: Dulcinea as carnal as Aldonza Lorenzo and Penelope unfaithful, but no less loved or desired for that, invoked at every moment in memories of an ancient tenderness spoiled by the loss of a son and perhaps because of the simple wear and tear of time.
Many chapters are crystal clear. Others offer varying degrees of difficulty, which are gradually eased by handling good critical editions and becoming familiar with other Joyce books.
Ulises it is not a cerebral exercise and also impenetrable of literary experimentation, within the exclusive reach of select writers and critics and university professors of maximum erudition. Ulises is a novel as populous of characters as Don Quijote of La Mancha or the Pickwick Papers, as full of voices and incidents as they are, so dedicated to the celebration of reality, although with a carnivalesque shamelessness that Dickens could never dare, and in which Cervantes took pleasure like Rabelais and Bruegel. The hyper-intellectual Stephen interrupts his walk on the beach and his literary-theological ramblings to pick up a snot and paste it on a rock. From the Cervantine scene in which Sancho Panza, hugging the legs of Don Quixote, dead of fear and cold in the night of the fulling mills, loosens his belt and grits his teeth wanting to relieve without noise what he cannot hide from the sense of smell, There has been no other moment in literature so gloriously scatological as that of Mr Bloom’s visit to the lavatory, carrying with him a sheet of newspaper which serves him first for reading and then as a hygienic aid. At Camacho’s weddings, Sancho Panza surrenders to an ecstasy of gaze and gluttony contemplating the pots overflowing with all kinds of tasty meats. Mr. Leopold Bloom, so moderate in his appetites, pushes open the door of a cheap restaurant in Dublin and is overwhelmed by the density of smells and by the visual, sound and olfactory spectacle of the diners chewing, sipping, smoking, who spit, who leave a stench of beer urine in the toilets.
The words themselves acquire a consistency of chewing. The style is modified at every moment according to the matter that is being told. Ulises it is the novel of plebeian lives and trades and amusements and popular misadventures. Joyce, like Cervantes, loves all forms of speech and all forms of literature, and takes pleasure in their parody and accumulation, to the same extent that he takes pleasure in the entire spectacle of human beings, in this case concentrated in the quirky microcosm of Dublin, in just under 24 hours, “the summit of this day”, says Borges’s poem. Ulises it is a comic novel, a social novel, a radically political novel from almost the first page, in which the reviling of British despotism over Ireland is no less vigorous than the rejection of Irish nationalism, of its submission to the Catholic Church, of its narrow identity. Bloom, a wandering Jew in his own town and Knight of the Sad Figure, is one of the most level-headed and good-natured characters in all fictional literature. He has something of Tolstoy’s Pierre Bezukhov, something of a knight errant of common sense who defends the weak and corrects injustices, who remains as alert to the pain of human beings as to that of animals. In the midst of misery and delirium, of his own inner turmoil, Bloom relies on rationality and always looks to possible practical remedies to improve life. Much of the novel was written by Joyce during the carnage of the war in Europe, and with the memory of the Irish uprising of 1916 and the bloody British repression. Many chapters are crystal clear. Others offer varying degrees of difficulty, which are gradually eased by handling good critical editions and becoming familiar with other Joyce books: Dubliners, Portrait of the artist as a teenager. Writing is always close to poetry: it can be arduous, sometimes revealing itself little by little, and never exhausting itself. It deserves to be read aloud. Sometimes a phrase reveals its beauty after study as attentive as that of a musician concentrating on the interpretation of a difficult passage. It has accompanied me all my life, in that way in which almost only Proust and Cervantes accompany me.
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