Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Ulysses Support Group: Sirens

Big pats on the back all round as we realise we have a third of the book under our belts. This section produced some polarised opinions. Some felt it was unneccessarily inscrutable and that Joyce could have written something just as evocative but more accessible; others found that the onomatopeic style led to some innovative and telling descriptions. Claire wins the 'close reading award' for pointing out that Bloom's companion in the bar is the self same awkward Uncle that Stephen Dedalus refers to in the first section.

Bloom as 'outsider' is becoming more and more clear: from the jibes of the barmaids, to his stealthy progress to the back room of the bar (avoiding Blazes Boylan and his notorious squeaky tan shoes) and his pointed preference for offal over the pub staple steak and kidney pie. Stephen Dedalus' father by contrast is seen as popular - in spite of his lofty 'bard' son.

Casting the barmaids as Sirens offers Joyce great scope for some jovial preening and flirting - but ultimately these women are selling liquor and potentially leading men from sobriety and towards oblivion (and it was pointed out that again, Joycian women appear to be conniving and villainous whilst the men are hapless but blameless). The deaf barman Pat, appears immune from the fawning of the barmaids - perhaps because he understands it is all for show. In a clever reversal of the musical theme, it is the men that play and sing (and we all came away from the section feeling a need to seek out the songs mentioned). Every character has their own rhythm and set of sounds which are often repeated - mimicing the Greek aural tradition of qualifying characters with descriptive adjectives e.g. the resourceful Telemachus. The effect of repeated desciptors or syllables throughout the passage divided opinion and was either intensely annoying or very innovative!

Pubs, music, irreverant chatter and gossip - all very Dublin and perhaps why some of the group found this section so entertaining.

Also, it is perhaps the clearest parallel between the text and the Odyssey that we have come across so far and because the Sirens are so well known, there was less time spent poring over the notes (no musical pun intended) and more time enjoying the language and the scene itself.

The next section - Cyclops - is a meaty 50 pages and so we shall reconvene at the Salamander (around 6:45pm) on the 19th July.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Marvellous Monday Book Group: 27th June 2011

In many ways, Italo Calvino's
Castle of Crossed Destinies is
a perfect book group read. The
premise is intriguing: in a nod
to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales,
travellers meet up at a castle
but find they have lost the
power of speech. Only a pack
of Tarot cards can help them communicate their stories. As the cards are laid upon the table, a matrix of stories is created. The cards take on different meanings depending on the start and end points used in the grid. Stories are read upwards, downwards and across. The book contains helpful illustrations of the two sets of Medieval Tarot cards that Calvino used to devise the stories. So far, so intriguing, but I'll come out up front and say: "Not everyone enjoyed it". There was a strong sense that Calvino's experiment was for his own rather than the reader's benefit and the narrator is functional in the way in which he interprets the cards laid down by his fellow travellers. Often the reader feels passive rather than engrossed. The book feels like a technical exercise.

The Castle of Crossed Destinies is divided into two distinct sections. In the first, Calvino sticks rigidly to the idea that each additional tale must fit perfectly into the tableau of cards on the table. As a result, some of the stories feel 'forced' and some of the group found that the interpretations Calvino places upon the cards are too convoluted. There were inexplicable historical anomalies: computers and skyscrapers mingled with knights and sorcerors. On the other hand, a couple of people found that when Calvino made imaginative use of the actual images, the results were fascinating: crossed swords become a forest of intertwined brances for example - or cups take on the appearance of a cemetery viewed from above.

Pervading it all was the sense that we were reading something formulaic....but if some of the stories felt familiar, it is because Calvino (particularly in the second half of the book) has mined folk tales, myths, classics and great literature - and this is perhaps where the 'enjoyment' factor of the book plays second fiddle to the sorts of ideas Calvino's experiment throws up: 'What makes a good story?'; 'Are there any new stories or simply a re-ordering of standard events?'; 'Why does the reader become engaged in some and not others?'

And then that leads to some even bigger questions: how important is language in conveying meaning? Is Calvino's obsession with creating a working tableau of stories bording on pyschotic? Are his travellers sane or locked in some form of madness? Do we disregard each others stories all the time and is it significant that the second half of the book is set in a tavern, where strangers convene, swap stories, dissipate and promptly forget much of the conversation?

If Calvino had made his narrator a character with which the reader could identify, and had written his stories with careful consideration of style, pace and meaning then we would not have had the same discussion about the nuts and bolts of communication and storytelling. What a conundrum - as I said, a great book group read.

Next up is Grahame Greene's Travels With My Aunt on Monday 8th August at 6:45pm. Expect characters fully in control of their powers of speech!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Ulysses Support Group Meeting:The Wandering Rocks

Everyone agrees that given the diverse nature of each of the separate sections we have read so far, restricting ourselves to reading just one section works best. And this section was chock full of activity. Here is a confluence of characters and events that can be seen as the 'centre' of the novel. Myriad characters, all encroach on each others' stories - sometimes interacting, sometimes in the background. I think everyone agreed that this section is worth re-reading, because there is such a lot going on and so many people to keep track of! Although Joyce is hamstrung by the linearity of text (we can only read one word at a time!) he has a pretty good go at recreating a snapshot of the day from multiple perspectives. Again - in terms of reading this isn't a difficult section, but there seems to be a lot going on beneath the surface. We start with Father Conmee and end with the Earl of Dudley riding through the streets in a carriage. Are these the pillars of Irish society (religion and aristocratic authority) between which all of Dublin life surges? There is more than a whiff of impropriety and sin surrounding the montages in between these opening and closing pieces: voyeurism and debt in particular. We also see Stephen confronted by guilt again, as he comes across his sister buying a French primer. There is no doubt that Stephen sees himself standing apart from the rest of his family - academia removes him from the toil of everyday survival that faces his siblings. It was also noted that thus far, women are generally represented as hard working and resourceful women - often surrounded by slightly feckless men - but often relegated to the background (misogyny?). We also revisited the idea of Bloom as the central character and the impression of him as 'an outsider' is pronounced in this section. Why does Joyce make his Odysseus a Jew? Is this a reflection of Joyce's own 'self imposed' exile status?
During the meeting, Ali managed to track down a film based on Ulysses. At two hours, we're dying to know which elements of the book feature.

We're moving on to the Sirens next, which is up to page 279 in the OUP version. Next meeting will be at The Salamander, from 6:45 on the 28th June. (Plus, we have noted how Radio 4 appear to be jumping onto our bandwagon with all sorts of Joycian fare going on!)