Review: ‘Ulysses in progress’

by Michael Groden (Princeton UP, 1977. 227 pp. £10.90)


Shari Benstock


Ulysses in progress offers a fascinating glimpse of Joyce’s creative method and approaches the great mosaic of Ulysses by way of the notes, drafts, typescripts, and proofs that Joyce referred to as his ‘impedimenta.’ Groden has scrupulously examined those documents that serve as a working history of Joyce’s novel, tracing a kind of Ulyssean genealogy that focusses on the genesis of ‘Aeolus’ and ‘Cyclops.’ Groden argues for a three-stage development of the novel (rather than two, as has been generally assumed) and he demonstrates—using parallel samples of the text at various stages of composition—how Joyce’s initial experimentation with the interior monologue in the early chapters was essentially abandoned during the middle stage of composition (1919-1920) in favor of a series of ‘parody styles.’ leading to the creation of new styles and ‘major’ revisions of the early episodes during the final stage (mid-1920-1922). Ulysses in progress proceeds from the thesis that Ulysses stands as palimpsest of these various stages of composition, as if Joyce had wished to include in the final product a record of each step of the creative process.


Groden is at his best when isolating the important stages of this process, recording and commenting on the changes that occur through the various levels of emendation. His contention that Joyce became almost obsessed by ‘encyclopedism’—the web of fact, motif, symbol, reference that led to the rapid expansion of the lists in ‘Cyclops’ and the embroidering of the fantasy world of ‘Circe’ or in compounding the catechism of ‘Ithaca’—is supported by evidence from pre-publication documents. Groden’s examples and careful examination of the various drafts, typescripts, and proofs, go a long way toward exploding the myth that Joyce somehow carried with him over the eight years (and twenty separate addresses in three different countries) the ornate puzzle that we know as Ulysses. He pictures a Joyce who, in the final hours before the book’s publication on 2 February 1922, was still busy weaving an even more intricate overlay onto the events of 16 June 1904.


Like the little girl in the nursery rhyme, when Groden is good he is very, very good, but . . . Alas, more than half the book contains an assessment of Joyce’s use of such (fictional) creations as ‘narrators.’ ‘omniscient narrators.’ ‘voices behind the narrator.’ and an ‘omniscient author’ in addition to the familiar one we know as ‘the Author.’ Presumably this new cast of characters is well known to most readers of Ulysses since the penchant for creating Jamesian narrators—reliable and otherwise—or Joycean ‘arrangers.’ ‘stage directors.’ and ‘authorial voices’ from another room has long been a peculiarly Joycean disease (like gout was to writers in the 18th century or tuberculosis in the 19th). I have been able to locate only one narrator in Ulysses (that is, an on-scene persona present in human form and ‘telling’ the events of the story): the ‘I’ narrator of ‘Cyclops.’ who is by profession a collector of bad debts, and who appears in ‘Circe’ bearing the appellation the ‘Nameless One.’ By everyone else’s count (with the single exception of Marilyn French who has discovered a narrator of indeterminate sex hiding under the Bloom bed and impersonating the voice of Molly Bloom), I am at least 16 narrators short of the number known to inhabit Ulysses.


Unfortunately, Joyce’s own terminology has led our assembled company far astray in its search for an answer to the narrative and stylistic complications of this novel. Joyce termed the prose of the first 9 chapters of the book an ‘initial style’ (Letters, I, 129), and the term ‘initial’ has been adopted by Groden for describing what appears to be a relatively uncomplex ‘third-person, past-tense narration and direct first-person, present-tense depiction of the characters’ thoughts’ (15), but also encompassing Joyce’s early experimentation with the interior monologue. (I suspect that the term ‘initial’ might imply that which serves to initiate, and thus has the sense of ‘beginning’ or origination rather than what it has come to mean for the critics who use it—i.e., ‘basic’ (15). Such a basic misconception as this leads Groden to assign gender to these narrators (interestingly, they are always male) and to talk about them as if they live and breathe and walk within the fabric of the novel. He says about ‘Lotus Eaters’: ‘Sometimes the narrator aligns himself with the perceptions and point of view of the character’ (15)—a statement accurate in its reading of the narrative line, but misleading in its use of the term narrator. Ulysses abounds with examples that defeat such confused terminology, but one of Groden’s own will suffice. ‘She stood still, waiting, while the man, husband, brother, like her, searched his pockets for change.’ We can assume, I think, that the woman in question knows whether the man is her husband or brother. And the ‘narrator.’ if he is capable of aligning himself with the perceptions and point of view of the character, could tell us which of the two possibilities is correct. Unless, of course, the narrator, for reasons unknown, doesn’t want to tell us what relationship exists between the man and the woman. No, this seems to be Bloom’s speculation, and the sentence shifts almost imperceptibly from a narration that appears objective, recording what is visibly happening, to subjective—taking on Bloom’s viewpoint. If this narrator were our traditional, on-scene narrator (like the ‘I’ narrator of ‘Cyclops’) he could not be aware of Bloom’s thoughts, and unless one argues that we are in this passage examining the narrator’s thought-processes as well as Bloom’s—a situation that would certainly defeat any notion of ‘initial’ style as equivalent somehow to ‘basic’—then what exists here is something very different than Groden’s terms would suggest.


There are at least four examples of this same kind of technique at work on the opening page of Ulysses. The narrative there takes on distinct changes the moment Stephen Dedalus appears on the top of the staircase. His presence, his attitude toward Mulligan, his ‘displeased and sleepy’ nature begin immediately to influence the third-person, past-tense objective narration, making it highly subjective. The same Buck Mulligan whose actions have been invoked by the traditional adverbial modifiers, ‘solemnly.’ ‘gravely.’ ‘coldly.’ ‘smartly.’ now is seen from another aspect: ‘The plump shadowed face and sullen oval jowl recalled a prelate.’ The sullen oval jowl signals Stephen’s influence on the narrative, just as husband, father indicates Bloom’s in the previous example.


Thus, the complexity of Joyce’s narrative and his developing ability to mould the fictional line in ever more subtle ways is apparent prior to the shift in technique from ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ to ‘Wandering Rocks.’ It is apparent from the first modifiers, ‘Stately plump.’ The mere fact that we have not yet come to terms with the ‘initial’ style of Ulysses and that we are still caught by an inadequate terminology (frequently used, as it is in Groden’s book, very loosely, even carelessly) indicates that there is yet a long road ahead for busy professors set on solving the ‘enigmas and puzzles’ of Ulysses. To indicate just how far we have yet to go, one only need look at the conclusions Groden draws about two of the most difficult chapters of the book, ‘Circe’ and ‘Ithaca.’ Any commentator who argues for a series of narrative personae in the early chapters will find ‘Circe’s’ method beyond the limits of his critical methodology, and he will be left to make statements that try to ‘explain away’ the confluence of thought patterns among characters, or the memories of earlier events in the day now appropriated to characters who make their first - and only - appearance in the ‘Circe’ chapter. Groden is forced to speak of the narrator of ‘Circe’ as a ‘speaker of stage directions (who, unlike the initial-style narrator, neither represents Bloom’s mind nor even accompanies his thoughts)’ (58). Worse, when we get to ‘Ithaca.’ we confront Clive Hart’s unmanned computer now in the form of a ‘narrator/ answerer’ (61).


The waters of Odysseus’ journey are wide and Michael Groden is not the only explorer who flounders in them. But to note only two more misguided, but popular, assumptions. That ‘the Stephen of Ulysses is a Telemachus searching for his father’ (26) is tendentious at best: on the literal level, Stephen seems more concerned about avoiding his own consubstantial father and little concerned about finding a replacement for him. I would argue that Stephen has hopes of achieving artistic fatherhood—a different matter altogether. ‘4:30’ on ‘Thursday’ is not ‘the moment he [Bloom] became a cuckold’ (57), if cuckoldry is the sort of fact that Molly can corroborate: the ‘act’ took place sometime later.