Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 24, 2009

Ulysses, by James Joyce (disordered thoughts of an amateur #11)


Chapter 11: Sirens

Well, as you can see from the book cover, I’m reading my new copy of Ulysses now because the old one finally fell apart.  I miss the other one with its yellowing pages and fading pencil marks from my university days, but this one has a splendid introduction (which I haven’t yet read) and a copy of Stuart Gilbert’s chart showing the schema for the novel. 

The chart confirms some of my guesses about chapter 11, and confused me with some of the others.  It tells me, for example, that the scene is the concert room.  This puzzled me because I thought it was in a pub, and I assumed that Gilbert was referring to some sort of music hall where Molly performs – except that she’s not actually present in this chapter.  Fortunately Carlin and Evans came to the rescue with more helpful detail – because Sirens is set in the Concert Room saloon at The Ormond Hotel, Ormond Quay.  Ah. 

I also thought that the colours of this chapter might have been gold and bronze, from the barmaids’ hair, but Mr Gilbert doesn’t say so – and neither do Carlin and Evans.

The Sirens, in Homer’s Ulysses, are a bewitching lot of damsels whose wondrous song lures the unwitting sailor to his death on the rocks. (I can’t remember why they wanted to do this as it seems a bit pointless to me).  Anyway, Ulysses stops up the ears of his crew with wax so that they can’t hear the Sirens’ song, and he gets them to lash him to the mast so that he gets to hear it but can’t fling himself into the water.  So, the themes of this chapter are going to be irresistible music and seductive wenches, and that indeed is what it turns out to be.  But that’s not all…

Yes, the organ is the ear; and yes, the art is music, but hey, it turns out that the narrative style is fuga per canonem.  Missed that one, and Penguin, unlike the ever helpful Carlin and Evans don’t include a handy translation for the musically challenged. C&E spell it fuga per canone (and my Latin is way too rusty for me to know which is right) and it means a fugue according to rule.  So were I to deconstruct the chapter I might find that it conforms to a strict pattern somewhat like this:

A fugue opens with one main theme, the subject, which then sounds successively in each voice in imitation; when each voice has entered, the exposition is complete; this is occasionally followed by a connecting passage, or episode, developed from previously heard material; further “entries” of the subject then are heard in related keys. Episodes (if applicable) and entries are usually alternated until the “final entry” of the subject, by which point the music has returned to the opening key, or tonic, which is often followed by closing material, the coda. (Wikipedia)

(BTW I can’t resist adding a link here to my post about Brian Castro’s The Bath Fugues which plays with the same musical structure for his entire novel.  If you like James Joyce you will love this witty and erudite Aussie author.)

Well, Sirens certainly begins with a theme (aptly, flirtation/seduction) and voices there certainly are: it really is just like a pub where snatches of conversation ebb and flow and an eavesdropper can hear contrapuntal leitmotifs all over the place, especially as the drinkers start repeating themselves when they’ve had a Guinness too many. The chapter begins with pert barmaids watching the ‘viceregal hoofs go by’ (p331) as they pick the chipped varnish off their nails and titter at their patrons; they are a bit ‘up themselves’ as we say in Australia, Miss Douce the ‘haughty bronze’  threatening to ‘complain to Mrs de Massey if I hear any more … impertinent insolence’ (p352) as if her own vulgarity had not prompted ‘loud boots’ unmannerly’ interest.  They’re quite nasty about Bloom, Miss Douce claiming that he took a lecherous interest in her when she was in Boyds getting something for her sunburn and he was buying soap for Molly’s bath.  (I can’t find anything in The Lotus Eaters that places her there at the same time as Bloom, but maybe I missed it?)

Anyway Miss Kennedy (the golden blonde) calls him a ‘hideous old wretch’  and the pair of them repeatedly shriek over his ‘goggle eye’ (p333) ‘his bit of beard’ and his ‘greasy nose’ (p334):

In a giggling peal young goldbronze voices blended, Douce with Kennedy your other eye.  They threw young heads back, bronze gigglegold, to let freefly their laughter, screaming, your other, signals to each otherm, high piercing notes. (p334)

In comes Simon Dedalus, and he’s picking chips off his rocky thumbnails too (p335). Miss Douce flashes her sunburnt bare arm at him, and Lenehan enters as Bloom crosses Essex Bridge on his way to buy paper (two sheets cream vellum paper one reserve two envelopes, p339) .  Yes, he’s flirting too, in a sterile middle-aged kind of way, getting organised to write his reply to Martha, and eyeing off a ‘swaying mermaid’ on a poster (p339).  Alas his fantasies are interrupted by a glimpse of Boylan’s ‘gay hat riding on a jauntingcar’ (p339).  This makes three times he’s seen the man in the one day, and this time he decides to follow him.  (Well, three is always such a decisive number in literature, eh?)

(BTW, lest like me you are imagining Boylan in a sexy cream and black open tourer do visit Joyce Images to discover that a jaunting car is not a motor vehicle at all. Scroll down about half way to see one.)

Before long there’s to be a singalong at the piano, which has just been tuned by the blind stripling from Lestrygonians.  (It used to be common for the blind to be steered into piano tuning as a career; these days education systems are much better at offering more diverse opportunities).  Anyway, if you’ve ever had your piano tuned, you’ll appreciate the brilliance of this description:

From the saloon a call came, long in dying. That was a tuningfork the tuner had that he forgot that he now struck.  A call again.  That he now poised that it now throbbed.  You hear? It throbbed, pure, purer, softly and softlier, its buzzing prongs.  Longer in dying call. (p340)

I’m intrigued to read that ‘Blazes Boylan’s smart tan shoes creaked on the barfloor where he strode’. (p340) Now where have I heard that shoes not paid for will squeak as you walk in them?  Is it Irish folklore? Is Blazes not quite as flash as he appears to be?? He meets up with Lenehan, and Bloom comes in too, along with Richie Goulding and his legal bag.  (Who’s Richie Goulding, where did he spring from??)   Those sexy young minxes outsmile each other at Blazes, Miss Douce ‘preening for him her richer hair, a bosom and a rose’ (p341) and ‘reached high to take a flagon, stretching her satin arm, her bust, that all but burst, so high’ (p341).  When Miss Kennedy isn’t looking, she:

‘nipped a peak of skirt above her knee. Delayed. Taunted them still, bending, suspending, with wilful eyes.

- Sonnez! [-Ring!]

Smack. She let free sudden in rebound her nipped elastic garter smackwarm against her smackable woman’s warmhosed thigh. (p343)

Well, ok, it’s a bit tame by today’s raunch culture standards, but it was pretty salacious back in 1904!

Boylan leaves suddenly, leaving Lenehan to gulp his drink down in order to follow him.  Ben Dollard and Father Cowley come in, and the singalong ensues.  The men flirt and tell crude stories while Bloom and Richie Goulding eat their meal, ‘married in silence’. (p347)  Things begin to repeat themselves so we must be beyond the exposition now and into ‘further “entries” of the subject  in related keys’:  Bloom eating liver; the piano playing; more songs; the jingling of Boylan’s car ‘jiggle jingle jaunty jaunty’ (p349); his ‘smart tan shoes creaking’ (p356)  and Bloom thinking of Molly.  Improvisation on the piano (p359) mirrors what’s happening in the text: Bloom says he’s answering an ad when in fact he’s writing to Martha (p361).

More singing, lots of references to different kinds of music, and Bloom thinks about Rudy too, and how he failed Molly (p367).  Then he takes leave of Goulding and away ‘up the quay went Lionelleopold, naughty Henry with letter for Mady’ (p372). The stripling taps his way along the street, having left his tuning fork behind, and Bloom meets a prostitute that he knows but he’s not interested: ‘too dear too near to home sweet home’ and ‘she looks a fright by day’. (p375)

PS 25.Jan 2010 Thanks to Jo L at Twentieth Century Fiction for explaining who Goulding is – he’s Simon Dedalus’s brother-in-law by marriage, from Episode 3 (Proteus) and is the one that Stephen calls “nuncle.”

Jo also shared some information about Joyce’s singing ability. According to Brenda Maddox’s biography “Nora”, Joyce appeared at a concert on August 27, 1904 at the Antient Concert Rooms in Dublin. Another singer on the same program was John McCormack. The reviews in the Freeman’s Journal said that Joyce had a sweet tenor voice although he strained at some of the high notes.

Page references are to my new copy of the Penguin Classics Ulysses (2000), ISBN 9780141182803, $15.95 from Book Street Books in Hampton.  (And what a search it was to find it: 5 bookshops without a copy, and only one of them had the grace to be apologetic!)

Links to my disordered thoughts for other chapters are below. NB Page references to anything before Chapter 11 are to my 1979 Penguin, and after that are to my Penguin 2000 reprint.

  • Intro  
  • Chapters 1,2,3  (Telemachus, Nestor, Proteus)
  • Chapter 4   (Calypso)
  • Chapter 5   (The Lotus Eaters)
  • Chapter 6   (Hades)
  • Chapter 7   (Aeolus)
  • Chapter 8   (Lestrygonians)
  • Chapter 9    (Scylla and Charybdis) 
  • Chapter 10  (Wandering Rocks) 
  • Chapter 11  (Sirens)
  • Chapter 12  (Cyclops)
  • Chapter 13   (Nausicaa)
  • Chapter 14   (Oxen of the Sun)
  • Chapter 15   (Circe)
  • Chapter 16   (Eumaeus)
  • Chapter 17   (Ithaca)
  • Chapter 18   (Penelope)

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