The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Scuse me while I bite the sky

This week contained that yearly celebration of James Joyce, Bloomsday. Me, I’m gradually chewing my way through Ulysses. It’s a book I’m taking a life time to read. (I plan to live to 90, at least, and so I should be half way through. I kept rereading my favourite parts so I’m not actually sure. And I'm reading it out of order. I actually think I've read it all at some point or other...) It’s not a beach book. For that I recommend Death Wore a Smart Little Outfit by Orland Outland about a drag queen and his socialite best friend who eat bonbons, drink champagne and solve murders.

This year I’m reading one sentence from Ulysses. Here it is:

The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.

That’s enough for a whole year’s reading. It’s a priceless jewel. I turn it and turn it in my mind.

It’s the kind of image constructed from a collision. Joyce is the master of this sort of thing. This magical sentence is made of two almost ordinary sentences that have crashed into each other and fused like sperm and egg.

The tree hung with fruit.


Heaven of stars humid blue.

Well, the second one’s more of a phrase, but this is Joyce, so we don’t always need verbs in our complete thoughts.

A more conventional representation of this simile might go something like this:

Heaven is hung with stars like a tree is hung with fruit.

Isn’t that awful in comparison? Are you sure you wish Joyce were a more ordinary writer, so that Ulysses were more ‘readable’? (I know this (stars=fruit) is not quite the simile Joyce is making. But stay with me.)

The collision comes from allowing the two parts of the simile to make love. They end up with a beautiful baby, who has his mother’s eyes and his father’s nose. The collision is evident from the first (made-up) word, the sentence’s subject, “heaventree”.

Never rigid, Joyce’s other invented compound is very different: “nightblue”. For one thing, instead of being a compound noun, it’s a compound adjective, a class of word he invents. For another, it doesn’t collide together the sky and tree imagery; this one is all sky. If he were more of a systematic writer he might have had the second invented word be another compound noun made of fused sky-tree DNA. For example, this:

The heaventree hung with nightfruit.

It’s interesting; it sounds like an American poet from the 50’s, but Joyce is more generous. He is a maximalistic. He believes in piling things on. Let’s add some sensual details: tactile, “humid”; and visual, “blue”! And now, let’s expand that second collision from a single word into a phrase. The sentence now opens out from the collision, as a baby grows from the fused egg and sperm:

humid night-blue fruit

Plus it’s always good to add something sparkly, “of stars”.

In Joyce’s world, the earth and sky have made love. Let’s read it again:

The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.

Delicious! It becomes so much more than what it ‘means’. The way the simile is constructed makes the sentence about sex and possibility and imagination. It doesn’t just look at the sky, it looks at the reasons we look at the sky; it looks at the lookers. And! The fact that it’s not the stars that are hanging but the sky below the stars, that fact, which hits me cognitively long after it hits me emotionally, makes even the emptiness ripe.


Blogger Darby said...

I think slowly and over a long period of time is the only way to read Joyce. At least Uly and Finn. I read about a page a month of Finn. It's good exercise.

Wed Jun 18, 05:42:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Love your analysis, Andrew. To have your patience in taking one line apart! The Dubliners is all I can manage of Joyce. One day I'll tackle the rest.

Wed Jun 18, 09:25:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Is it okay to feel stupid now?

Tue Jun 24, 03:10:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger SeeDoubleYou said...

It's taken me about three days to get over the beauty of that line. I haven't read any Joyce, but what a perfect introduction.

Tue Jun 24, 04:14:00 pm GMT-4  

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