James Joyce’s novel Ulysses is considered a touchstone of modernism, published in a watershed year that also saw the appearance of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. Despite the revolutionary nature of its narrative technique, however, it is possible to situate Joyce’s text within a nineteenth-century tradition of what Bill Overton has termed “novels of female adultery” (Overton: 1998), something Joyce is doing explicitly in his story of the cuckolded Leopold Bloom.
In my book James Joyce and the Revolt of Love: Marriage, Adultery, Desire, I argue that Joyce is intervening in early twentieth-century debates about marriage by postulating an ethical love (Utell: 2010). Using radical narrative strategies that make demands on both his protagonist and his readers, Joyce asks us to perform a Levinasian recognition of the Other, thus reimagining what it means to be intimate.
I brought my view of Ulysses as a novel about a marriage and intimate life to my work on the Reader’s Guide for Robert Berry’s comics adaptation of Joyce’s book, Ulysses “Seen”; my job was to provide accessible, lively, and informed commentary to help first-time readers engage both with the story of Ulysses and with the art of the comic. As author of the Guide for the “Calypso” episode–the fourth chapter of the novel which introduces Leopold and Molly Bloom and the difficulties of their marriage–I was able to think in new ways about how Joyce narrativizes intimacy.
To start, I was surprised at how well Ulysses lends itself to comics adaptation. A number of Joyce scholars have considered the author’s relationship to visual media. Colin MacCabe, for instance, in Futures for English, claims that Joyce’s work is “unthinkable outside a relation to cinema” (MacCabe:1988:12), given its manipulation of time, space, and voice. Joyce’s name appears alongside director Sergei Eisenstein with frequency, especially in connection with the deployment of montage and close-up, and Eisenstein himself theorized Joyce’s use of interior monologue, seeing a kinship with his own work (Burkdall: 2001; Werner: 1990; Tall: 1987). The relationship between Ulysses and cubism has also been remarked upon (Loss: 1984). But because the conventions of comics allow for representing shifts in perspective, splits in the subject, movement over time and space, and the manipulation of voice–in short, because comics allow for a high degree of narrativity–this form is a good match for Joyce’s intensely allusive and elusive text.
More specifically, I found Berry’s artistic moves, especially in his engagement with the conventions of romance comics, coupled with his representation of multiple perspectives and voices, to dramatically highlight Joyce’s deep concerns with intimacy, empathy, and the question of how we know and love. To illustrate, I’ve chosen a page from the “Calypso” episode (which may be viewed along with the Reader’s Guide here). Some context: this page depicts Bloom returning to his house at 7 Eccles Street after buying a kidney for breakfast. It is still early in the novel, and early in Bloom’s day, before he commences his wandering around Dublin in order to avoid being at home while his wife partakes in an adulterous tryst in their marital bed. The Blooms have not had sexual intercourse since the death of their infant son 11 years prior to the action of the novel, which takes place over the course of one day, June 16, 1904.
To begin, Berry created a visual vocabulary for dealing with what Hugh Kenner calls “Joyce’s voices“. In the more naturalistic early Bloom chapters of Ulysses, there are usually only two “voices” or focalized narrative perspectives, at work: Bloom’s interior monologue and the omniscient narrator. Sometimes we shift from one to the other in mid-paragraph–even mid-sentence–and so two different visual/textual styles are required. The yellow text box is the omniscient narrator, while the thought balloon is Bloom. (Here we do have one speech balloon; this is Molly, calling from off-screen. The “jingle” sound effect represents the quoits of the Blooms’ bed, a sound that lingers in Bloom’s mind throughout the day as he tries not to imagine his wife in bed with another man.)
This page depicts the moment when Bloom realizes his wife has a lover. The address to Mrs. Marion Bloom violates letterwriting etiquette of the time by erasing Bloom: she should be Mrs. Leopold Bloom. In addition, the “bold hand,” figuratively contrasted with Bloom’s hand reaching in from the upper left-hand corner of the middle panel, is both the handwriting of the paramour and the sensual hand that will be on Mrs. Bloom later in the day.
This triptych of panels generates movement and drama resonant of romance comics: the betrayed husband/hero enters his home to see it has already been violated by the presence of another man. But the splitting of the scene via gutters mirrors the splitting of Bloom’s subject. The action is drawn out, almost in slow motion, over time and space, while the character himself in that time and space is fragmented. This is echoed by other visual elements on the page. The clear delineation between text box/narrator and thought balloon/Bloom represents the protagonist’s separateness from his own experience in moments of sexual anxiety and trauma. Bloom has lost control of the story. His participation, his processing–his narrativizing of his own life–is reduced to fragmentary thoughts that he cannot quite complete.
Furthermore, we do not see Bloom’s face. Berry strategically deploys the drawing of the face throughout the episode in ways that speak back to Joyce’s own questions about intimacy and knowledge. Bloom’s face is obscured, off-screen, or turned away in all three panels. Our access to him is limited, and so is our knowledge of his emotional life, paralleling Bloom’s own limited access to intimacy and knowledge of his wife. In Levinasian terms, only through a recognition of the face–the Other–is true intimacy possible, and therefore ethical love and life. It is the work of Ulysses–and Berry’s adaptation–to show us how to get there through the complicated negotiation of perspective that reveals and conceals, shares and withholds.
Bergo, B. (2007). “Emmanuel Levinas.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/levinas/>. Accessed 7 July 2011.
Berry, R. et al. (2008-2011). Ulysses “Seen”. <http://ulyssesseen.com/>. Accessed 7 July 2011.
Burkdall, T. (2001). Joycean Frames: Film and the Fiction of James Joyce. (New York: Routledge).
Loss, A. (1984). Joyce’s Visible Art: The Work of Joyce and the Visual Arts, 1904-1922. (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press).
MacCabe, C. (1988). Futures for English. (Manchester: Manchester University Press).
Overton, B. (1998). The Novel of Female Adultery: Love and Gender in Continental European Fiction, 1830-1900. (New York: Macmillan).
Priego, E. (2011). “Ulysses “Seen”: A Chat with Robert Berry.” <http://blog.comicsgrid.com/2011/06/berry-ulysses-interview/>. Accessed 7 July 2011.
Tall, E. (1987). “Eisenstein on Joyce: Sergei Eisenstein’s Lecture on James Joyce at the State Institute of Cinematography, November 1, 1934,” James Joyce Quarterly 24, 2: 133–42.
Utell, J. (2010). James Joyce and the Revolt of Love: Marriage, Adultery, Desire. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan).
Utell, J. (2011). “Reader’s Guide: Calypso.” Ulysses “Seen.” <http://ulyssesseen.com/landing/annotations/readers-guide-iv-calypso/>. Accessed 7 July 2011.
Werner, G. (1990). “James Joyce and Sergej Eisenstein,” trans. Erik Gunnemark, James Joyce Quarterly 27, 3: 491-507.