Paul Van Caspel's Bloomers on the Liffey is far and away the most helpful of the books reviewed here for a serious reader of Ulysses. Assuming that critics over the past half-century have often misread that novel, passed on to decades of readers their own misconceptions, and thus perpetuated incorrect interpretations of important passages, the author proceeds to examine, episode by episode, disputed segments of the text to point out which exigeses were right, which wrong, and so to present his own opinion as to Joyce's meaning. In addition, because he is a European linguist, a teacher of literature, and a translator in several languages, he is able to comment on the translations of the novel into French, German, Spanish, Italian, and other tongues as they offer clues to Joyce's meaning or simply examples of the translators' inability to cope with Joycean obscurity.
Van Caspel is much concerned with Joyce's technique of narration: the intricacies of his interior monologue, problems of dialogue presentation, and the [End Page 348] subtle switching in narration from person to person or from one time period to another. He deals also with the difficulty of spotting within a particular narrator's remarks interpolated quotations from literature or from other characters in the novel. The task is heavy.
Fortunately the author does not try to do everything in one short volume. The treatment of each of Joyce's episodes is highly selective. Usually after a brief synopsis he jumps from one chosen passage to another, skipping what is uncontroversial to focus on what has ensnared earlier critics. The result is a series of notes on the chosen passages, with the implicit awarding of gold stars to scholars or translators who have performed well, demerits for those who have not. Suzette Henke and Marilyn French are scolded severely; the Benstocks have many stars to their credit. Wisely, the commentary is restricted almost exclusively to matters of fact: when Molly uses "he" in a passage, does the pronoun refer to Bloom or Boylan or Mulvey? Very little attempt is made to discuss the handling by critics of the symbolic levels of the novel, deliberately, for there is small chance that such an ambitious book could ever be completed.
The readings are precise, careful, substantiated by internal evidence for the most part, and extremely interesting. The passages he selects are, of course, not of equal significance in Ulysses. Occasionally, therefore, he will spend a long time making a minor point, but more often the reader learns a great deal about the novel and its earlier critics.
Though Van Caspel tries to establish Joyce's patterns—to demonstrate that a thought or speech or description in one episode of the book is balanced or counterpointed by a similar one elsewhere in the novel in a significant way—there are, understandably, oversights and apparent misreadings. He quotes a section of the "Aeolus" episode in which Red Murray, in the newspaper office, tells Bloom that the paper can offer Bloom's advertiser-client a bit of free publicity:
— Of course, if he wants a par, Red Murray said earnestly, a pen behind his ear, we can do him one.
— Right, Mr. Bloom said with a nod, I'll rub that in. We.
Van Caspel surmises that the final "We" shows Bloom "ridiculing, apparently, Murray's pluralis majestatis." What the critic does not notice, or at least fails to point out, is that in the "Wandering Rocks" episode it is Stephen Dedalus whose thoughts culminate in a monosyllabic "We." In a chance encounter with his sister Duly at a bookstall, Stephen discovers that his family has...