Nothing happens while you live. The scenery changes, people come in and go out, that’s all. There are no beginnings. Days are tacked on to days without rhyme or reason, an interminable, monotonous addition. From time to time you make a semi-total: you say: I’ve been travelling for three years, I’ve been in Bouville for three years. Neither is there any end: you never leave a woman, a friend, a city in one go. And then everything looks alike: Shanghai, Moscow, Algiers, everything is the same after two weeks. There are moments—rarely—when you make a landmark, you realize that you’re going with a woman, in some messy business. The time of a flash. After that, the procession starts again, you begin to add up hours and days: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. April, May, June. 1924, 1925, 1926.—Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea1
A couple of years before the appearance of Ulysses, James Joyce and Djuna Barnes talked about the stuff that works of literature are made of. A seventy-year-old Russian baroness had given Joyce a trunk full of pornographic plates and a pile of obscene letters, hoping that he would make use of the material collected throughout many years of a roving life.
Joyce accepted the gift and listened attentively to her anecdotes. But did he take interest in the trunk? “I did not write her story,” Joyce told Barnes. “A writer should never write about the extraordinary, that is for the journalist.”2 [End Page 989]
Joyce, we know, was the connoisseur of the ordinary. He once said that a human being never reveals as much about her character as when she ties her shoes. In 1922, he went on to publish his monument to the art of shoelacing. A towering record of the quotidian, Ulysses stubbornly seeks to capture life at its most ordinary, habitual, ritualistic, tedious, banal, common, compelling.
And it does so minute by minute, hour by hour, until an entire day in the life of the three Dubliners has passed. A lot is going on in Ulysses, but nothing much happens: it’s a record of breakfasts had, walks taken, soaps purchased, newspapers read, things said, things thought, songs sung, classes taught, visits paid, ads seen, bottles drunk, sandwiches devoured, lovers received, bars frequented, coins moved, beds enjoyed. And, yes, a funeral takes place, with Leopold Bloom dutifully attending. Save for that, it’s a day like any other.
Why did Joyce think it best to leave the business of the extraordinary to the press? That Joyce’s writings beautifully embody this impulse we know, just as we know that a vast number of other modernist writers similarly pursued the ordinary. Gertrude Stein, for one, emphasized that history concerns itself with “what happens from time to time,” whereas narrative concerns itself with “what is happening all the time.”3
That which happens all the time? We don’t have to move very far back in the history of literature in order to realize how utterly strange such a position is. After centuries of literary treatments of extraordinary events, life-affecting changes of fortune, or singular courses of action (say, Werther’s suicide), serious narrative fiction sets its mind on the ordinary, producing stories where a lot may be going on but very little happens.
To Aristotle, the sheer thought would have been inconceivable. That which happens all the time? Such is not the stuff that epic is made of, much less tragedy. The idea would have been equally foreign to Virgil, Dante, Rabelais, Madame de Lafayette, and Schiller, even to nineteenth-century writers such as Stendhal, Balzac, the Brontës, and Eliot. Flaubert envisioned a novel about nothing, it’s true, but Madame Bovary most certainly would have pleased Aristotle in its attention to those emblematic strikes of fortune, sometimes good, sometimes bad: marriage, childbearing, adultery, treachery, suicide. For hundreds of years, even thousands, serious narrative fiction dealt with the extraordinary. Why is it that the modernist novel decides to stick with the unexceptional?
It’s early in the morning on June 16, 1904...