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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

Sally and Molly

Dark days for fathers: “Lord’s Prayer opening may be ‘problematic’….Archbishop of York tells General Synod, ‘Our Father’ has patriarchal connotations.” (7.7.23) Will it have to go, the only prayer some of us boys and girls ever got by heart? Just as unsettling, Sally Rooney is splitting from Molly Bloom.

One thing at a time. Sally Rooney is an Irish novelist in the midst of a flourishing career. Molly Bloom is a character in Ulysses by James Joyce, the 1922 novel that has left subsequent Irish writers frozen in admiration. Molly spills her inner thoughts over the final pages of Joyce’s masterwork. Sally squared up to Molly and the book in a lecture in October at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. She was as diffident as demanded by the site and occasion, a Ulysses centenary celebration. But she objected to Molly’s carry-on.

Let’s be clear. Sally isn’t part of that phalanx of gender warriors whose enemy number-one is appropriation. She doesn’t claim that black writers shouldn’t invent white characters, that child storytellers mustn’t conjure grownups, or fantasists tell us about individuals they have never been formally introduced to. Or vice-versa. Sally as a novelist knows that such restrictions would throttle art altogether and has filled her novels with men as well as women.

What riles Sally is the kind of woman Joyce has made of Molly by doing her thinking for her. Sally is right to pay no attention to Joyce’s whimsy about Molly somehow getting the upper hand and writing her own lines. Sally, being an author, has no doubt that authors are always the culprits.

Instead, Sally invokes a history of the novel form—the genre—that makes Joyce’s unsatisfactory creation of Molly inevitable. Her lecture explains that the novel came into being in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, “tales of seduction and sexual intrigue” and the “romantic lives” of characters. They were “prominently written by women.” Then came Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding imposing a male vision on the novel and whom ever since have been hailed as its pioneers. Which says Sally, is to ignore its true originators, Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley and Eliza Haywood.

Never mind the obvious demurral that for want of means the female inventors of the novel couldn’t sustain interest in their material and stronger writers appeared able to impose other subject matter. Simply ask yourself if you would rather read Robinson Crusoe, Pamela and The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling or the works of Haywood, Manley and Behn.

Sally’s history of the novel reaches a crucial stage at the beginning of the 19th Century with Jane Austen. Austen would set up nuptials between Aphra Behn’s darling Astrea and the unreliable young Jones—between early “amatory fiction” and that of the male swashbucklers that followed. Since Austen, says Sally, “the stakes of the English-language novel are love and marriage.”

“Austen made of the English-language novel not so much a psychological form as a relational form, its plots provided solely by developments in the relationships between its protagonists…the most narratively consequential form of relationship is marriage.”

Sally manages to see this operating in Ulysses that she is celebrating and that no Irish novelist can get away with nay-saying. Joyce’s book is “a purely relational novel” à la Austen, about “love and marriage” which “is precisely what is really at stake for Bloom, Stephen and Molly on June 16, 1904.”

“As a reader,” she goes on, “I find the book extraordinarily moving: I care very deeply about Molly’s relationship with Bloom, Bloom’s relationship with Stephen, what they say and don’t say and can’t say to one another.”

Sally’s sleight of hand has been to reduce Ulysses to the kind of novel she herself has been writing since 2017. She cuts the giant down to her stature. The big beast is a “relational novel.” Moreover, she agrees with Anne Enright that despite all the words bandied about in it, “nothing much happens in Ulysses.” Here we reel in shock. The classic objection by those who find it too ‘difficult’ a novel is that too much happens. The relationships that move Sally are indeed present and pitter-patter like raindrops throughout, but only as one note in the great storm of the book.

Language, of course, never stops happening in Ulysses. It keeps exploding in the reader’s mind like cluster bombs. At the same time, the dramatically different sections of the novel move like tectonic plates making a show of their disharmony while nevertheless coming together daringly in one work of art. Perspective is ever shifting, point of view furnishing a hotbed of action. We watch what is happening from ever changing, variously owned pairs of eyes and even from a Godlike third-person. All this is action. The switches in the style of English meanwhile march through centuries. History is unfolding in a forward movement, a display of years. And all the while, the founding tale of Western literature is being reenacted in parody.

Sally says that “…the stakes of the Greek epic are war and peace, and the stakes of the Renaissance tragedy are life and death,” but in Ulysses “the fate of nations is not involved; we never imagine for a minute that any lethal disaster lurks in store for the characters.”

But such is only true if we see the actions of characters in a novel—its happening—in the simple, straightforward ‘realism’ whose limits Sally works within in her own novels. It’s obvious that Joyce doesn’t accept these limits any more than the writers of Greek epics or Renaissance tragedies did.

What Sally takes for a salad of words and concepts in the Nighttown section of Ulysses are in fact lived events. Her puzzling over whether they are hallucinations is naive. She is trying to relate them to her own tidy ‘realism’. The whole Nighttown episode is a fantasy-construct. It no more respects the ‘realist’ limits of her novels than does Alice in Wonderland. Yet no one would deny that Alice’s adventures with the Queen of Hearts, the Caterpillar or even the Cheshire Cat, are events, actions, happening in the world of the story.

Leopold ‘Poldy’ Bloom’s adventure in Nighttown is a rerun of his life till then. He situates himself vis-a-vis his dead parents, garnering regrets and guilt. His chronic submissiveness and cuckoldry are revisited, his androgynous side illustrated along with his grief for the death of his son Rudy. The lurid, cartoonish nature of the representation doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Though the Mock Turtle accompanies it with a song of pure nonsense, the Lobster Quadrille is still being truly danced for Alice.

Stephen in the Nighttown pages relives the key moments of his young life. His Paris stay is recalled, always luridly. His dead mother appears and she and her son repeat their bitter dispute over religion. Stephen is roused to violent action. He reaffirms his non serviam, shoulders his load of guilt and, aiming a blow at the chandelier, flees in retreat. It’s strange that Sally considers this not ‘really’ happening, whereas Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet’s courting manoeuvres in Pride and Prejudice strike her as rock-hard real.

Ulysses is full of situations where two viewpoints struggle in something like a debate. In the Nestor episode, for instance, Stephen holds to the idea that history is cyclic, recurring over and over: “History,” he says “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Mr. Deasy, the Headmaster, for his part, believes everything—history—is moving toward “…one great goal, the manifestation of God.” The laying out of both sides of the question in talk, to and fro, is nothing less than action.

In the episode called Cyclops, Bloom become involved in a running argument with a thuggish Irish nationalist called the Citizen. The two divide neatly on the issues of anti-Semitism, xenophobia, capital punishment, homophobia, kindness to animals, British imperialism, and Christ’s Jewishness. We are far from Sally’s “relational” threesome here and in full action. So much so that Bloom has to dodge the Citizen’s shillelagh and flee on a coach that is pursued by the Citizen’s dog.

Sally’s history of the novel form saw Jane Austen’s synthesis as not ridding it entirely of male dominance. Ulysses may have become “relational” and cozy like Austen’s stories of “love and marriage,” but:

“From the novel’s opening, we move through a vast array of all-male settings:…Men access and use these spaces as free agents, browsing, making purchases, eating, drinking, wandering, while women are either present as workers or not present at all.”

Molly Bloom's statue in Gibraltar

While this is quite acceptable as a cri de coeur against millennia of patriarchy, it doesn’t amount to much as literary criticism. It leads directly to Sally’s dissatisfaction with Molly, a character that issued inevitably from a male imagination:

“[W]omen give birth and men write books. Women are physical, natural, sensuous, erotic; men are cerebral, cultured, rational, intellectual. Women represent the body, men the mind.…Molly Bloom, on the other hand, is pretty much always in bed, and rarely alone.”

Earlier in her lecture, Sally has hinted at a way out of the trap of her analysis:

“Each reader, of course, encounters their own Ulysses: the one they create for themselves in the act of reading. Every reading of the novel yields a new text, one that has been pulled this way and that by the attention and inattention, the knowledge and ignorance, the likes and dislikes of the particular reader.”

Toward the finish, she admits:

“Okay, okay, you might be thinking. James Joyce is the successor of Jane Austen, really? Ulysses is an updated version of the marriage plot? That’s enough misreading for today, thank you….I don’t really mean to convince you this evening that Ulysses is a feminist novel; I don’t know whether I believe that it is, or even what that might mean.”

Which brings relief. It was disconcerting to see Sally Rooney lock the English novel up for a moment in marriage bonds, and women along with it, at precisely a time when both institutions—the novel and marriage—are losing ground and fatherhood is being consider overstepping. So it is consoling to be told at lecture’s end, that she didn’t really—entirely—mean it.

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