Reading Ulysses

As Paul Muldoon’s prismatic essay “Spinoza’s shillelagh” (June 17) illuminates, James Joyce’s Ulysses Represents a world of endless colour, complexity and thematic inter-relatedness (eg seeing “Homer” in Irish Home Rule, the myriad interwoven threads of Catholic, Jew, Greek, Irish, etc). As a footnote to Muldoon’s broad-ranging scholarship, touching on Frank Budgen’s comment about Joyce’s “method” of narrative “through suggestion rather than direct statement”, I would like to propose that Joyce’s approach to his creative process is a revelation truth to, and described in the novel by, Stephen Dedalus himself.

The novel opens with a famous thematic scene in Dublin’s Martello tower, with a dour Stephen (whose mother has just died) and Buck (Baruch) Mulligan, the latter performing a blasphemous “shaving” mass, during which Stephen defines Irish art as “the cracked lookingglass of a servant”. Later that morning, walking on the strand alone, Stephen thinks quietly to himself as he observes the shapes and colors of things served up in the marine detritus. He taps these with his ashplant (the shillelagh!) and, in the course of this wandering, he systemsatizes his own way of observing the world around him: “he was aware of them bodies [things] before of them [being] coloured”. In the process of cataloging – “the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: colored signs” – he defines, in his typically paradoxical way, how he will create the work: “Shut your eyes and see.”

From Mulligan’s mock-Catholic mass to Molly’s exchange of seedcake mouth to mouth with Leopold, everything is observed, reflected upon eyes closed, inter-related and created anew in this massive portrait about his life becoming a novel. Though it recounts only “one little day” in the life of Dublin, Ulysses is, as Muldoon unfolds it, a microcosmic web of humanity itself.

James Lichtenberg
Durham NC

It occurs to me after reading Paul Muldoon’s brilliant and suitably botanical take on Joyce’s Ulysses that George Steiner more than deserves a mention. Muldoon’s suggestion that Joyce deliberately chose not to allow us (as with Moses) to fully experience the Promised Land does not seem quite right to me. For me, Joyce was demanding a return to the ancient craft of reading deeply, and he is resurrecting what Steiner called, in his essay “On Difficulty” (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art CriticismVol 36, no 3, 1978), the “grid of classical and Biblical reference” that was being buried under philistine positivism and mercantile structure in the new industrial age.

Though mainly on poetry in the essay, Steiner identifies two trends in modernism – one in which the author seeks (an element of semantic privacy) and another wish with Paul Celan, understandably in which authors grammatical and “re-animatelexical and resources that have fallen out of use … and will labor to use, through distortion, through hyperbolic augment, through elision and displacement, the banal and constricting determinations of ordinary, public syntax.” Steiner does not mention Joyce specifically in this essay (though he does in the book of the same name), but he could be describing our artful Dublin exile with “aplum”.

Paul Larkin
Na Doirí Beaga, Co Dún na nGall

It is difficult to take Paul Muldoon’s far-fetched analyzes of Joyce’s Ulysses seriously when he makes such an egregious error in the simple matter of the Blooms’ breakfast. Leopold cooks the kidney for himself, not for Molly, to whom he takes bread and butter and tea with cream. The kidney he has himself, apart from the burned bit, which he gives the cat.

Stephen Barber and Mary Hoffman
Witney, Oxfordshire

Harold Gillies and plastic surgery

I disagree with Christine Slobogin’s assertion, in her review of The Facemaker by Lindsey Fitzharris (June 10), that modern plastic surgery was not a “creation on English soil”. Harold Gillies and his colleagues in the First World War tried the techniques previously described by others and found that they did not work, so had to adapt or reinvent almost all the procedures. Furthermore, the concentration of resources at the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup enabled a leap forward in collaborative working. In France and Germany, those who attempted facial remodeling worked in isolation and could not learn from the successes and mistakes of their peers. Gillies commented that some of the patients treated in France or Germany looked hideous at the outset and ridiculous at the end, and the photographs of those men he received who had been treated on the Continent bear this out. He also, rightly, described how his multidisciplinary approach laid the foundations of plastic surgery as a separate speciality.

All of this is outlined in my book Faces from the Front: Harold Gillies, the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup and the origins of modern plastic surgery (Helion Press, 2017). I have researched the work of Sir Harold Gillies for more than thirty years, having discovered the extant case files from the British Section of the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup in 1990, and recovered these with the surviving files of the New Zealand Section. As a result of my research I have been privileged to correspond with many relatives of facial injury patients, and have received over 100 accounts of what happened to men after the war.

It is a myth, perpetuated for far too long on the basis of two much-quoted individual accounts (neither from Sidcup) that men who underwent facial surgery remained depressed and were shunned by the world. This is in the main untrue. My collected accounts are testimony not only to the success of surgery and the resilience of the men, but also to the significant rehabilitative support given both to the patients and by the patients themselves to each other. This made it unnecessary to develop any self-help organization in Britain after the war along the lines of the French “Gueules Cassées” or the Second World War Guinea Pig Club.

As for the suggestion that Fitzharris should consider focusing on the patients’ stories instead of an “acclaimed white male surgeon”, of course, almost every surgeon in the early twentieth century was a white male. If we were to ignore them there would be no medical history. Almost all the patients were also white males. Of the 2,344 patients of the British Section at the Queen’s Hospital for whom any records exist, there is one Nigerian, one Indian and one Chinese, of whose postwar progress we know nothing.

Andrew Bamji
Rye, East Sussex

Cato Street

My warm thanks to Robert Poole for finding my Conspiracy on Cato Street “an enthralling classic of London history” (June 17). I wonder, however, at some of his misrepresentations of my book. He is annoyed that I don’t look at northern radicalism more closely, which may be because he’s the author of the undoubted classic in that area, Peterloo: The English uprising (2019). Yet his book dismisses the Cato Street conspiracy in London in a casual half-page and deems it unimportant. As he covers the north in 1819, may I not be allowed to cover London in 1815–20? His peevishness at my expense seems to rest on the sense that I’ve betrayed what he assumes are my origins. He tells us that the historical empathy of “a Mancunian born and bred”, who served his historical apprenticeship “counting cotton mills”, “sees to give out north of Watford”. Apparently my northern integrity has been corrupted by the contemptuous view of low life that prevails at Cambridge high tables. Actually I am no northerner born and bred. I lived my first twenty years in South Africa. And a few high tables would endorse my view of the Cato Street conspirators: I am rather on their side. It’s likewise untrue that I “take a swipe” at “miserabilist histories” of the Industrial Revolution; I have spent most of my teaching career endorsing them wholeheartedly. Nor does the book focus only “on the few weeks before the conspiracy”: a good half of it, which he omits to mention, ranges over the preceding half- century of London radicalism, and includes a chapter on Peterloo.

I did, as he notices, fail to examine the “Private and Secret” Home Office correspondence in HO 79; But the National Archives were closed for two years as I wrote the book, and the vast number of spy and trial reports I have examined serve my purpose adequately. As for the two books in the field to which I omit to refer: one mentions Cato Street in passing in a two-line footnote; the other, a novel, invents a good part of its story. Loosen up, Professor Poole. We’re on the same side, really, and there’s room for all of us.

Vic Gatrell


In her review of Abel Quentin’s Le Voyant d’Étampes (June 24), Lisa Hilton points to the opening scene in which the sexagenarian narrator asks for a particular drink. No one knows what it is. We are in Paris. Hilton explains that the drink is called Suze, “a traditional drink made from gentian root”. She continues: “Roots – what they consist of, who has the right to claim them and the concomitant claim on not only ideas, but facts – are at the heart of this book.”

That mention of Suze, especially given Lisa Hilton’s explanation, made me think of a particular photograph in WG Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001). Jacques Austerlitz is in Paris, searching for his roots. He had been brought to England on the Kindertransport, and never saw his mother or his father again. Before disappearing to almost certain extermination, his father had lived on the rue Barrault. Although no house number is given, we are told that Austerlitz visited the actual house. And here Sebald presents us with a photograph of a narrow, high building that was indeed a house situated on the rue Barrault. Given what we know about Sebald’s method, can it be pure coincidence that on the side of the building is a huge advertisement spelling out the word SUZE?

Neil Cooper
Ruskington, Lincolnshire

Hoddin gray

What a wonderful discovery is “The Prince Obsessed” by George Egerton (June 24)! Just one small point: I think “the hidden gray of the middle-class” may contain a misreading of “hodden, hoddin”, defined in the Scottish National Dictionary as “coarse homespun, undyed woollen cloth, of a grayish colour, due to a mixture of white and black wool”. At any rate it is surely a (mischievously ironic?) allusion to Robert Burns: “What though on hamely fare we dine, / Wear hoddin gray, an’ a’ that? / Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine – / A man’s a man for a’ that”.

Alan James
Gatehouse of Fleet, Galloway


We omitted to mention that the translator of The Familia Grande by Camille Kouchner, reviewed on June 3, is Adriana Hunter.

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