The Glasgow Review Issue 3

Back to list of Issues

Pulp Fiction Or, Proust and Joyce's Rhetorical Flourishes

John Coyle


It is a commonplace to observe that Ulysses and A la recherche du temps perdu are the two most important novels of the century, yet novels whose ambition and extensiveness are such as to deter the common reader, not to mention contestants in Monty Python's 'Summarise Proust' competition, who had to attempt the impossible twice, once in bathing costume and once in evening dress. This problem is resolved with reference to another cliché, that both Proust, with his souvenir involontaire, and Joyce, with the theory and practice of the epiphany, suggest that the multiplicity, weight, texture and density of experience can be contained within a moment of instantaneous revelation. In a tradition of quasi-mystical aesthetic transcendence running from Blake and Wordsworth through to the Eliot of Four Quartets and Borges' The Aleph, the madeleine and Molly Bloom's 'Yes' offer a miniature gateway to a larger world, and a rescue from textuality. By these are the novels remembered; to these are they reduced.

Another reduction is to regard them as two unsurpassable examples of the self-begetting novel. Gérard Genette has pointed out that Proust's novel may be read as the extension of a three word sentence: 'Marcel devient écrivain' . As for Ulysses, any arguments as to whether Stephen Dedalus goes home or abroad to write the novel which will become Ulysses, as the Proustian narrator's proposed novel will become A la recherche du temps perdu, are marginal to this classification. As Proust's novel insists on how it will be written and read by defining the identity and integrity of the writing subject only across the immense length of his novel, so Joyce constructs his novel and his reader, but by the opposite means: that is to say, by insisting on the split nature of the writing subject, the diversity of voices, and the absence, the non-identity of the reliable narrator, at any level. Both novels represent the movement of a fissile writing subject towards some sort of, however provisional, resolution of aesthetic enlightenment: a moment of mythic, mnemonic return, and the reception of the novels has depended largely on this stabilising notion of aesthetic form. Repetition being the essence of form, both novels depend on an elaborate system of recurrence - mythic in Joyce and nostalgic in Proust. In terms of this complicated mnemotechnic, each event becomes at once singular and typical. In this play between the individual and the archetype lies the unprecedented ambition of the two central works of modernist fiction - to contain the world in a book, or, put another way, to write a book capable of opening out to encompass the world.

The first fifty pages of A la recherche du temps perdu provide an exemplary enactment of this opening out, the movement from the self-conscious subject to the subject conscious of the world. The novel begins with the utterance of a je, for whom the search for identity involves an emancipation from the confines of habit. There is a voice, a character, alone in bed, suspended in that peculiarly receptive state between sleep and waking. One of his first reported acts is to dream that he is the subject of the book he has been reading (ALR, I, p. 3; RTP, I, p. 3) . The journey to full consciousness is described with reference to the surrounding room, in terms analogous to the situation of writing. The blind walls are as a blank page, occupied firstly by the furniture of fact (carefully differentiated from illusion), then by the projected illusions of fiction in the flickering tales of a magic lantern, and finally by the obsessive fort-da game of the drame de son coucher. Those characters, images and events which break the narrator's solitude are imposed on him from the outside world. His duty, it becomes apparent, is to define himself by reversing this imposition. And here the narrator's unease is matched by that of the reader. The negative judgements of Proust's early readers, among them André Gide and a certain M. Jacques Madeleine, should not be sneered at. It is difficult to approach these days the opening section of A la recherche in innocence, but an innocent might respond to it as to a duodecaphonic overture for an innovative, but, for all that, traditional opera. The opening pages enact the difficulties of getting started, in reading as in writing. Just when the narrative seems doomed to the circularity of repeated obsession, the madeleine episode arrives as the event which will explain and justify all according to the aesthetics of memory. It has often been remarked that without the madeleine there would be no Combray, no two ways about it, and no novel. After this episode, Proust's vision can be explored in all detail. In replacing the nocturnal drama of going to bed and the re-enacting of one's guilt by the melodrama of involuntary memory, the madeleine episode allows the narrator to escape the four walls of bedroom and consciousness and venture out into the social world. The effect of this escape is described in terms which unmistakably mimic the transition from page to world.

Et comme dans ce jeu où les Japonais s'amusent à tremper dans un bol de porcelaine rempli d'eau, de petits morceaux de papier jusque-là indistincts qui, à peine y sont-ils plongés, s'étirent, se contournent, se colorent, se différencient, deviennent des fleurs, des maisons, des personnages consistants et reconnaissables, de même maintenant toutes les fleurs de notre jardin et celles du parc de M. Swann, et les nymphéas de la Vivonne, et les bonnes gens du village et leurs petits logis et l'église et tout Combray et ses environs, tout cela qui prend forme et solidité, est sorti, ville et jardins, de ma tasse de thé.

(ALR, I, p. 46)

And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character and form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

(RTP, I, p. 51)

The above passage offers much more than a metaphor for the act of involuntary memory: it is also an allegory of the transmutation of imaginative insight into fictional creation, and of the movement from solipsism to a populated world. The words which follow lead the reader into the Combray section. The matter is still that of enclosed space, but this time the view is from without, and art is no longer a matter of projection but one of framing. The manner is stately and confident, quite in contrast to the fraught solipsism of the bedroom scene.

Combray, de loin, à dix lieues à la ronde, vu du chemin de fer quand nous y arrivions la dernière semaine avant Pâques, ce n'était qu'une église résumant la ville, la représentant, parlant d'elle et pour elle aux lointains, et, quand on approchait, tenant serrés autour de sa haute mante sombre, en plein champ, contre le vent, comme une pastoure ses brébis, les dos laineux et gris des maisons rassemblés qu'un reste des remparts du moyen âge cernait ça et là d'un trait aussi parfaitement circulaire qu'une petite ville dans un tableau de primitif.

(ALR, I, p. 48)

Combray at a distance, from a twenty-mile radius, as we used to see it from the railway when we arrived there in the week before Easter, was no more than a church epitomising the town, representing it, speaking of it and for it to the horizon, and as one drew near, gathering close about its long dark cloak, sheltering from the wind, on the open plain, as a shepherdess gathers her sheep, the woolly grey backs of its huddled houses, which the remains of its mediaeval ramparts enclosed, here and there, in an outline as scrupulously circular as that of a little town in a primitive painting.

(RTP, I, p. 51)

This, we might say is the real beginning of the novel, the beginning of the 'real' novel. In six or seven pages Proust has elicited and mimicked the surprise and relief of his reader as the novel blossoms forth to comprehend a recognisable world, and within those pages he also provides us with a metaphor for what has happened. A lump of desiccated pulp, a shrunken, warped exotic paper artefact can, treated rightly under the right circumstances, enlarge, take on shape, colour, individuality and identity, and come to represent the world. As with the pellets, so with memory, so with a book.


But for all that there's something of the precious, the coyly factitious, about the paper flower image. Virginia Woolf has some arch fun with it in Chapter Seven of Jacob's Room -

About this time a firm of merchants having dealings with the East put on the market little paper flowers which opened on touching water. As it was the custom also to use finger-bowls at the end of dinner, the new discovery was found of excellent service. In these sheltered lakes the little flowers swam and slid; surmounted smooth slipery waves, and sometimes foundered and lay like pebbles on the glass floor. Their fortunes were watched by eyes intent and lovely. It is surely a great discovery that leads to the union of hearts and foundation of homes. The paper flowers did no less. ,

- and it's put to cloying use by Jacques Prévert in 'L'école des beaux arts' . It also crops up, as do most other things, in Ulysses.

- I seen a Chinese one time, related the doughty narrator, that had little pills like putty and he put them in the water and they opened, and every pill was something different. One was a ship, another was a house, another was a flower. Cooks rats in your soup, he appetisingly added, the Chinese does.

(Ulysses, p . 725)

In Joyce's 'usylessly unreadable' novel these words are spoken by the least reliable character in the least readable chapter. In the 'Eumaeus' episode, Bloom and Stephen, taking refuge in the cabman's shelter, meet with a sailor who calls himself W. B. Murphy. The tale of the pills is only one of many tall ones he tells. Joyce told Frank Budgen that he was 'heaping all kinds of lies in to the mouth of that sailorman in Eumaeus which will make you laugh' 'Eumaeus' is difficult to read, and terrifying to write about. Narrated as if by Bloom, it carries a style of clichéd, inexpert writing so far beyond parody as to dare any rival or interpreter to copy its clumsiness, a clumsiness which comes after fifteen chapters written in 'as many styles, all apparently unknown and undiscovered by my fellow tradesmen, that [...] would be enough to upset anyone's mental balance.' The sixteenth chapter of Ulysses is written, supposedly, in an exhausted style, but out of that exhaustion comes not just a sense of incapacity but also an exalted sense of deception. From this most unlikely of chapters there emerges the likeliest of its eponyms: a sailor, a man of parts, a professional liar whose name is noman. He claims to be called Murphy, and Shakespeares, says Stephen earlier, were as common as Murphies. Among the lies that Homer's Odysseus gives Eumaeus to believe is that he is a poet. Richard Ellmann contends from this that Murphy purveys a fiction within a fiction, 'ambushing with falsisimilitude the verisimilitude that is claimed in Ulysses' . The number of the chapter is tattooed on his chest. Bloom is sixteen years older than Stephen, and the day is, of course, June 16th.

So in this most deceptive of chapters, this chapter of tall tales and false authors, the Proustian image of oriental pellets turns up. I propose to offer two explanations for this; one in bathing costume and one in evening dress.


Joyce was never averse to incorporating mundane grudges, private jokes, all sorts of personal bric-à-brac within the supposedly symbolic or mythic structure of his novels. Buck Mulligan and Privates Compton and Carr are examples of personnages à clef whose characteristics are presented, it seems, rather in order to settle some score that to contribute to the mythopoeic fabric of the novel. (A high precedent and justification for this tactic is of course given by Stephen in his reading of Hamlet.)

Now Joyce, who had little time for his contemporaries and his successors, with the partial exceptions of Flann O'Brien and Anita Loos, did read some of Proust. A notebook now in the Joyce archive of the University of Buffalo contains the following terse judgement:

Proust, analytic still life. Reader ends sentence before him

It is not impossible that Joyce might merely be echoing the standard bookchat of the day, and that a blind spot is being explained away. But it should be recalled that at the time of this remark Joyce was working on the 'Oxen of the Sun' episode, that unsurpassable exercise in sustained pastiche. Proust, who included his own pastiche of the Goncourt journal at a crucial stage of his own narrative, would surely agree that the sort of reading which such an exercise demanded would be scrupulously close, requiring simultaneously intense sympathy and intense self- conviction. We should not take Joyce's dismissal of Proust too lightly.

Both authors relaxed a great deal when they turned from creation to correspondence, so when Joyce wrote the following to Frank Budgen in October 1920 he may in his dismissal and in his self-deprecation have been retreating from the sustained act of criticism implicit in the creation of the latter sections of Ulysses.

I observe a furtive attempt to run a certain Mr Marcel Proust of here against the signatory of this letter. I have read some pages of his. I cannot see any special talent but I am a bad critic.

Of course he might just have been praising himself with faint damns.

And so a conjecture beckons. Since Joyce was writing the 'Eumaeus' episode at the time, is it not conceivable that, among the tall tales of the pseudo-Odysseus, a prolix fibber, a false author- narrator, Joyce might have slipped in his own joke on Proust, confounding that author's still-life with the hard life of dirty Dublin? One of the discernible faults of Proust's writing is that, notwithstanding the scrutiny of his descriptions of the inner and outer worlds, the vehicles of his metaphors so often depend on hearsay, hence detracting from the particularity and immediacy of the image. Particularly when the metaphor is extended, as happens when the author is parading some not-very-specialist knowledge of art, music or medicine, its creation carries the same appeal, the same risks, as that of a soufflé. Joyce collapses the paper flower image by making it hearsay, and putting it in the lying, blasphemous, racist mouth of the sailor. The text-defining exotic image then becomes just a bit of blarney, an urban myth, yet another yarn:

Cooks rats in your soup , he appetisingly added, the Chinks does.


The preceding section based its assumptions on the low comedy of Ulysses, and the lower comedy of Joyce's toying with his readers and rivals. The intrusion of unassimilable real life detail has been regretted by some critics as a subversion of Joyce's highest aims. In such a carefully plotted and schematised work, it is argued, these rogue details go far beyond the function of ancillary confirmation which the realist mode demands: they tend instead to deny the author's control over his material by focusing too much attention on the merely contingent. The proliferation of surface detail eventually renders the deep structure indecipherable.

In the 'Proteus' episode, Stephen, echoing Whitman, says 'Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.' This willing sense of the contradictory is an important element in Joyce's theory of art which, for all his sacerdotal postures, is also a theory of comedy. As the Homeric epic is at once debunked and vitalised by the story of Bloomsday, so the symbolic structure of the novel, evidence of the artist's priestlike vocation, is both mocked and made human by Joyce's insistent inclusion of the formless and ephemeral.

For all this, Joyce's comedy is always half in fun, whole in earnest; and his seriousness is always signalled by recurrence. The yarns, rumours, proffered postcards and boasts of W.B. Murphy, Ulysses Pseudangelos are all, to the serious myth-hunting reader, throwaway lines, but throwaway lines which may still be reeled back in and teased out. For the third time in the 'Wandering Rocks' episode, Bloom's discarded message from Elijah (an evangelical tract, waste paper with a big message), is seen bobbing along the Liffey:

Elijah, skiff, light crumpled throwaway, sailed eastward by flanks of ships and trawlers, amid an archipelago of corks, beyond new Wapping street past Benson's ferry, and by the threemasted schooner 'Rosevean' from Bridgewater with bricks.

(Ulysses, p . 321)

As Bloom's paper boat heads for the open sea it meets, travelling in the opposite direction, a ship first noticed by Stephen in episode three.

He turned his face over his shoulder, rere regardant. Moving through the air high spars of a threemaster, her sails brailed up on the crosstrees, homing, upstream, silently moving, a silent ship.

(Ulysses, p . 64)

Several hundred pages later Murphy claims to have been on board:

- We come up this morning eleven o'clock. The three master Rosevean from Bridgwater with bricks. I shipped to get over. Paid off this afternoon. There's my discharge. See? W.B. Murphy, A.B.S.

(Ulysses, p . 720)

This waterbridging vessel links Telemachiad with Nostos, a throwaway homing (or Homering) device which carries the builder's cargo and is crewed by the fabulous artificer Murphy/Shake- speare/Homer/Noman/Joyce. The paper flowers are themselves light, crumpled throwaways, and if they were to return in Ulysses their significance would be hard to ignore.


'Lestrygonians', the chapter of the throwaway, is much concerned with circulation; in terms of ingestion, digestion and emission. (or what Molly calls 'omission'). Chewing on the wine- moistened pith of his gorgonzola sandwich, Bloom is led by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs, scene of his consummation with Molly.

Touched his sense moistened remembered. Hidden under wild ferns on Howth ... Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed. Mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweet and sour with spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy ... Flowers her eyes were, take me, willing eyes. (Ulysses, p.224)

The Proustian echo here is obvious enough to have prompted the French translator of Ulysses to render the seedcake as 'madeleine'. Joyce, however, insisted on the more literal 'gateau au cumin'. The passing of the seedcake between their mouths signals a momentary commingling of identities (Molly's eyes become flowers) but here the memory serves only to reinforce the isolation of Bloom from his past and from Molly: 'Me. And me now' (ibid.) It is the final section of Molly Bloom's monologue which carries the burden of revelation. Just as in Proust's epiphany, Molly's final lines are lyrical, climactic, flower-laden.

I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

(Ulysses, p . 933)

Ellmann remarks that 'she seems to burst the confines of her present situation and fly from her jingly bed to a time which is beyond present time and a place which is beyond present place.'

As does Proust's hero. The end of Molly's soliloquy is affirmative, efflorescent, transcendent; conferring retrospective unity in a precisely Proustian manner. But, as in Proust's novel, much of the preceding monologue turns, entertainingly but for all that frustratingly, on the dramas of going to bed. The movement out of the cycle of obsession into the world of recurrence and cyclical memory only begins two pages from the end, at the moment when Molly tries to get to sleep.

A quarter after what an unearthly hour I suppose they're just getting up in China now combing out their pigtails for the day well soon have the nuns ringing the angelus they've nobody coming in to spoil their sleep except an odd priest or two for his night office or the alarmclock next door at cockshout clattering the brains out of itself let me see if I can doze off 12345...

(Ulysses, p . 930)

Molly fails to doze off. She stirs herself with a sudden thought:

what kind of flowers are those they invented like the stars the wallpaper in Lombard street was much nicer

(Ulysses, p . 930)

That 'they' could refer to many antecedents, but the most convincing one would have to be 'the people getting up in China'. We do not know what kind of flowers 'they' did invent but they are associated with the wallpaper in the surrounding room and with the memory of previous rooms.

Joyce's ideal reader, he famously said, would be an ideal insomniac who would be willing to spend a lifetime studying his works. Such an insomniac might be excused for spending his time wondering whether or not these flowers are those mentioned in 'Eumaeus': the paper flowers of Proust.


This may well be the sought-for signal recurrence, even if such pat, formal finalities are discouraged in Ulysses, or rather, put in their place beneath the vitality of language. Whoever invented whatever flowers, Molly's soliloquy goes on, opening out into a rhapsodic celebration of the natural world.

'I love flowers Id love to have the whole place swimming in roses God in heaven There's nothing like nature the wild mountains then the sea and the waves rushing then the beautiful country with the fields of oats and what and all kinds of things and all the fine cattle going about that would do your heart good to see rivers and lakes and flowers all sorts of shapes and smells and colours springing up even out of the ditches primroses and violets nature it is as for them saying there's no God I wouldn't give a snap of my two fingers for all their learning why don't they go and create something...'

(Ulysses, p 9 31)

In the letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver quoted above Joyce goes on to insist that 'the last word, (human, all too human) is left to Penelope.' Molly then is proposed to have offered a transcendence of the art/nature opposition by her assertion of nature as the greater art.

The world outside the room is gestured at by the rhetoric of conclusion, the governing trope of which is the camera obscura -literally the dark room into which the world outside is admitted, introjected, scaled down and controlled. The point of light at which the outside is mirrored is figured in both novels by paper, thus (re)presenting the text at its most material as - at once - window, mirror, and lamp. In this way, as Paul de Man has pointed out, the thematic polarities of inside/outside dark/light and imagination/reality are subject to a system of relays, substitutions, exchanges and crossings that appear to reconcile the incompatibilities of the inner with the outer world. Alert to these incompatibilities, Joyce for once spoke in envy of Proust:

'Proust can write; he has a comfortable room at the Étoile, floored with cork and with cork on the walls to keep it quiet. And I, writing in this place, with people coming in and out'

Joyce's own room in Paris was not cork-lined, but hung on its wall was a picture of Cork, framed in cork. On the level of signification, this elides the difference between inner and outer, frame and content By doing so, it anticipates one last, Derridean cliché:'Il n'y a pas de hors-texte.'.

Such tricksy elisions offer an escape from the foregoing dramas of desire and differentiation (Marcel and Mother, Bloom and Molly, Marcelle Proyce et James Joust ) - but this closure and this escape is achieved at the price of an accession to the transcendental. If the climactic moments of A la recherche and Ulysses are offered as and taken for moments of Postromantic resolution and transcendence, then that closure owes its rhetorical force to the totalising metaphor, or conjuring trick, figured in the paper flowers. The last word in this instance is left to Virginia Woolf, Bloomsbury providing satiric opposition to an aestheticising move that would turn Bloomsday into Ascension Day:

It is surely a great discovery that leads to the union of hearts and foundation of homes. The paper flowers did no less.


Genette, Gérard, 'Discours du récit' in Figures III.(Paris, Seuil, 1972), p. 75
All references are to Marcel Proust, A la recherche du temps perdu, (Paris, Bibliothèque de La Pléiade, 1980), and the English translation, Remembrance of Things Past, trans. C. K. Scott- Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1981), indicated in my text as ALR and RTP.
Virginia Woolf, Jacob's Room, (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1965 ) p. 78
Jacques Prévert, Paroles (Paris, Folio, 1975) p . 116
All references are to James Joyce, Ulysses: Annotated Students Edition, with an introduction and notes by Declan Kiberd, (Harmondsworth, Penguin,1992). This edition reverts to the 1960 Random House/ Bodley Head text and pagination.
James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (London, Faber and Faber, 1975) p. 179
Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses, (Oxford University Press, 1972) p. 258
Letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver, Selected Letters of James Joyce, (London, Faber and Faber, 1975) p. 281
Richard Ellmann, Ulysses on the Liffey, (London, Faber and Faber, 1984, p. 155
Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (Second Edition, Oxford University Press) p. 509. Notebook at SUNY Buffalo.
Ellmann, Ibid.
Given that Finnegans Wake was described as 'the apotheosis of the crossword puzzle, it might be pertinent, or at least amusing, to mention that 'cooks rats in soup' cryptically invokes the anagram 'As Proust'
Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 506.
Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading, (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1979) pp. 62-3.
Ellmann, James Joyce, p.509 and note, p. 790.
Ibid.. p. 508
Virginia Woolf, Jacob's Room, (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1965 ) p. 78