“Stately, plump”: the first line of ULYSSES

“Stately, plump”: the first line of Ulysses
by M. Thomas Gammarino

(author of the novel BIG IN JAPAN: A GHOST STORY)

First a caveat:

Ulysses is my favorite novel. I’d just as soon it be something else—I dislike bandwagons as much as the next serious reader—but Ulysses, which routinely tops the best-novel-ever lists, happens to be the one book which has most provoked and inspired me, and it’s one of very few novels I intend to reread regularly until I die. By way of evidence, I’ll cite the pilgrimage I made a few years back to the Martello Tower so that I could better feel the first chapter. And I might mention also that my own first novel, Big in Japan, pays homage to Ulysses throughout.

Now for a bit of sacrilege (and I can’t help appreciating the irony that by 2010, interrogating a line of Ulysses, that most heretical of books, should itself have acquired the feel of heresy):

I’ve been thinking about first lines a lot lately, and I’m pretty sure I find the first line of Ulysses to be just okay. Here it is: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

Now there’s nothing wrong with the line. It’s perfectly serviceable. Joyce wonks like me are fond of pointing out that “Stately” contains the novel’s final word (“Yes”) in reverse, lending the novel a nifty quasi-palindromic quality. And the densely packed images of the bowl, the mirror, the razor, and the cross each accrete layers of symbolic meaning as the novel progresses. Still, it’s not the sort of first line which, as a line, burns into the reader’s brain in the manner of “Call me Ishmael” or even “A screaming comes across the sky.” The American Book Review recently compiled a list of “100 Best First Lines From Novels.” All the usual suspects are there, including Ulysses, but it seems to me that certain of their selections are simply nods to great books rather than to individual lines. “I am an invisible man,” for instance, from Ellison’s novel of that name. The novel’s a masterpiece, but is the line really so wonderful? I suppose, if we’re taking context out of the picture, we might have to nix Ishmael too—if we want a pure list of this kind, then I say we do it. By contrast, a line like the one that begins Michael Chabon’s “Werewolves in Their Youth” is pretty darned interesting in its own right (and I’ve never even read the story): “I had known him as a bulldozer, as a samurai, as an android programmed to kill, as Plastic Man and Titanium Man and Matter-Eater Lad, as a Peterbilt truck, and even, for a week, as the Mackinac Bridge, but it was as a werewolf that Timothy Stokes finally went too far.”

And here are a few others not on the ABR list that I’m fond of for reasons both obvious and ineffable:

Where’s Pa going with that ax? (E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web)

Back in the time of which I am speaking, due to our Coordinators had mandated us, we had all seen that educational video of It’s Yours to Do With What You Like! in which teens like ourselfs speak on the healthy benefits of getting off by oneself and doing what one feels like in terms of self-touching, which what we learned from that video was, there is nothing wrong with self- touching, because love is a mystery but the mechanics of love need not be, so go off alone, see what is up, with you and your relation to your own gonads, and the main thing is, just have fun, feeling no shame! (George Saunders, Jon)
Hellfire hallelujah and halitosis. Mike Schmidt sits to pee. (Shawn McBride, Green Grass Grace)

Are these culled from great works? Does it matter?

If Joyce’s line about Mulligan is great, it is so only in retrospect, on subsequent reads, once we’ve internalized the whole needleworked gestalt of the novel. What it gives us, in effect, is a Falstaffian foil against which young Daedelus’s values must out. Toward the end of Portrait, Stephen declares, with what I take to be utter solemnity both on Stephen’s part and in the rhetoric of the book, that he will become a “priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.” Buck Mulligan, whose stateliness is undermined by his plumpness (when I first learned of Ulysses “Seen”, I went right to the first frame to see how they handled that near-paradox—they did so admirably, though for some time now I’ve pictured Mulligan as a kind of Irish Jack Black, associatively perhaps since it’s a black mass he’s in the midst of performing as the novel opens), sends up not only Roman Catholicism, which might be fine by Stephen, but the religious impulse itself, the quest for transcendence that remains integral to Stephen’s quest as an artist. And then we have those charged symbols, adumbrating those thru-lines of narcissism and masochism, and perhaps even those two dialectical functions of art itself, the mimetic and the ironic, the reflective and the cutting, the stately and the plump. I could go on in this vein and usually do.

What I don’t often say is that the line has little of the musicality of the nursery rhyme that opens A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (number 17 on the ABR list: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo), little of the bravura of Finnegans Wake’s famous media res (number 7 on the list: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”), little even of the limpid multi-dimensionality of Dubliners’ “There was no hope for him this time…” (didn’t make the list).

But here’s the rub:

There’s a kind of informal fallacy built into a list like this. The truth is, great works of literature don’t need great first lines so much as they need good ones. I mean, we could do this with titles too, could we not? How do we suppose Ulysses would fare? Boring, esoteric. How about 1984? Vague. Crime and Punishment? Gassy. Moby Dick? Who? Decontextualized lists of this sort, while oodles of fun to compile, inevitably privilege flashiness and self-consciousness, but how many masterful novels begin with modest enough lines that serve foremost to drop us into the world of the book, not to make us stop and admire them? Would you judge a symphony by its first bar? Not if you like symphonies.

So what am I trying to say then? Maybe just this: the opening of Ulysses is not a particularly great line. It is, merely, a perfect one.

You can find M. Thomas Gammarino’s novel BIG IN JAPAN: A GHOST STORY in bookstores or online at Chin Music Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble.com, and the web sites of other online booksellers.


6 thoughts on ““Stately, plump”: the first line of ULYSSES

  1. I, too, visited the Martello Tower back in the 80s, and followed some of Bloom’s steps around Dublin, but not on Bloomsday, alas.

    As for first lines, I agree that it’s context that makes “Stately, plump…” what it is.

    I’d dare say that the most powerful first line as a first line I know of is this:

    “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

    That blew me away when I first read it.

    And, if I can toss out another, which, perhaps, Joyceans haven’t read, it’s this:

    “The man in black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.”

    If you’ve read the entire series that first line comes from you’ll understand why it’s so powerful…

  2. I had the same thought this morning, beginning my annual reread. I was disappointed that neither of my two favorites made the list: “The scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera, and, “Midway through our lives journey I awoke in a dark forest to find the right path had been lost.” Dante’s Inferno.

  3. Wonderful article Tom. Pynchon and Melville in one breath.

    I’m one of the guilty who never gets around to reading those best/greatest list-makers. As far as most powerful first lines go, there’s one I can quote effortlessly. In high school, the line that served as a kind of gateway drug into the wild, initiated world of Gunter Grass, Beckett, Faulkner and eventually Joyce:

    “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

  4. Many passages reveal hidden meaning when spoken aloud in Irish dialect. For example the “u” in Buck is pronounced in a way that makes the first three words self-descriptive of Ulysses, i.e. “Stately, plump book.”

  5. As to favorite first lines, I’m fond of William Gibson’s Neuromancer which begins, “The sky was the color of a television tuned to a dead channel.”

  6. There’s more to the word “stately” than just the containment of the word “yes.” TAT could be construed as an image of the crucifixion – Alpha (I am the Alpha and Omega) between two crosses. And the “el” that remains is the Hebrew word for Yahweh or God the father. So you have the father and the son (Bloom and Stephen by implication), and “yes,” the final word of the book (Molly by association – is she the holy spirit?) – all contained in the first word of the book. Joyce was a genius.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *