Joyce was good. He was a good writer. He makes me grumpy a lot, especially Ulysses, but he was good. There are at least twenty irresistible qualities to Ulysses. At or near the top of the stack, at least for me, is the way he traffics in what I call “hyperrealistic unnecessaries.”
Shakespeare was like that, too. Sprinkled all through his plays are these exchanges that are not at all essential to the plot but that “ring true” in some surprising way, causing one to turn ’em over and over in one’s mind, pleasurably.
But who, O who, had seen the mobled queen?
The “mobled” queen?
That’s good. “Mobled queen” is good.
The above is especially ticklish because Hamlet, a moment before, had sputtered in indignation at Polonius’s having interrupted the player’s speech. Suddenly, surprisingly, and delightfully, Hamlet himself interrupts—and deflates the very speech he was just defending. And then Polonius reverses himself as well!
Moreover, the fact that the whole thing turns on the word “mobled” raises the pitch well into the “exquisite” range. (The best Simpsons episodes are full of this kind of thing, as well.)
But to return to Joyce: the unnecessary bits that are just so perfect are everywhere in Ulysses. I want to unpack one of them from my favorite chapter (chapter 1), for the benefit of American readers who have absolutely no idea how traditional British money works. Here is the passage:
Haines said to her:
—Have you your bill? We had better pay her, Mulligan, hadn’t we?
Stephen filled again the three cups.
—Bill, sir? she said, halting. Well it’s seven mornings a pint at twopence is seven twos is a shilling and twopence over and these three mornings a quart at fourpence is three quarts is a shilling. That’s a shilling and one and two is two and two, sir.
Buck Mulligan sighed and, having filled his mouth with a crust thickly buttered on both sides, stretched forth his legs and began to search his trouser pockets.
—Pay up and look pleasant, Haines said to him, smiling.
Stephen filled a third cup, a spoonful of tea colouring faintly the thick rich milk. Buck Mulligan brought up a florin, twisted it round in his fingers and cried:
He passed it along the table towards the old woman, saying:
—Ask nothing more of me, sweet. All I can give you I give.
Stephen laid the coin in her uneager hand.
—We’ll owe twopence, he said.
—Time enough, sir, she said, taking the coin. Time enough. Good morning, sir.
Every little dot of that is excellent. Mulligan’s sigh. Haines’s smiling banality. The woman’s “uneager” hand. But my purpose here, this morning, is to explain the bill. Her unpunctuated rigmarole of numerical spangablasm is, for me, the crown jewel in this passage, the main reason I remember it.
But first, a little backstory. Like all other Americans with literature Ph.D.s, I have had the old British monetary system explained to me a hundred times. But the thing is hopeless. Bobs, tanners, groats, florins, crowns, guineas—there’s quite a few too many of these. Also, there is the error of thinking the pound is the basic unit. Nothing costs a pound; everything costs a shilling.
For me, the only solution was to go to coin shops and purchase actual specimens of the key items mentioned above. Graduate students of America, listen to me! Go online and buy yourself an eighteenth-century shilling. Pay whatever they want. If you simply stare at a shilling (it’s a handsome coin) for long enough, a lot of your anxieties will relax. As Isaac Watts says: “Let Induftry and Devotion join together, and you need not doubt the happy Succefs.”
But let’s revisit what Mother Grogan (or whatever her name is) says.
Well it’s seven mornings a pint at twopence is seven twos is a shilling and twopence over and these three mornings a quart at fourpence is three quarts is a shilling. That’s a shilling and one and two is two and two, sir.
Let us not make this any more complicated than it needs to be. Here are the essentials. A shilling is twelve pence. A florin is two shillings. Thus,—
(a) A pint of milk for each of seven mornings, at twopence a pint, is fourteen pence (“a shilling and twopence over”).
(b) But these three most recent mornings, they’ve had quarts of milk, which go for four pence each (naturally, since a quart is two pints). Three quarts x four pence = twelve pence, i.e., a shilling.
Having calculated (b), she adds (a) to it: [a shilling, for the quarts] + [“one and two,” i.e. a shilling and twopence, for the pints] = [“two and two,” i.e. two shillings and twopence].
Mulligan gives her a florin (= two shillings)—that’s why they still owe twopence.
Got it? You’d probably better read the last few paragraphs over again. Concentrate.
Now, obviously the reader is not supposed to follow the original any better than Mulligan does. Indeed the iggskwizzitness of the passage is bound up in the fact that this humble, uneducated woman thinks rings (for a moment anyway) around these supposedly superior young men. And she does so without aggression or victory, or anything else. She’s mainly wary of them.
Just the same, it bothered me for years, knowing that the novel’s original readers were not nearly as flummoxed as I was. I mean, you’re supposed to be bewildered, but not rendered utterly helpless.
Splendidly, the reader of the present note now understands the passage as well as anyone alive. Until forgetting sets in, your mind has achieved union, not with that of James Joyce but with that of Mother Grogan, or whatever her name was.
Gratia Domini nostri Iesu Christi cum omnibus.
Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). He is a correspondent for the Daily.