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: