Blue is the Warmest Colour

I balked at watching the 3 hour film – the original comic looked far more manageable. It also turned out to be impressively put together. Julie Maroh studied comic art at university and self-published three comics before getting to Blue is the Warmest Colour, and it shows. Her artwork is most impressive when it plays with focus – lines becoming increasingly blurry further in the background, which creates amazing immersive crowd panels (at the demonstration, the bar, the house-party). And it accentuates a great effect when Emma's distinctive blue hair is gradually revealed and then gradually swallowed up by the crush of monochrome people.

There is also a good deal of attention payed to page construction. Individual pages frequently balance each other – the last panel echoing the first and compositionally underlining the change (in plot or character) that has occurred across the page. There are also some clever effects playing with panel borders and panel shapes, speech bubbles and captions.

Interest in the comics form extends to the title and theme. Blue is traditionally perceived as a cold colour (an association perhaps encouraged by the way we experience natural phenomena like rivers, lakes or the sea). At the beginning of the book, the narrator Clementine redefines it as warm – a personal association based on her own unique experience (of her infatuation with her blue-haired lover). This calls back to the theme of the book: that love isn't a universal, fixed (Platonic) ideal, but shaped by the individual. The closing lines of the book are a tad saccharine, but they are about something: "love may not be eternal but it can make us eternal". The book puts the people before the idea – for Clem and Emma blue is the warmest colour even if most of us tend to see it as cold. As Emma gazes into the sea at the end (a liminal setting if ever there was one, and perhaps indicating the threshold at which she becomes a true artist), we see her redefining it with her own memories and associations – suffusing it with warmth, as Clem had done.


Ulysses Episodes Ranked

Taking inspiration partly from this brillant ILX post, although my list is of favourite chapters rather than easiest. Rankings reflect the fact that I still find Stephen (Joyce's avatar) more fascinating than Bloom. Bearing in mind that Ulysses is a sequel to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, my preference is a bit like when His Dark Materials introduced Will as a protagonist in the second book, and my connection with Lyra carrying over from the first book meant I couldn't detach myself entirely from her perspective. That may explain the top choice, in which Bloom hardly features at all, but to the list itself:

18. Eumaeus
The most frustrating of all the episodes – not because it's difficult to understand, but after the phantasmagoric circus of Circe which unifies Bloom and Stephen at the end, we end up in a limbo of parallel conversations only momentarily connecting with each other. And on top of that, the narrative voice is purposefully designed to annoy you. A couple of moments worth the time spent getting to Ithaca: D.B. Murphy's unreliable tales of heroism contrasted with Bloom's own mundane voyaging, Bloom's quick sketch of a socialist paradise and Stephen's solipsistic response.

17. Proteus
Stephen's solipsism reaches its heights in this chapter, where we hear what his stream-of-consciousness sounds like. I found it by far the most difficult, since I was reading without much recourse to annotations and the incursions into French and Latin lost me completely. I should have tried harder, since the episode covers in scattershot flashbacks the crucial period between Stephen leaving Ireland at the end of Portrait and us discovering him back in Dublin at the beginning of Ulysses. In any case, the commencement of Bloom's stream-of-consciousness in Calypso came as welcome relief (which may not be an accident).

16. Aeolus
The first half of Ulysses is far more stylistically consistent than the second half (after Wandering Rocks). While this early episode breaks up the text with newspaper-like headlines, it still retains the feel of Bloom's narrative in the episodes around it. Bloom leaves the centre of the action for half of the episode, which is then occupied by Stephen, and their almost but not quite meetings throughout the novel are the main (and not-inconsiderable) source of tension in the plot.

15. Hades
I read Dubliners 10 years ago, so it wasn't easy for me to keep track of all the people we meet again at Dignam's funeral. Bloom's (very temporal) observations suggest he was an acquaintance rather than a close friend. Moments that stand out: Hamlet's gravedigger reborn as Corny Kelleher (who will save Stephen in Circe), the acute awkwardness of Power condemning suicide after which we flashback to Bloom's father's suicide note.

14. Lotus-Eaters
Bloom's stream-of-consciousness continues from Calypso. Main enjoyment in this episode comes from his opportunistic letching, his clandestine erotic excursions as Henry Flower, and the final image of him reclining in the bath as we zoom in to his limp, floating (flowerlike) penis.

13. Oxen of the Sun
Reading aloud does help as Joyce cycles through the history of the English language. The Latinate beginning and slang-slinging ending are the most difficult bits – but there's some enjoyment to be had in between (I liked the medieval pastiches in particular, although they are not as good as the ones in Cyclops).

12. Wandering Rocks
This montage sequence appears in the middle of Ulysses and tries to evoke the churn of the city, but the finest moments are the glimpses we see of Stephen's family, and the choice Stephen has to make when he comes across his desperate younger sister. Also priceless is Father Conmee witnessing an illicit tryst in the bushes.

11. Sirens
The musical episode starts with an overture chopping up the sounds we will encounter as we read along, and finishes with Bloom's contribution of a surreptitious fart at the end. Not knowing the context (and a lot of the content) of the songs put me at a disadvantage, but there was quite a lot of enjoyment in working out the various noises and what they mean. Best moments include the intercutting notes of Blazes Boylan's trek to his liaison with Molly, and the drinkers being treated to a flash of thigh by one of the barmaids.

10. Lestrygonians
Perhaps slightly overrating this long section of Bloom's wanderings in search for lunch (vegetarian, in contrast to his carnivorous breakfast), but it's one of the best accounts of the character's fundamental decency in the book.

9. Calypso
Bloom's introduction to the story sets up some of the key plot strands that we follow through in the rest of the novel – his relationship with Molly and their mutual sexual infidelities, as well as their differing relationship to their daughter Milly and the buried trauma of their dead son. Bloom remains caught in Molly's orbit despite these strains, his quiet acts of devotion mirrored in the final moment in the book when Molly is transformed from Calypso into Penelope.

8. Ithaca
Joyce may have derived much of his enjoyment in this episode from subverting the form of Catholic catechism into a relentlessly secular investigation into the causes of things. The moments of ponderous detail weigh into what should be the dramatic climax of the novel, and there is the slight frustration that we cannot hear Bloom and Stephen talk to each other in their own voices. The displacement is all to the novel's purpose – the omniscient perspective circles around the characters without providing final solutions to their dilemmas. Stephen refuses the offer of a place to stay and walks out homeless (his, and Joyce's, odyssey is just beginning), and Bloom and Molly are deprived of their symbolic son. The finest moment is Stephen chanting the anti-semitic poem, which to me has echoes of a Fall myth in which the boy loses his (maiden-)head. This transformation from innocence to experience comes as Joyce anchors Stephen to the Ithacan rock of Bloom's open, curious, de-mythologised view of the universe.

7. Nestor
Stephen's musings on history and his recalcitrant attitude to authority was always going to win me over, even though this is a comparatively slight episode in the book. Stephen's silent inward retorts to Deasy's arguments are like catnip to me, and none are finer than his rapid mental calculation of all the debts he owes when exhorted to pay his way in the world.

6. Circe
Circe's comically absurd nightmare is at its finest when it exposes Bloom's very kinky sexuality, and the weird persecution/punishment complex he has developed. It also underlines Stephen's association with Hamlet, as here he is confronted with the ghost of his dead mother, and the guilt he feels for abandoning his family in order to pursue his own freedom and development. The drama whirls around unceasingly up until the final moments in which Bloom sees another apparition of his son, this time bringing hope. It's a bravura performance, bewildering but impressive.

5. Cyclops
The down-to-earth unnamed narrator taking over the episode makes this a comparatively easy read, and the lapses into sarcastic reproductions of heroic, legal and other styles provide some of the funniest moments in the book. The final sentence, in which Bloom's ascension is described as being "like a shot off a shovel", merges the different voices together and reveals the digressions to be part of the unnamed narrator's consciousness – the background linguistic and ideological formulae that underpin the average Dublin male's world-view. The narrator's exasperation at Bloom's multi-polar take on every subject ("till he near had the head of me addled") is both hilarious and underlines his own simplistic, one-eyed P.O.V.

4. Nausicaa
After the macho Cyclops, Nausicaa puts us in female company. As devotions are offered to the Virgin Mary, the various expectations imposed on Dublin women are exposed on the rocks below. Gerty's crush on the boy with the bicycle is sweet, but her misplaced romantic daydreams about Bloom add a bitter edge to her story arc. The revelation of her disability is a crude assertion of reality knocking down the sexual and romantic fantasies conjured by the fireworks display.

3. Penelope
Molly's final "yes" comes after a long and looping screed in which she complains about Bloom almost incessantly. But while she seems exasperated by her husband, the fact that her thoughts keep reverting back to him reveals her underlying longing (and loneliness). The strain in Bloom's marriage is in part due to him ignoring or condescending to his wife. They haven't had sex in 10 years, since the death of their son Rudy, and neither of them are fully satisfied by their extra-marital entanglements. Bloom's discovery of paternal feelings towards Stephen, and Molly's own idealised view of the "professor and author", may (it appears, and I hope) lead to some kind of reconciliation in the future.

2. Telemachus
The first time I read Ulysses I think I understood about 60% of what was going on. This time around I may have raised that to about 85% with the help of the internet. But I started, as before, with no guidance whatsoever. Thankfully, I knew both The Odyssey and Hamlet a bit better, and the way Joyce layers the parallels in Telemachus is a wonder: the prince deprived of his castle, his mother slandered, his father absent. Reading without the Gilbert schema would be a huge deprivation, and it's puzzling why Joyce (and some commentators) believed revealing the structure underpinning the novel would be distracting.

1. Scylla & Charybdis
Stephen's finest hour, puncturing the inflated Platonism of his contemporaries with appeals to the material reality of producing literature and the fact that art is always embedded in life. Joyce here is at his most self-reflexive (even more than when he lists the episodes of Ulysses in Circe and Ithaca), not only giving his avatar his own ideas on Shakespeare, but his justification of the novel itself. This is the only episode which refers to the Roman hero (twice!). Stephen mentions how tired Ulysses can have his heart softened by his son, teasing his own encounter with Bloom at the end of the book. Furthermore, John Eglinton mocks Stephen's attempt to make "Ulysses quote Aristotle", and insists they cannot now "combine a Norse saga with an excerpt from a novel" as Shakespeare would. And yet this is exactly what Joyce does, outgunning the entire Irish Literary Revival in the process (Stephen's inward response "Bear with me" may be my favourite moment in the novel). While Bloom is almost entirely absent in the episode, there is symbolic portent in the final image of the way he passes unrecognised between Stephen's inflexible and self-obsessed genius and the whirlwind of Buck's superficiality, the golden mean which proves him to be the true philosopher.


Dotter of her Father's Eyes

This comic raised eyebrows by winning the 2012 Costa Biography Award. I had heard from comics enthusiasts that it was tame and boring, and the insinuation was that comics could only win prizes by doing everything they can to badge themselves as 'literary', and therefore 'worthy' of being treated 'seriously' (liberal use of scare-quotes entirely deliberate). I picked it up despite these warnings because I was re-reading Ulysses and wanted a little bit more biographical information about James Joyce (since there is so much autobiography in the novel). As it turned out, I was much better off reading the excellent Joyce: A Graphic Guide instead.

Dotter offers very little insight into the Joyce family. Lucia's breakdown and death is treated with almost callous brevity – two splash pages cover 8 years from her first breakdown to her death. Neither is the link between her story and the author's particularly well justified. The comic is framed by a day in the life of Mary Talbot in which a chance encounter with a memento of her father triggers a series of flashbacks. Despite a sources section at the back detailing the research that went into putting the story together – it retains the sense of an off the cuff riff.

The most egregious example of this is two instances in which Mary Talbot adds textual notes correcting her husband's inaccurate depiction of her story – bewildering since by their own account the collaboration was a very close one and therefore should have nipped these mistakes in the bud. Is this supposed to underline Mary Talbot's Molly Bloom-like assertion of independence within the co-dependent structure of the family – something Lucia Joyce was incapable of in the 1920s and 30s? Perhaps, but it also adds to the overwhelming impression of a book hastily put together, and therefore a throwaway example of the comics form.



Gemma Arterton says she signed up to do the film because she was interested in the mother-daughter relationship and because of its feminist themes. The producer remarks that vampire movies are rarely if ever led by two female protagonists, which makes this interesting in itself. But while Arterton and Saoirse Ronan have some room to dig down into their characters (the two have opposing sensibilities: one loudly untroubled by the memory of the past and the other quietly obsessed with it), the tension between them boils down to the necessity for the child to fly the nest and be free to "tell her own story".

So where does the feminism fit in? Firstly, in its unique twist on the vampire mythos. These 'soucriants' have an interesting variation on the 'vamp face': their thumb grows a talon when they are about to kill, and also unintentionally when they are sexually aroused. This is a more "phallic" weapon than a mouth ringed with fangs, and in claiming these metaphorical dicks for themselves, the vampire ladies can be seen to challenge the supremacy of the male vampire.

Indeed, the plot of the film revolves around a challenge to male authority. We learn that Arterton and Ronan are in breech of a code (enforced with maximum prejudice) by a cabal of vampires who insist that only men can be trusted with immortality. The fact that this breech occurs 200 years ago with the French Revolution and the Rights of Women may not be an accident. They are on the run, and set up shop in a seaside town where Arterton takes over a disused hotel called Byzantium and converts it into a brothel. The brothel is used in part to contrast with the safe (sex-free) spaces of the orphanage where Ronan grows up and the school she goes to. But its name takes on a new significance when it is revealed that the vampire patriarch is an old Greek who fought in the crusades. His 'Byzantine' attitude is what the women are up against: medieval, outdated and showing an undue reverence for ancient and obscure rituals which have been robbed of meaning by the march of history.

It's Buffy vs the Watchers Council, basically, and the comparison gets at something interesting about where the film ends up. Neil Jordan had worked with Angela Carter when adapting her short story collection The Bloody Chamber into the film A Company of Wolves, and I wonder how far that influence carries over into this film (Ronan wears a conspicuously red hood when delivering death to old grannies). I say that because there is a faint echo of the Bluebeard story in the climactic final sequence of the film, in which Arterton is bound and about to be beheaded by the patriarch. In Carter's retelling, the build-up to the seemingly inevitable execution of the heroine is disrupted in the final moment by an out-of-the-blue intervention of a female maternal force. Something very similar happens at the end of Byzantium, but in this case the force is male and romantic.

This potentially troubling conclusion is in part defused by the fact that we see Arterton behead a male vampire at the beginning of the film, and the fact that in many respects she's a very Carterian heroine (I think Arterton would be perfect playing Fevvers from Nights at the Circus). So perhaps there's a way to rehabilitate Sam Riley's role in rescuing the damselled Arterton. While Arterton has the willpower to survive in a patriarchal world, this inevitably leads to a lonely existence in which she is subjected to and subverts the desires of men. Riley holds out the possibility for another kind of relationship amongst equals. But in order for this victory to be achieved, Riley has to betray the organisation that empowered him and denies him a romantic life.  Dismantling patriarchy, the film suggests, requires many more such defections.



Should forewarn, I've only seen up to the end of season two (the box-set was bought at Christmas for my girlfriend, and we are both very infrequent television-watchers). Just a couple of notes:

The "voice of a generation" pitch in the pilot is delivered during a bad trip and couched in irony, providing creator Lena Dunham with enough cover should the critical viewer wish to interrogate that claim. But I'm mindful to take the boast seriously, since it hits at something true about the profession Dunham (and Hannah) have chosen – the determination to write to a degree requires the belief that you can write something of significance, despite the world doing its level best to discourage such ambitions.

The gaps between Dunham and her character are not as easily distinguishable as she would perhaps like them to be. She puts an awful amount of herself into her creation – including her battle with obsessive compulsive disorder in the second season. I wonder what part wardrobe (or even the lack of it) plays in her personal differentiation technique. Hannah's outfits are often outrageous, hair often unkempt, make-up non-existent, while Dunham looks super suave and composed in interviews. Hannah does (and wears) what Dunham wouldn't dare.

Dunham acknowledged the race problem in the show, and the scenes with Donald Glover in the first two episodes of the second season were an effective, and funny, apology. In fact, the confrontation scene between them was one of the best pieces of writing Dunham has produced. Her (quite valid) explanation for the lack of black actors is that she's half Jewish, half WASP, and wrote what she knew – four characters that represented parts of that culture and heritage. The question to be asked is why other people don't have a HBO series to write about what they know.

Another counter-argument that has been advanced is that someone living in New York would interact with non-white people a lot more than is suggested in Girls. Only having visited the city a few times, I can't judge whether it really is more integrated than what the show presents to the viewer. Either way this shouldn't let Dunham off the hook, not least because Girls is hardly true to life anyway.

In the first episode, the show explicitly sets itself up as an antidote to Sex and the City and the high-flying lifestyle it presents, but is it really a cold injection of realism? While Girls tries to circumvent any attempt to frame it as an aspirational show (featuring uncompromisingly unlikable characters predestined to make the worst of any situation), I think it remains aspirational, since it asks us to care about what happens on screen despite giving us precious little reason to. Marnie in particular displays no redeeming features whatsoever throughout the two seasons, and yet Charlie remains besotted with her (at the end of season two both him and Adam become male incarnations of the manic pixie dream girl). The result of watching all the terrible things these characters keep doing over and over again without lessons being drawn is that their behaviour becomes normalised. You're allowed to be this selfish and callous and irresponsible, because this (the show suggests) is what being in your early 20s is like.

Dunham can save the show from making this conclusion by treating her characters as more than fodder for jokes and drama, and she is capable of it. I say this because episode five of season two, "One Man's Trash", managed to convey a complexity to Hannah that was not evident before. Dunham finally presents us with an explanation for why Hannah is such a self-destructive moron. Hannah courts pain and distress not only to be supplied with material to write about, but because it separates her out from other people and makes her feel special. Unlike normal "selfish" people who want to settle down and be happy, Hannah will beat herself up in order to give expression to the suffering of others. She is the everyman holding the experiences of her generation within her. The fact that this position is itself extremely self-serving and arrogant is a potent irony. Her masochism is what keeps her initial relationship with Adam afloat, and the inklings of an arc suggest itself which will turn Adam into the stable Joshua character Hannah encounters in "One Man's Trash".