I read James Joyce’s “Ulysses”

Ulysses

Righteo, I read “Ulysses”, apparently that’s an achievement. Instead of writing a post full of your usual Joycean delving, probing or analysis, I thought I’d simply write about the reading experience. Let’s be honest, if you want to find out more about “Ulysses” there are thousands of places to go, classes, internet tools, books, clubs, you could keep yourself busy and increase your blood pressure for the remainder of your life and still walk away not 100% convinced you’ve understood a damn thing.

“Ulysses” has a reputation, one that precedes itself, “unreadable”, “life’s too short to read Ulysses”, and numerous other derogatory comments litter the reading websites, a demanding work obviously and numerous people just aren’t looking for focused concentration when they open a book, all of this myth had me concerned before I’d even opened page one.

First up I should mention the edition I chose to read. I’m sure every city has them, a chain of bookstores where remainders are marked, and then sold off at about a third of the recommended retail price. The shops that are littered with the next bestseller that actually never sold, thousands of copies of Jodi Picoult, Dan Brown et al. Occasionally I wander into these concrete caverns and browse, only to find some obscure out-of-print book that I’d long been looking for. On a recent visit they had one copy of the Gabler Edition of “Ulysses”, for $10 – bargain. In a nutshell the “Gabler” is a revised edition attempting to correct any errors made in earlier editions – there’s a decent “Foreword” and a large “Afterword” explaining the discovery process and the substantial effort put in to editing and publishing a definitive edition, that’s not for this post.

Before I go on, apologies to any Joyce scholars, or avid readers of “Ulysses”, below are my thoughts as I read the book, these are not in any way scholarly, nor have they been researched, do not take offence at a simple man’s views on what he thought whilst reading. If you disagree with anything, feel free to let me know, however I re-iterate that these are my thoughts, and plenty of times I have been known to be wrong.

Onto the book itself;

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently-behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

Not that hard, Buck’s walking down the stairs with a bowl of lather, a crossed mirror and razor, about to have a shave….I actually made it through chapter one in a single sitting, undaunted, not overly perplexed, a chapter a day, be done in eighteen days. What’s the fuss? I’d started on a positive footing, a few google references required for some of the Latin quotes, a quick check of Homeric allusions, no guide required, I will be right. I had gone in blind, like heading out for a multi-day hike with some water, enough food, equipment, a rough idea of the terrain and hoping for the best. I’d managed to find the Linati and Gilbert “schema” on the internet, it gave a few pointers for each of the chapters (the map?) but I intentionally did not refer to the numerous multi layered guides, highlighting every nuance, dissecting every sentence.

At the highest level I understood Stephen Dedalus was trying to reconcile his blame for his mother’s death, I knew that Bloom was aware of Molly’s indiscretion, I figured out Bloom’s grief process for his young son, his father’s suicide, and of course the funeral. Surely you don’t read “Ulysses” for these broad narrative brushes!

Could I keep reading a chapter a day and be done in eighteen days? Of course I was wrong, I had underestimated the complexity, my resilience, in some cases the sheer length of some chapters (as well as my free time), a chapter a day was unachievable but it took me until Chapter Eight before I realised such….more struggles…and then I hit Chapter Fourteen “Oxen of the Sun”.

Complex, cryptic, but extremely rewarding, the gestation of the English language in a chapter about embryonic development, this section apparently mimicking the c14th travels of Sir John Mandeville, (I’ve added my simplified interpretation after each sentence):

And in the castle was set a board that was of the birchwood of Finlandy and it was upheld by four dwarfmen of that country but they durst not move more for enchantment. (A table with carved legs?)

And on this board were frightful swords and knives that are made in a great cavern by swinking demons out of white flames that they fix then in the horns of buffalos and stags that there abound marvellously. (Knives and forks with bone handles?)

And there were vessels that are wrought by magic of Mahound out of seasand and the air by a warlock with his breath that he blases in to them like to bubbles. (Glasses – glass blowing molten sand?)

And full fair cheer and rich was on the board that no wight could devise a fuller ne richer. And there was a vat of silver that was moved by craft to open in the which lay strange fishes withouten heads though misbelieving men nie that this be possible thing with they see it natheless that are so. And these fishes lie in an oily water brought there from Portugal land because of the fatness that therein is like to the juices of the olivepress. (A can of Portugese sardines in olive oil?)

And also it was a marvel to see in that castle how by magic they make a compost out of fecund wheatkidneys out of Chaldee that by aid of certain angry spirits that they do in to it swells up wondrously like to a vast mountain. (Bread?)

Basically a table with cutlery, some bread and a can of sardines!
Needless to say I got bogged down here and in the following “Circe” Chapter. But I soldiered on, sometimes vividly imagining the setting, other times simply reading the words, clueless as to what on earth was going on.

And then suddenly Bloom returns home, in the wee hours of the morning, Chapter Seventeen, “Ithaca” Odysseus returns, and then “Penelope”, Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness, back to a chapter a day.

Of the Homeric references, there would be plenty I missed, but I particularly enjoyed “Nausicaä” chapter Thirteen. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is shipwrecked on the island of Scheria (or Phaeacia), Nausicaä and her handmaidens go to the sea-shore to wash clothes (thanks Wikipedia). In “Ulysses” we have the readable, and controversial when it came to banning the book, chapter where Bloom masturbates whilst observing the flirting Gerty on the beach. But early on in the chapter we have the equivalent of the handmaidens’;

The three girl friends were seated on the rocks, enjoying the evening scene and the air which was fresh but not too chilly. Many a time and oft were they wont to come there to that favourite nook to have a cosy chat beside the sparkling waves and discuss matters feminine…

The washing coming in lines 173+

She had four dinky sets with awfully pretty stitchery, three garments and nighties extra, and each set slotted with different coloured ribbons, rosepink, pale blue, mauve and peagreen, and she aired them herself and blued them when they came home from the wash and ironed them and she had a brickbat to keep the iron on because she wouldn’t trust those washerwomen as far as she’d see them scorching the things.

Once completed I attended a seminar in Melbourne which was an “Introduction to Ulysses” and there were hints about what chapter’s to read in what order, pointers as to Joyce’s life, reflections upon certain sections (although not everybody has the same edition of course) and a few discussions about interpretation. A room full of people wanting to delve further and further into this iconic book. Me? I’ll dabble again, I’ll pick it up and dip in and out, I’m highly unlikely to read it from cover to cover again, and I’m even unlikely to attend another seminar.

Late last year I posted a list of works, from various sources, which have been referred to as the “Ulysses” of their country or language. I’d really enjoyed a number of books on that list, for their complexity, their boldness, their experimentation, and will slowly work my way through the majority that have been mentioned. A sort of quest, a challenge, yes, but an enjoyable approach to looking at world literature. Is there time to read Joyce again?

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “I read James Joyce’s “Ulysses”

  1. I read it while at Uni studying English Lit, Tony (‘twas not on the syllabus – just for fun!) and strangely enjoyed it: but no, would not attempt it now. Less time! Less brain! I applaud your persistence and really enjoyed your honest analysis, though!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. YES!! and Congratulations! I was dazed after finishing the first time (maybe 20 years ago) and knowing that although I’d enjoyed parts of Ulysses, I’d actually comprehended way less than was there – less than you did, I think. After a few years (5?) I went back for a second reading which was far more enjoyable and enlightening. I doubt I’ll do it again though. Was it worth it? You betcha. Again, congratulations.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the way you’ve reviewed this!
    I read Ulysses at university – which, of course, means pre-internet (I know because I started with a dictionary which I quickly abandoned – none of the words I didn’t know were in it!) I’m not sure I’d read it again, though there are certainly parts of it I would.
    I thought Finnegans Wake was the unreadable one, though?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Did you know you’re just in time for the 100th anniversary of its first appearance in print? The Little Review serialized it beginning in March 1918. I’m doing a project this year of only reading books and magazines from 100 years ago, so I’ll be able to read the first installment next month. Greg Cowles of the NY Times Book Review tweeted that he just started it, so he’ll undoubtedly be talking it on the podcast over the next few weeks (or months).

    Liked by 1 person

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