Friday, August 10, 2012

James Joyce: Ulysses


This summer, having found myself with way too much time on my hands, I'm doing something I've been putting off for the last seven years.  I've finally gotten around to reading James Joyce's infamous literary behemoth, Ulysses.

When someone mentions reading Ulysses, it's typically met with a laugh or a groan, because clearly anyone who would willingly dive into that convoluted mess is either insane or a pretentious tool.  Your well-read friends know that it's not only a hallmark of Irish literature, but an amalgam of symbolism that draws on mythology, literature, religion, politics and history in a massive cultural connect-the-dots.  A few of them have tried to read it, but after the first ten pages the incomprehensible stream of consciousness sucked them into a whirlpool.  Since then, they think of it the way most teenagers think of Shakespeare.  But as any Shakespeare fan will tell you, if you approach the text with the right guide, you'll discover some of the best stuff in the English language.

My guide has been The New Bloomsday Book* by Harry Blamires.  If you're the least bit interested in tackling Ulysses, I can't recommend this one enough.  For each chapter, Blamires lays the scene and gives a brief summary of the action.  This alone will make your reading that much more enjoyable, as the events in the book are impossible to decipher due to the erratic narration.  Also, as they appear, he explains the references and allusions to Homer, the Bible, Shakespeare, and Irish politics.  (Because after all, you aren't James Joyce.  You are a dumbass.)

I think one of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to read Ulysses is getting hung up on the symbolism.  I had a college professor who would spend entire classes glossing over certain paragraphs that summarized passages from the Book of Psalms, which (holy shit!) contained a number of words that indicated the verse.  By the end of the course he'd turned me off of Joyce for years.  I was convinced that he epitomized not only everything wrong with academia, but with literary fiction in general.  

Now, I'm not saying that you should discount the symbolism.  After all, it's what makes reading the book such an enriching experience.  All I'm saying is that if you fret over every last punctuation mark, you'll only end up driving yourself crazy.  Instead, follow along with Blamires, and just let the text wash over you.  Some of the nuances will sink in, and some won't.  But when they do, my God are they ever powerful.  In the first chapter, Stephan Dedalus has a conversation with an English visitor called Haines.  At one point, Haines pulls a cigarette from a case encrusted with a shiny green emerald.  In this brief moment, Stephen is reminded that Ireland is kept as a pretty ornament, tucked away in England's pocket.  How fucking slick is that?

Ulysses might be a challenge, but is it worth it?  I'm currently a third of the way through, and so far I'd say yes.  At the very least it'll give you the back story behind the names of your favorite Irish pubs.

*I borrowed a copy from my friend Melissa four years ago, right before I fled the country.  This September I'm flying back for a week so I can go to my best friend's wedding.  She'll most likely be there as well, so it'll be a good time to hand it back over.  I'm not even sure if she still knows I have it.

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree-- there's something to be said for intuitive reading rather than focusing on the significance of every single detail. An old friend and classmate, the only person I know who's ever actually read Finnegan's Wake, said the same thing about that text. Once you get into the rhythm of the prose, it starts to make a kind of sense. I don't know if I'll ever attempt that one, though.

    And that's hilarious about the Bloomsday book-- I had completely forgotten!

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