I’m trying to remember the first time I attempted to read Ulysses. I’m a fan of James Joyce, at least as far as Portrait of an Artist and Dubliners goes. Portrait of an Artist can be read purely for the story and so can the short stories in Dubliners, for the most part. Sure, some of the stories confused me a bit, since I wasn’t sure who Parnell was, and was pretty ignorant of the details of Irish history, but I’ve always been pretty good at ignoring the parts of a book that I didn’t understand and still enjoying the parts that I could comprehend.
But Ulysses confounded me, over and over again. I would make it through the first three chapters fairly regularly, but with a sinking sensation that most of what I was reading was going right over my head. I even got as far as the beginning of the Bloom story, but somewhere among the trips to the outhouse and the journey to the butcher’s I would give up.
Eventually I decided that the only way I was ever going to be able to read this book would be to take a class. I thought I would probably have to take a college English class, maybe as part of my “masters in English Lit” retirement fantasy. But here in New England I’ve discovered the Cambridge Center for Adult Education (see this entry about the class I took on Nabokov last year). When I found out a class on Ulysses was being offered this fall I knew I had to take it. No more excuses! I was finally going to read this book.
Because of my high school reunion and the Twin Cities Marathon I missed the first class, but by the second class I knew this was going to be a good experience. The teacher has taught this class since 1997 and seems to know just about everything there is to know about James Joyce and Ulysses. I soon enough felt better about never having been able to read this book on my own. Ulysses is complicated!
As we make our way through this strange book, chapter by chapter, week by week, I’m increasingly impressed by Joyce’s vast knowledge. References to Shakespeare, Dante, Greek mythology, Irish history, JEWISH history, Catholic references, music, science, etc. etc. etc. abound. How one man ever managed to keep track of these references that twine their way through the book, repeating, turning in on themselves, while the characters wander around Dublin for twenty four hours is nothing short of awe-inspirng. And I can’t help but be a bit suspicious of my friends that claimed to have read this book while we were in college (and Finnegan’s Wake too by golly). Yes, maybe you read all the words, but did you understand what you were reading? Did you get it? I’m reading it with a class, and a teacher, and a separate annotated book to explain some of the references, and I STILL realize that I’m missing some of what Joyce is trying to do. My little ADD brain just can’t stay focused long enough to really, really get what’s going on.
For those of you that have never read this book, one of the more perplexing things about it is how the point of view keeps changing as the book goes on. First you’re following Bloom’s stream of consciousness, then you’re listening as Stephen Dedalus expounds on his theory of Shakespeare’s motivation for writing his plays, then you’re watching and listening as various other characters tell THEIR stories. And THEN the book gets even weirder. A chapter is written in a style that has been called musical, with words and phrases repeating themselves in patterns like a piece of music would. Several chapters are written as parodies of various writing styles, seemingly just because Joyce could. A very long chapter is written as a play (that’s the chapter I’m reading now), but not a play that you’ll ever see on a stage, as the characters change shape, costume, species and even gender from one line to the other. And of course there’s the famous last chapter, one endless sentence, with the one line that most people have heard if they know anything at all about Joyce “…yes, I said yes I will yes.”
At this point my internal jury is still out on whether I actually “like” this book. Like seems like a rather feeble word to describe what it’s been like to read Ulysses. Admiring, annoyed, bored, fascinated, irritated, curious, touched…I’ve felt all of those things this fall. I feel a little proud of myself for getting through this mountain of a book, finally! When we get to the last chapter I really feel like the class needs to go find a pub and have a drink, in honor of Joyce and in honor of ourselves for finally reading this book.