Sunday, July 6, 2008


Those of you who read this blog will remember my doubly fortuitous decision to start reading James Joyce's Ulysses. This afternoon, I sat down to the "Penelope" episode - Molly Bloom's famous unpunctuated sixty-page monologue, the last in the book - and read it at a sitting. I have now read Ulysses! I am prouder of this accomplishment than of some recitals I've given.

Looking back on it, I'm surprised I didn't read it earlier. A book like this, with its stunningly virtuosic wordplay, would seem like a natural for me. Each chapter is its own world. "Oxen of the Sun" is, for me, the greatest technical accomplishment, taking us through the entire history of the English language, beginning with repeated, quasi-Latin chanting and progressing through imitations of Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry, Middle English, the styles of various prominent English writers up until Joyce's time, and ending in a wash of incomprehensible slang. But this isn't an end in itself - in the action of the story, a child is being born, and the stages of English mirror the stages of the baby's development.

Other chapters are more conventional in prose style, although equally unique. "Ithaca" tells the story in the form of a catechism (What parallel courses did Bloom and Stephen follow returning? Of what did the diumvirate deliberate during their itinerary? Were their views on some points divergent?). "Circe" shows us the Kafkaesque hallucinations of the drunk Leopold Bloom, lost in Dublin at night; Joyce's choice to cast this nightmarish story in the form of a drama, complete with stage directions, turns it into something resembling an absurdist play by Ionesco. "Aeolus" is peppered with newspaper headlines - sometimes summarizing the action, sometimes commenting ironically, and often apparently unrelated to anything else in the book. "Cyclops" is laugh-out-loud hilarious, as Bloom's exploits are punctuated by wild digressions by the narrator, including lists of names that last for over a page. (And after came all saints and martyrs, virgins and confessors: S. Cyr and S. Isidore Arator and S. James the Less and S. Phocas of Sinope and S. Julian Hospitator and S. Felix de Cantalice and S. Simon Stylites and S. Stephen Protomartyr . . . and S. Anonymous and S. Eponymous and S. Pseudonymous and S. Homonymous and S. Paronymous and S. Synonymous and S. Laurence O'Toole. . .)

Ulysses is a book that many people feel intimidated to read, because of its length and because of Joyce's reputation as an icon of modernism. People are convinced that they won't be able to understand the prose style, that they'll need six reader's guides and the help of a tenured English professor to make any sense of the novel. That may be true of Finnegans Wake (which I have yet to attempt), but it is certainly not true of Ulysses. Anyone willing to invest the time to the novel can read it, and anyone who is interested in modernism in the arts should read it - not only because it's a Very Important Work of Literature, but because reading it is enjoyable. Joyce is a good enough writer that his book meets you where you are; if you know what "agenbite of inwit" refers to, then you're ahead of the game, and if you don't, the novel will make it clear soon enough.

When you read Ulysses, read straight through. Set aside time in your day to read a chapter at a sitting - otherwise you're sure to lose your place in the stream-of-consciousness by the time you pick it up again. Do not stop when you don't understand something - go back and read a sentence again if you have to, but it's more important to move on in the narrative than to struggle over a complicated page. You won't understand everything on the way through - entire chapters may slip over your head - but you can go back later and read through individual episodes to pick up more of the details. Have a synopsis at hand and check it every few chapters to make sure you haven't missed a key plot event. But the most important thing is to get a sense of the work as a whole, read it through, and enjoy it without getting hung up on the details. That's what the rest of your life is for.

(As an added bonus, everything I've written above would also apply if you were going to listen to the Concord Sonata, or a comparable modernist musical work, for the first time.)

But folks! Listen up. You really should read Ulysses. Buy a copy. Take it home. Finish any other books you're working on. Read.


Christine said...

Btw, I suspect I will be writing on Ulysses soon on my blarg, and will likely be excerpting & linking to this post. It is good?

Osbert Parsley said...

Sure! Sounds good.