Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How to Read Ulysses

One of the greatest barriers to reading James Joyce's Ulysses is the way the book is published, small print, crammed together with no white space. There are many free online versions of the text that you can copy into a word document print in larger font with spaces between the lines or read on your screen and all of sudden the book is infinitely more accessible. Listening to other people read the book aloud is always helpful or you could try reading episodes aloud to yourself, your child, your friend, your cat.

There are several guides which can be helpful to get your footing and familiarize yourself with the plot, the most popular being Ulysses Annotated which explains most of the obscure references in the book and Harry Blamires' The Bloomsday Book which gives a plot summary for each episode. You can also google this information. In fact, Ulysses is ideal for an online reading experience.

That said, you don't have to start at the beginning. You might, like this photo of Marilyn above, prefer to start at the end and read the Penelope episode which is Molly Bloom's monologue as she lies alone in bed in the middle of the night. Here is Molly unpunctuated thoughts on servants of which at present she has none:

"its his fault of course having the two of us slaving here instead of getting in a woman long ago am I ever going to have a proper servant again of course then shed see him coming Id have to let her know or shed revenge it arent they a nuisance that old Mrs Fleming you have to be walking round after her putting the things into her hands sneezing and farting into the pots well of course shes old she cant help it a good job I found that rotten old smelly dishcloth that got lost behind the dresser I knew there was something and opened the area window to let out the smell."

Stephen Dedalus's monologue and philosophical musings in Proteus, episode 3, is somewhat more difficult to read. It begins with that beautiful famous phrase "Ineluctable modality of the visible:" which he then explains as "at least that if no more, thought through my eyes." Stephen is the most intellectual of all of the characters in Ulysses, with a brain and an education most like his creator James Joyce. The passages in which he appears require the fiercest concentration but when you unlock them, when you finally follow as "he proves by algebra that Hamlet's grandson is Shakespeare's grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father" the experience is exhilarating.

Stephen consumes the first three chapters of the novel, so if you find them difficult, you might also like to start with Episode 4 when we first meet Bloom eating his breakfast: "Mr Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls."

Many readers enjoy Circe, episode 15, which takes place in Nighttown, Dublin's Red Light District. It is written in play form through the drunken eyes of its protagonists, Bloom and Stephen and is full of prostitutes, beggars, Bloom's filthy fantasies and Stephen's ghosts. Feel free to skip around and often when you feel lost it is because Joyce has shifted literary mediums and you haven't realized it yet. Unlike most writers who seek to put their readers in a dream state and keep them there, Joyce is consistently throwing us out of his own narrative. He wants us to keep up him with him or go home.

Personally, I am a lazy reader. I like to crack a book's spine, dunk it in the bath and consume it quickly while supine. It still takes me awhile to find my way into Ulysses chapter by chapter despite dramatizing this book for the better part of a decade. When you read Joyce, he cracks your spine, dunks you in the bath and consumes you quickly. Don't give up, don't think him pretentious and impenetrable. Dig and he will be revealed, sentence by sentence. You will be rewarded by stepping deeper and deeper into the mind of a brilliant man who lived his artistic life fearlessly.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent blog. Merci beaucoup!
    Dr John Carsanook
    Kingdom of Thailand