Monthly Archives: January 2020

Reading Joyce’s Ulysses

The novel sat on my bookshelf, imposing, menacing, and calling along with Harry Blamires’ guide for at least 10 years. I knew, I wanted to tackle this great of modern literature, but have always been as intimated by its heft yet also entranced by its accolades. The facts that it is a novel with its own annual festival, Bloomsday, and that it was banned in Australia, the UK and the US made the draw even stronger.  What is the book all about? The most simple explanation: it’s about two men, Leopold and Stephen, making their way through Dublin on a single day in the early 1900s. That’s right, 543 pages on one single day–but Joyce  puts you inside of the heads of these characters,  Stephen, Leopold and Molly. (Leopold’s wife.) Stream of consciousness? Try oceans, rivers, and turbulent seas.

Book cover of Joyce's Ulysses


How to summarize the experience? It varied.  It started off easily enough, especially with Blamires and Campbell as guides. I would read the pages in Joyce and then Blamires’ explanation since I didn’t have the luxury of taking a class. It was deliberately slow going. I committed to only a few pages, 3 to 5, maybe 10 per day. This is not my typical approach to reading novels where I often read them quickly to immerse myself in the characters but Ulysses lends itself to a slow reading. There passages require some explanation, so those pages are multiplied by the helpers–genius lyrics with its line-by-line annotations also were helpful along the way. I also leaned on this wonderfully narrated audiobook to finish Joyce’s epic novel. The multi-page paragraphs without much punctuation were much more manageable when read by Marcella Riordan.

How was the work for me?  Often like my own consciousness,  befuddling, confusing and wandering.  There were flashes of enlightenment, but really you’re in the muddle of the characters stream of consciousness. Here, for example, is Stephen, in conversation with Talbot, a student. Joyce renders the dialog as well as what Stephen is thinking about:

It must be a movement then, an actuality of the possible as possible. Aristotle’s phrase formed itself within the gabbled verses and floated out into the studious silence of the library of St. Genevieve where he had read, sheltered from sin of Paris, night by night. By his elbow, a delicate Siamese conned a handbook of strategy. Fed and feeding brains about me: under glowlamps, impaled, with faintly beating feelers: and in my minds darkness a sloth of the underworld, reluctant, shy of brightness, shifting her dragon scaly folds. Thought is the thought of thought. The soul is in a manner all that is: the soul is the form of forms. Tranquility  sudden, vast, candescent, form of forms. (p. 21, line 70, Gaebler edition.)

How the mind wanders, and wonders.  I heard the first time you read for the plot–I’m not sure about that–I think it’s for the experience of those mind melds, those characters, their concerns are remarkably contemporary. This year when Bloomsday rolls around I’ll be a bit more clued in, and I’m keeping the book on my shelves. I can say I read it through once but I know there’s much more there if I brave it again.