Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Reading Ulysses

You know, I'm still figuring out where this blog is going. I have three half-written posts sitting in my drafts folder, another half dozen in my head, and I'm still not sure exactly what I'm going for here. Literary blog? Snarky take on middle age? Breezy observations for women of a certain age?

I'm kidding myself if I think I'm going to be able to stick to one topic, so probably I just need to start finishing them and posting them. In the meantime, I'll tell you about reading Ulysses.

I finished reading it for the fourth time a couple of days ago. (There's no way to say that without sounding like I'm bragging, but damn it, I did read it and it's a lot of work, so I'm bragging.) The first two times were required by classes I took during grad school. The third was also during grad school, but wasn't required. I felt like I needed to read it again before I could write a thesis on it, even though my adviser was telling me to stop reading and start writing (which, in hindsight, was probably good advice).

This time, it happened because I proposed a seven week Ulysses Reading Group to the continuing ed department at our community college. I didn't think it would actually happen--I figured maybe two or three people would sign up and it would get cancelled. But for some reason I thought I should make the effort.

To my surprise, seven people signed up (which is a lot for this type of class), and only three of them were students from previous classes. Apparently more people than just me felt Literary Guilt about reading Ulysses. I'm a literary person, I should read it, right?

So, what's it about? At an old military tower south of Dublin, Stephen Dedalus starts his day with an uncomfortable conversation with his witty, profane, dubious friend Buck. In Dublin, Leopold Bloom decides he wants a pork kidney for breakfast and heads out to the butcher to get one. With those small acts, each begins a journey that will lead them, much later in the day, to each other.

During the day, Stephen walks along the beach and picks his nose, and Bloom's wife takes a lover. Stephen teaches a history lesson to a bunch of snotty kids, then talks to the headmaster at his school and decides to quit his teaching job. Bloom roams around the city, going to a friend's funeral, running errands, trying to sell newspaper ads, eating dinner while he listens to a glorious rendition of an operatic air. Along the way, Stephen thinks great thoughts about life and literature and art; Bloom, ever practical and ever aware, bumps along being his Bloom-y self. We get to listen in on their thoughts, which is by turns fascinating and irritatingly difficult to follow.

Bloom, who is half-Jewish, almost gets in a bar fight when he reminds an increasingly irritated bar patron that Jesus was Jewish. Stephen gets totally trashed drinking with medical student friends in the dining room of a hospital. They both head to the red light district in Dublin, where  a blackly comic series of (fantasies? hallucinations?) take place. Everyone else disappears by the time Stephen passes out in the street, so Bloom picks him up, dusts him off, and takes him to get something non-alcoholic in him, then ends up taking him home for a cup of cocoa. Stephen then takes off, Bloom goes up and goes to bed, in the process waking up his wife Molly, who gets the last 40 pages as she sleepily thinks about her lover, her marriage, and life in general. And that's about it.

Here's my verdict, after reading it four times. If you like complicated jigsaw puzzles and you like words, and especially if you know something about Irish history and culture, then plunge in. Get Harry Blamires' New Bloomsday Book and Stuart Gilbert's book and go for it (there are several dozen others, but they tend to be really expensive. Those are the two that will give you the most bang for the buck). Jim Norton's narration on the audiobook version is a work of art in itself. Oh, and Shmoop and the Joyce Project will come in handy, too. In fact, e-mail me and I'll send you the reader's guide I wrote for this class.

There's no doubt in my mind that Ulysses is a masterpiece and that Joyce is a genius. It is jaw-dropping, not just once but over and over again, what Joyce accomplishes in the pages of Ulysses. It is a huge, sprawling, intimate, joyous, intricate 700-page ode to words and what you can do with them.

But given the number of works of genius out there, for most of us, is it worth the massive effort required? There are thousands of other books you could be reading. Hundreds of thousands. And even having read it three times before, it took me nine weeks to finish (we ended up going an extra two weeks to get it done). I will probably lose my place in the great literary point keeping system in the sky for saying this, but you know, for most of us, honestly, it's probably not worth the amount of time it takes.

I'm waiting for a bolt of lightning to strike me so I think I'll just stop right there.

No comments: