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Some thoughts on reading Ulysses

If you haven’t read Ulysses, and if you’re not keen on the idea of doing so, it might be said that I’m reading the book so that you don’t have to. If that’s the case, then…errr…you’re welcome! I should start with two points: first, I haven’t finished it yet – I’m about a third of the way through, so what follows may or may not be my final word. Second, I’ve deliberately avoided reading any commentary or criticism about it. It’s obvious from the outset that an open mind is going to come in handy when grappling with anything by James Joyce. His work is not to everyone’s taste, but as the art critic Robert Hughes said of modern art, “You’re not necessarily meant to like it.”

Joyce went to a Jesuit-run school and was a brilliant student there and at University College Dublin, where he graduated in English, French and Italian in 1902. He considered becoming a doctor and moved to Paris to study medicine, but he quickly gave up the idea and returned to Dublin, where he married in 1903. He and his wife went back to Paris and they lived modestly on the continent for the rest of their lives. Joyce supported himself and his wife with a succession of poorly paid teaching jobs. He visited Dublin briefly in 1912, where he argued with his publisher about his book Dubliners. He left the city and never returned to it again.

Like many of Joyce’s books Ulysses took a long time to write. He started it in 1914, but it wasn’t published until 1922. TS Eliot’s The Waste Land appeared in the same year, and the two works are among the most important statements of the newly emerging ‘Modernist’ movement in art, music and literature. Both works signalled a dramatic departure from the old ways of doing things.

Some features of Joyce’s life are reflected in Ulysses. Two struck me in particular. He lost his faith as a Roman Catholic when he was a teenager, but the Church occupied a huge place in Irish life and in Joyce’s personal world, and the book reflects this. You may have to look closely though, because some of the references are obscure to say the least. I could spot many of them because, although I’m not a Roman Catholic, about 80% of the population where I grew up was, so Catholicism was sort of ‘in the air’, as indeed it is in Ulysses. I also had the advantage of studying A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for my ‘A level’ English exam all those years ago. Close reading of that book, especially its religious references, is a pretty good preparation for embarking upon Ulysses I think.

The second feature of Joyce’s life that is reflected in the book is that he had a marvellous singing voice. He won several singing competitions in his youth and briefly considered a career as an operatic performer. The narrative is punctuated with lines from Italian operas, snatches of popular music hall songs and the occasional hymn. Although ‘punctuated’ isn’t the right word because punctuation is present in written language for a reason, whereas in Ulysses the bursts of song just crop up at random. They serve no special purpose, except to show the haphazard ebb and flow of thoughts, ideas and sensations drifting through the disorganised minds of the characters. In doing so, perhaps they prove the truth of Noel Coward’s line from Private Lives, “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”.

It’s accepted that Joyce’s intention was to draw parallels with Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. Maybe he expressly said so at some point, I don’t know. There have been lots of scholarly examinations of all the points where the two works are said to correspond. I haven’t read any of this academic commentary and I’m not sure it’s worth the effort of doing so. One work may be ‘based upon’ the other, and I may learn more about that as I read further, but for the moment, the task of getting to grips with James Joyce’s Ulysses is hard enough without sensing the ghosts of Homer and his mythic hero Odysseus peering over my shoulder as I’m reading.

I think Joyce’s point is that each of us is the hero of our own epic journey. The basic premise of Ulysses could hardly be more mundane: the central character, Leopold Bloom, is an unremarkable Jewish advertising salesman working for a newspaper. His wife is unfaithful to him and he suffers from …errr… flatulence. On a single June day in the year 1904, he unheroically navigates his way through the trials and tribulations of Dublin life, dealing with the bores, the drunkards, the flirtatious and the sanctimonious in his circle of friends and acquaintances. He weaves his way through the streets and the places he knows well: his home, the newspaper office, the local cemetery for a friend’s funeral. The geography of the city is accurately recorded, the shop names and locations, the churches, parks and public buildings are all precisely and correctly identified. There is a large supporting cast who either exist as flesh-and-blood participants in the action or else they feature in Bloom’s thoughts as his mind wanders, as his memory brings people and events to mind and as his imagination generates flights of fancy relating to sex, friendship, life and death and so on. There are many books that do this, but the challenge in approaching this book is Joyce’s prose style.

Ulysses is hard to read because it doesn’t stick to the rules. Sometimes conventional sentence structure is used and the sounds, rhythms and vocabulary of English, as it was spoken in that time and place, are entirely right. But elsewhere the narrative is fragmented and out of focus, with no distinction made between the inner voices of the characters and their direct, outward speech. Some phrases are left unfinished, with nothing to indicate whether they were spoken out loud or merely thought. Sometimes episodes are separated from one another by spacing or paragraph headings, but very often scenes shift from one to another without warning, without help from the page layout and often without any hint as to where we’ve come from, where we are now or where we’re heading next.

If this sounds off-putting, we should accept that this is actually how we all communicate, either in internal dialogue with ourselves or in outward and audible speech with one another. Nobody, unless they’re trying hard in a ‘public speaking’ context, speaks in complete, perfectly formed sentences. We all mutter, we all use ‘…um..’….and ‘..errr...’, we all occasionally forget to finish what we were sa…..well, you get the idea. We all do it. Ulysses is written like we speak. The characters interrupt and speak over each other, they mispronounce words, jumble them together and lose their trains of thought. This is not a book where you can linger over a clever choice of words or an elegant turn of phrase. As a ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative it makes no concessions and readers are just expected to keep up. Ulysses challenges us to pretend that we know what’s going on in those Dublin streets in 1904: we know who these people are, we know what they’re like, we know the world they live in and we know what they know.

We don’t of course, but it doesn’t matter. Just fall into step alongside Leopold Bloom, walk with him and see where it gets you. Remember, you’re not necessarily meant to like it. You’re not even necessarily meant to understand it. Most novels tell us about someone else’s lived experience. Reading Ulysses is an experience in and of itself.

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