Thoughts on reading Ulysses


James Joyce
Onomatopoeia. Odd, sometimes, entertaining too. Like speed bumps that make you slow down and silently mouth the letters. A slow smile at the sound it makes in your head. Alliteration. Anastrophe. Joycean wordplay.

What is that word? A neologism? Or some Irish colloquialism? An anachronism? Another language? Or more playful spelling? So many to stumble over.

Notes. Can’t read Ulysses without the notes. Too many Latin, too many French, too many Gaelic phrases for my monolinguistic brain. Too many Catholic references for my secular upbringing. Too many dips into the classics for my modern education. Irish politics. British politics. Contemporary culture. Jesuits. French authors. Greek tragedies. Lost without the notes.

But notes add to the work. From 930 pages, it expands to almost 1,200. A third larger, a third more to read.

Stream of consciousness? Misleading. That implies a beginning and an end; a source and a destination. A collective movement towards a goal, words flowing in harmony like fish spawning. A direction towards the final outcome. Ulysses is more explosive. A torrent of consciousness. A tsunami. Volcanic eruption of words.

Who would have thought the minutiae of bodily functions so worthy of literature? So many words dedicated to base biological acts.

Was Joyce’s world really so repressed? Were men really so uncomfortable with women and women’s sexuality? If this this the world my parents grew up in, it explains a lot about them – and how they handled my own childhood.

Of course, it’s set in 1904, the hump of the Edwardian era, before the Great War that would sweep away the last vestiges of Victorianism from Europe (although not the USA, where it still has hold). Literary archeology. And it’s Dublin, even further outside my cultural frame of reference than London or New York of that time.

This was banned? This was controversial? This sparked howls of outrage? My, weren’t we close-minded back then. A single episode of The Sopranos has more profanity, more irreverence, more sex. But a lot less introspection.

Who is speaking? Who is thinking? Not always clear. Joyce ignores the niceties of form and eschews formality at the expense of clarity.

Reading Joyce is like listening to rain. The patter of a thousand drops drowns out the sound of the one. A susurration of words. You have to strain, at times, to hear the single droplet. But you always go back to the rain.  The white noise of the rain.

Or maybe it’s literary pointillism. Words dotted all over the page; a speckle of writing. A festival of words that seem discrete on close examination, but further back form a whole picture. A landscape built from small fragments.

If Jackson Pollock had worked on typewriter would he approach this form?
Hidden object computer games can help prepare you for reading Ulysses. It’s a seek-and-find novel. Things lay cunningly hidden in plain sight. Clues littered carefully, carelessly, both.

A single day. Can there be so much life in a single day? Each moment trickles by in a slush of words. Are our lives really so filled? If you stop and listen to the noise in our brains, is this what we hear? Our monkey minds hopping and dashing and skittering all the time?

Literary references. Mythologies. Historical shadows. Philosophies. Obscurities. Music. Poetry. Religion. How deep was his learning, how deep his reason? Made up or dredged from intellectual depths? How am I to see the light when the water this deep is so dark?

Read. Then re-read. Parse the sentence one steppingstone at a time. Hold each word in your mind, one at a time, gently, rolling it around before putting it back and picking up the next.

Reading Bloom’s thoughts: a counterpoint to Stephen Daedalus. Almost calming, after the raucous, hop-about mind of Daedalus. Bloom seems content, assured, confident of the world and his place in it. Daedalus is unsure, questioning, angst-ridden. Or perhaps it’s just that Bloom’s insecurities are in different places. 

Is Bloom more sensual than Daedalus? Certainly his thoughts are more fleshy, more curvaceous, more about sex, if not always passion. But his is a failed sensuality. Stephen’s is still in blossom (pun: Bloom).

Audiobook on MP3 player. I read a chapter, listen to a chapter.  Tag-team media, trying to encompass it all. Dramatic audio rendition, very professional performance, not simply read from the pages, and remarkable for being free. Lots comes out in the saying of it that gets glossed over in the reading. Makes it much more Irish to hear the lilt of the speakers than just imagine it. Takes longer, though, than just reading.

Funny? It’s supposed to be funny? Maybe ironically. Maybe dryly. Maybe a nudge and a wink, that intellectually sly joke about the Homeric tale. That’s thin: a moment’s laugh, worn off quickly. But not laugh out loud stuff. Not that I can find, yet. In jokes, perhaps.

A hundred pages (plus a third as many of notes), and it seems I’ve barely cracked the surface.  Barely noon, Joyce-time. The book sits fat beside me, the bookmark disappointingly located close to the cover. I’ve got a long way to go before he reaches night.

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