« Hands at work... | Main | Portal »

August 28, 2012


Well done reading "Ulysses" - I never managed to. "Finnegan's Wake" next, Beth!

Thank you for this beautiful musing, Beth. I'm chagrined to discover that while I read Ulysses with great enjoyment one summer during college, I don't seem to have the stamina to stick with it now. Maybe it helped that I was backpacking and it was the only English-language book in my backpack! Today there are just too many competing pulls on my time. Alas.

But I love your point that The real brilliance of the book, I suspect, is not its erudition, verbal alacrity, or monumental pile of obscure references, but what it tells us about simple humanity; what it says about who we all are underneath our chosen veneers: human minds in physical bodies, and beautiful for it -- in spite of all our sins, excesses, failings, weaknesses and posturings. That's a lovely insight.

Beth, you hit the nail squarely on the head with this sentence: But as the reader, you are also invited not only to examine your own thoughts, your own consciousness (both self- and sub-) in general, ("yes, I'm like Bloom, or Stephen, or Molly, I've thought like that too"), but to look back on the reading experience itself and say, wait a minute, this is what I've been doing as I read.

Yes, yes, yes. That's it exactly, and not just regarding Joyce, but other challenging books, too. Reading Ulysses is only partly "about" Ulysses: it's also about reading, and what it means to follow someone's stream-of-consciousness while wading/surfing/drowning in one's own "stream."

I'm still determined to finish it, although I've been reading other, less-demanding stuff in the meantime. I think you were smart to go back and re-read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: I read that so many years ago that I don't remember much of it, other than I don't think I liked it. (Dedalus is a tough character to like, I think, perhaps because he seems to be so overwrought and absorbed in himself.)

Well I think you've done Ulysses proud.

If I say it's my favourite novel (read it three or four times, can't remember which) that must be set against the many failures in my pygmy literary life: The Brothers K (Five goes, the last one fading into inanition round about page 300), Conrad (not a word other than the The Secret Agent which is surely atypical), Lawrence (only - to my acute shame - Lady C), Tristram Shandy (Uh-uh, first page only), Don Quixote (Completed but without a scintilla of pleasure).

In saying one has read U one must be prepared for the extreme lack of interest this achievement engenders in others. As a result I have never recommended it to anyone although I have, in a minor way, helped those have made a genuine stab. The key is the crib, in my case Anthony Burgess's ReJoyce. There is no way I would have worked out which chapter in U represented which passage in the O
without it - more particularly Why? Also one needs the guidance of someone who is demonstrably not posing and AB, so egocentric in many other ways, made that first important connection - a sympathy for Bloom that eventually becomes a form of love, as the reader looks deeper and deeper into the mirror and sees him/herself shockingly naked.

I should also add another important influence: Edmund Wilson's essay about U in Axel's Castle. Clear and calm, yet a voyage of mounting excitement.

Again I find myself envying you (first the choir, now this) in being able to write about the first homecoming. You have touched on far more than I could ever manage and your scholarship does you enormous credit. I can only usefully tell you my reactions on completing the third (or fourth) reading. I was astonished how much remains impenetrable. I simply do not have the formal education to pick up the allusions (often extremely windy) in the Dedalus sections. I try and tell myself I should be making a better shift at this and there are tiny new enlightenments. But the further discovery is that whereas these passages are important and must be gone through (I treat them as difficult poetry, another area of literary failure for me) not understanding them is perfectly admissible; as you have pointed out, one cannot escape the conviction that there are parts which many of us will simply not get. "Word music" as GBS says, referring sneeringly to Shakespeare, but which seems to fill the bill here.

I do hope you read it again. You have recorded your impressions mightily, so there will be no obligation the next time.

And when, and if, you can find time, persuade someone who cares to buy the Naxos 22-CD audio set of the complete text (the result of a private passion of Naxos's founder) which is marvellously well read (Nay - Sung!) and which will cause further tons of scale to fall away. Welcome home!

Thank you, Beth, and well done. I have read the Portrait, Dubliners and Ulysses, but not yet Finnegans Wake (no apostrophe). Surely the closing few pages of "The Dead" are amongst the most exquisite ever written? The thing that struck me, as a Dubliner, about Ulysses was how helpful a knowledge of the city was to its reading. In fact, I found myself continuously wondering how the book appeared to that vast majority of readers lacking such local knowledge. (Joyce playing with me, no doubt...). Needless to say, a familiarity with the city is quite irrelevant, and the last thing that Joyce wanted anyway was a book that remained provincial/parochial. If there's anything he was after, it was transcendence, and he got it. To add to Lorenzo's suggestions, I would recommend Ellmann's Joyce, which tells the wonderful story of Nora, Trieste, Paris and Joyce's love-hate relationship with Ireland -- the sow that eats her own farrow, as he memorably put it.

Wonderful to read this, Beth, the careful writings of a careful reader... I think you have it spot on about the Trojan Horse.

Not sure I totally understand everything here but for sure know lots more about Joyce's book Ulysses without having to actually read it.Thanks for falling on the grenade so to speak on this.A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was on the list for an English course at the U. long,long ago and I managed to pass without having to read it then as well.I recall reading about Sylvia Beach who published Joyce in Paris in the 20's,at I think, some risk to herself and finding Joyce to be a difficult individual.Difficult individual,difficult book, I'll pass.

You're making me laugh with the grenade remarks, John! It definitely felt like that sometimes. It's OK, you don't have to read it! Thanks for writing.

Thanks for sharing your reading impressions / reflections. i started to read Ulysses twice, and reading your lines made me a) remember a story that i wrote at the start of the second read (which i just recovered from files and moved back to a story page in fictionaut: "A monkey puzzle rocket burst" - http://fictionaut.com/stories/dorothee-lang/a-monkey-puzzle-rocket-burst --- and b) give the impulse to look for that Ulysses copy that must be somewhere.. not planning to read it all, but to dip into it.

Dorothee, your story is fantastic and I hope everyone who comes here to this post goes and reads it, whether or not they've read Ulysses (and it doesn't matter if they have.) Thanks so much for remembering, and sharing the link here.

Beth, glad you enjoyed the Monkey Puzzle. And i now found that Ulysses copy, and read some passages - and then did a quick calculation: reading it at a pace of a page a day would make it a 3-year-read. which just shows how much is in it. i guess i will keep dipping into it on random for now.

I love your comments here. From what you say, I agree that the "smokescreen" of erudition in Joyce's work is the MacGuffin, to use Hitchcock's concept. I didn't have too much trouble reading Ulysses, but I couldn't make it through Finnegan's Wake. And Joyce is not one of my favorite writers.
Yet I spent an an entire dissertation and many papers unravelling Nabokovian games of a similar sort.

From today's Irish Times, poet Paul Muldoon on Joyce: “The thing about Joyce and many great writers who had such a particular style is that you can only go down that road a certain distance. There was a particular poem I wrote, Cows, which has a lot of what one might call Joycean linguistic play in it, and I realised, more or less as I was writing it, that this was not a route I could go down any farther. You just turn into a half-baked version of Joyce, which for some people is sort of what he turned into anyway himself. Take Finnegans Wake. Startling though it is in some respects, it’s like a huge pile of stuff at the end of a road . . . It’s a dead end. There is no future in that.”

Sorry it took me so long to get to this, but I've been without internet access for a little over a week. Just now getting caught up on the blog entries I've missed.

I went back one more step and read Joyce's The Dubliners and it added even more light to Ulyssess as it handles many of the same theme in a very succinct style. Hard to believe the two were written by the same author.

Since I tend to read for "ideas," i.e. themes, your insights gave me a different way of viewing the novel, though it's unlikely that at this stage of my life I'm going to change my reading preferences. I'm definitley not going to read Finnegan's Wake, but reading Ulysses inspired me to order four books on William Blake. I figured that if I could devote this much effort to reading someone whose work I really didn't like I could certainly expend the same energy on a poet whose works I always wished I understood better.

I remember reading this but same as your reaction, I also can't understand most of the things discussed in it. I even had to ask a friend who was so good in literature to explain to me some parts of the book which, no matter what I do, I couldn't understand. Good thing, my friend was patient enough to explain it to me. After hearing her explanation, I found the piece amazing and a work of art that should be read by every single individual living in this world.

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo

Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.