Monday, June 16, 2008

ULYSSES by James Joyce

The Book: James Joyce, ULYSSES. Vintage trade paperback reprint, 1990. Good condition; pages are age-browned, spine is bowed and heavily creased. Owner's signature on front flyleaf.
First read: 1987-1994
Owned since: 1990

Today is Bloomsday, the day on which all the events of ULYSSES take place. On opposite sides of town, medical student Stephen Dedalus and newspaper adman Leopold Bloom wake up, eat breakfast, and start their separate journeys across Dublin. They meet up, spend some time together, go home.

Nothing much happens in ULYSSES, but it is considered one of the greatest works in the English language. No detail, internal or external, is too small to miss Joyce's notice. His blunt honesty about the things people do and think got ULYSSES banned for obscenity in the United States from its publication date in 1922 to 1933.

My first exposure to ULYSSES was at a live reading in 1987; the director and filmmaker Herbert S. Guggenheim used to stage an annual marathon reading at the Irish Times bar on Capitol Hill. Jammed into this book are programs for the 1990, '92 and '94 readings. ULYSSES is notoriously difficult to read on the page, but rollicking and mesmerizing when read aloud; it's full of puns and internal monologues and snarky asides. I struggled through this book for seven years before I finally got through it, though in that time I would often go back to passages I particularly liked.

Right now I'm listening to it again on audiobook, downloaded in three separate volumes. It takes about 37 hours to read the entire book; Guggenheim's marathons would start on the morning of the 16th and end late in the evening of the following day. At the rate I've been listening, I figure I'll get through this version sometime late in the month. I listen in the morning and the evening, when I walk Dizzy from one side of Gardiner to another, and can't imagine how foolish my face must sometimes look.

James Joyce put everything he had into ULYSSES. Bloomsday itself -- June 16, 1904 -- was the date of his first encounter with Nora Barnacle, who became his lifelong partner. Joyce left Dublin later that year, and never lived there again, but Bloom's and Dedalus's wanderings in ULYSSES are so geographically precise that agencies give walking tours based on the book. (At one point, Bloom wonders whether it would be possible to plot a route across Dublin that would avoid all pubs. I have never been to Dublin, but I assume the answer is no.)

ULYSSES is funny and angry and sad and deeply paranoid, but ends with one of the greatest celebrations of female power and optimism ever written. Bloom, a Jew, is an outsider wherever he goes, and knows that his wife is about to launch an affair. Dedalus, a scholarship student among those wealthier than he, suffers paralyzing guilt over his refusal on principle to pray with his dying mother. Both men are obsessed with what other people think of them, or (as is more often the case) don't.

Joyce gives the final section of the novel to Bloom's wife, Molly, in an extended pre-sleep reverie. Molly, a professional singer, wastes no time worrying about what anyone thinks of her; she reviews and revels in her own experience, her own wants and desires, and her own greed for life: "yes I said yes I will Yes."

While I was reading ULYSSES I also read Richard Ellmann's fine biography of Joyce, and Brenda Maddox's equally good NORA: The Real Life of Molly Bloom. It's fun to see how much of ULYSSES is autobiographical, but not necessary to enjoy the vast pageant that unfolds here. If you're reading it on your own, however, a study guide is essential; I am not ashamed to say that right next to ULYSSES on my bookshelf is the Cliff's Notes guide. It's the only Cliff's Notes I've ever purchased.

1 comment:

steven L. said...

Finished this epic a couple of weeks ago thanks to the magic of audio books. Joyce's frank language usually meant not listening on the morning school drop-off trip. Hearing the inner thoughts of L. Bloom gave me some insight on what might be going through the mind of my childhood friend M. Miron.

Steve L.