I would never have decided to read Ulysses all on my own. But my friend Nancy invited me to join her in a project of reading one episode a week, and I thought there are worse ways to spend four months. I knew that Ulysses is considered Difficult. Whole college courses are devoted to this book. In a documentary called “Joyce to the World,” someone said that no one had ever really read the book at all.
A lot of writing is Difficult. The Bible is Difficult. That doesn’t stop unimaginative, unreflective people from making their living tell others what it says. OK, that’s not the best introduction to a post about reading Ulysses. The thing is, it bothers me that we are taught to be afraid of reading something difficult because we assume we need someone to tell us what it means. I make my living telling people they can have their own experience with music and with art that is valid simply because it is theirs. It was in that spirit that I joined Nancy in reading Ulysses.
In my teaching I like to find out what students are already thinking. It’s gives us a place to start. Here’s what I knew about Ulysses before I started reading it: it takes place in one day in Dublin, June 16, 1904, which is known and celebrated all over the world as Bloomsday. Leopold Bloom is the main character. The story is a hero’s journey that roughly follows Homer’s Odyssey. Leopold is married to Molly Bloom whose soliloquy at the end of the book is magnificent. Stephen Dedalus is a character.
Stephen Dedalus and I go way back to a high school English class and Mrs.LaBell, a beloved English teacher. She infused me with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I was drawn to Stephen and his dreamy reflections, his earnestness, and his struggle to find meaning in the sterile religious atmosphere of Ireland. Towards the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are words that I memorized and have repeated to myself for forty years:
“I shall not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church. . . I do not fear to be alone. . . I am not afraid to make a mistake.”
Stephen was a great comfort to me as I separated from parents who did not understand what I needed as a young and female Person, and when I left the religion that had been pounded relentlessly into me from an early age. I have often felt alone in my life and I’ve made a great many mistakes (which Joyce calls “portals of discoveries” in Ulysses) and I have never forgotten that Stephen Dedalus went before me.
So this present day Joycean Odyssey began with Nancy and this article by Edwin Turner. Nancy had already started reading when I joined her in early January. A few more people signed up for the project.
I asked my neighbor Gwen who knows something about just about everything, and who is a great reader, if she wanted to join us.
“I’ll think about it, “she said
That’s what I say every time she urges me to read Patrick O’Brien.
As things stand now I am about to embark on Episode 9. We have lost one of the originals who called herself a fallen English major and gave herself an F. I’m not sure if another of us has stalled out or not. Chris the unclassifiable joined us even after getting a look at the guide that Edwin Turner called “a dour book that manages to suck all the fun out of Joyce’s work.” We also have in our midst someone who has already read Ulysses twice and who cheers us on without telling us how much we are missing. I look forward to his comments about our comments.
My routine is to read the episode and make notes on whatever strikes me as interesting or in some cases, whatever I can manage to understand. Episode Seven was so confusing I ended up just making a list of the characters. But there is always wondrous poetry, humor, and Joycean words and expressions that make me gaze out the window and muse. I post my notes to our group, and then I read Nancy’s notes and Blamire’s commentary to find out what really went on in the episode.
A lot of things about grower older have taken me by surprise: 1) once I started reading the plays of Shakespeare, I did not stop until I had read them all (that was last summer and you can read about every play here in my blog plus collect well known phrases to quote at social gatherings.) 2) I have a taste for single-malt Scotch. 3) I am thoroughly enjoying reading Ulysses.