Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead…
Contrary to advice I have received from those who have studied Ulysses, I am starting the novel at the beginning and ending at the end. My reading of any given part of the novel will inevitably be influenced by what I have read before, and though once Joyce has published such a work he has no control over the order in which people choose to read it, I’m sure he put the piece together as he did for a reason. To the best of my knowledge, Ulysses is far from an adventure novel, so reading it sequentially to pick up on the developing plot points might not be the wisest motivation to impose such a restriction on myself. My insistence on reading the novel ’in order’ instead stems from roughly the same place as my preferences when listening to pre-millenium music. I have to listen to the whole album with the tracks in the correct order as this is the way it was designed. Listening to individual songs or songs in different orders may have no huge substantive impact on their or the album’s actual content, but listening to the album in the original order in which it was put together illicits a certain reaction that was both how Jay-Z designed it and how people listening at the time would have known it. Of course I am not making the claim that no song on an album can be listened to without working through the whole album, just as I am not advocating reading Ulysses in a single session. But as seminal a stand-alone track as ‘Can I Live’ is, my experience of it would be very different if I didn’t expect the funky sample of ‘Ain’t No Nigga’ to jump in at the end of the fade out.
Besides, when people recommend reading a certain section or other first, it is usually as a way to ‘get in’ to Joyce through a gradual process so that you, the newbie, are not left drowning in the deep end or—much worse—finding it hard to be interested in the text. As far as I’m concerned, the thrill of the experience is jumping into the deep, chilly water with JJ with nothing to cling onto and slowly building a raft with floating debris you come across. (I’ve just read the first few pages of Ulysses. The sea metaphor was unavoidable. (And oh-so-apt.))
To this end I know staggeringly little about what to expect. I know that the action takes place in Dublin in the space of one day. That is literally about it. I have even resisted Wikipediaing the novel (though I may not be able to resist for much longer) so that the dive in is as stark and isolating as possible. The event becomes all the more once-in-a-lifetime and memorable, then. You can never experience the joy of contextual ignorance more than once; of building knowledge from nothing. You can never un-read Joyce.
Everybody knows now that Ulysses is the greatest novel of the century
Or so Anthony Burgess loudly and confidently proclaims from the back of my Penguin Modern Classics edition of James Joyce’s magnus opus. It is paperbacked, rather thick, and untouched. Having purchased it six months ago in a fit of literary excitement the tome has assumed a dormant, watchful position on the second-from-top shelf at the foot of my bed. It now enjoys its first outing, lying in my lap uncomfortably, shifting its weight in trepidation of what lies ahead. The sheer unblemished new-ness (or novelty, if you will) of the matted cover and flat pages are a wearying invitation to take the first bite of the fruit; to start the journey from which there will be no return. The weight on my thigh grows heavier.
It is summer. Everyone has to read Ulysses once in their lifetime. My time is now.
(The epic tone of this first post is unavoidable. When one is in a Ulysses-state-of-mind everything becomes rather epic. And one starts using words like ‘one’.)
While it is certainly the case that everyone has to read Ulysses once in their lifetime (this is uncontroversial—just ask Anthony Burgess), all evidence seems to point against me completing this task. As far as I can tell, most people who have forced themselves to read Ulysses on similar grounds seem to have spent the first fifty pages trying to convince themselves that what they were reading was cosmologically seminal and brilliant and the next five pages forming the opinion that what they were reading was a pile of prententious balls. It does seem that unless you are studying it as a text (not merely a text), the novel is not very rewarding. Certainly, as an extreme of modernist literature, it is famously far from accessible.
Perhaps I shall be just the same. Another seventeen-year-old with big dreams of conquering literature in a summer who ends up losing interest after breaching the double-digits of pages and spends the rest of his time working through every season of The Wire and Battlestar Galactica. I prefer to hope that I will become absorbed in Joyce and, if not solve the Universe and write the next great piece of literary criticism, at least have a reaction to the text. If Joyce is right, and “literature is ‘the eternal affirmation of the spirit of man’” after all, as the blurb of my still-unopened Modern Classic tells me, then perhaps my knowledge of the portrayal of people caught up in the West Baltimore drug game will influence how I read about Dubliners in the early 20th century. The human condition. The goddamned human condition.
Here I shall chronicle my progress. By September 1st I will have finished reading the novel and will be a different man.
And so it begins…
(PS: Incidentally, if I do fail and this all looks rather naive and idealistic, the whole venture was merely undertaken ironically…)