“It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked lookingglass of a servant.”
June 13, 2015 2:25 PM   Subscribe

Ulysses and Us by Declan Kiberd [Irish Times]
In some ways the fate of Ulysses reflects this openness, at least in the Dublin of today. It seems a work of high modernism, in the manner of a Proust or a Musil, yet it has become a signature element in the life of the city in which it is set. Each year hundreds, maybe thousands, dress as characters from the book – Stephen Dedalus with his cane, Leopold Bloom with bowler hat, Molly Bloom in her petticoats, Blazes Boylan in straw boater – as if to assert their willingness to become one with the text. They re-enact scenes on Eccles Street, on Ormond Quay and in the martello tower in Sandycove. It is impossible to imagine any other masterpiece of modernism having quite such an effect on the life of a city.

- Signed first edition of ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce set to make over €100,000 [Irish Times]
- How Would ‘Ulysses’ Be Received Today? [New York Times]
- Finnegans Wake is a bestseller in China. [The Guardian]
posted by Fizz (22 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I have to admit, I have never read Ulysses, and have never even tried. Which is odd, because I read Pynchon...

I do have the infamous audiobook of Finnegan's Wake, which someday I will listen to.
posted by hippybear at 3:56 PM on June 13, 2015

I 'read' it in my teens ... my dad had a copy. I can't pretend to have picked up on the allegory but, length aside, it wasn't that hard to follow as a stream of consciousness trip through Dublin of a century ago. Living in Dublin now it is a fantastic time machine of a book.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 4:06 PM on June 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm part of a Ulysses book club. After having a run at the book two or three times in my twenties and thirties, and "not getting it", me along with five other frustrated readers got together and decided to tackle a chapter a month. We're now eighteen months in, and it's a blast! We are approaching the end of the book now and seriously considering starting it again.

I think the analogy that comes to mind in reading this book for me is that a typical novel is, say, a walk in a park, whereas Ulysses is more of a mountain climb - you need to go in a group so that when you fall in a crevasse, there's someone with you to pull you out. :)
posted by storybored at 4:33 PM on June 13, 2015 [8 favorites]

We are approaching the end of the book now

Just in time for Bloomsday!!!
posted by Fizz at 4:37 PM on June 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Dogsbody, a great essay about life through the lens of a Ulysses book group.
posted by Navelgazer at 4:55 PM on June 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

That's a nice essay, and I agree with the approach:
The need now is to return to the innocence and naivety of a 1922 reading of the book, before subsequent readings congealed and took on the look of inevitability. Why did Joyce choose to climax it with a meeting between a younger and an older man? The need is not just for a people’s Ulysses in a cheap format but for a people’s reading of Ulysses, to reconnect it to the everyday lives of people, as intended by its author. The more snobbish modernists, such as TS Eliot, sought difficult techniques in order to protect their ideas against appropriation by the newly literate masses, but Joyce foresaw that the real struggle would be to defend his book and those masses against the newly illiterate specialists and technocratic elites.
It's not a difficult book, any more than War and Peace is a difficult book. Finnegans Wake, now that's difficult, and there's every excuse for not even attempting it (though it can be fun to do so), but I always blink in confusion when people treat Ulysses as some kind of unapproachable mystery. It's full of jokes, dammit!
posted by languagehat at 5:24 PM on June 13, 2015 [11 favorites]

Just chiming in here to second languagehat — Ulysses, though not an easy read, is not a particularly hard one either, beyond being longish. It's certainly not as difficult as, say, Mason & Dixon or Gravity's Rainbow. Joyce uses lots of tricks, and each chapter is written in a different style, but it's relatively easy to follow the main threads of the plot, and there are only a handful of major characters. If you want to follow the tie-ins with Greek literature, there are plenty of on-line guides to help. And it's a wonderfully enjoyable book — the language is truly delightful.

If you want to try it out for free, it's on Gutenberg.
posted by ubiquity at 5:49 PM on June 13, 2015

Finnegans Wake, now that's difficult, and there's every excuse for not even attempting it (though it can be fun to do so)

We had a Finnegans Wake reading group at my university. A group of six or seven of us would meet twice a month and perform a close reading line by line and discuss the various references, jokes, languages, and general weird cyclical nature of that story and the text. We only managed about fifty pages during my time and people drifted in and out over the years.

It was sometimes a frustration but mostly delightful and wondrous because there was something magical about diving head first into such a weird text. I miss that group.

Thank You Professor Conley.
posted by Fizz at 6:03 PM on June 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

It's not a difficult book ... It's full of jokes, dammit!

In some places those jokes have made me laugh out loud, but in others the text is thick and knotty and almost impenetrable. With all due respect I think Ulysses is much more difficult than the average novel a non-specialist takes on. To take, for a random example, the opening line of Episode 3:
INELUCTABLE MODALITY OF THE VISIBLE: AT LEAST THAT IF NO MORE, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies.
This is hard going for the 'normal' reader.
posted by StephenF at 6:28 PM on June 13, 2015 [5 favorites]

If you want to try it out for free, it's on Gutenberg.

Most of Joyce is free and available in the public domain.
posted by Fizz at 6:35 PM on June 13, 2015

If you're like most people who view Ulysses as a mountain to climb in the field of literary olympics, then my advice is to begin by reading chapter 4: 'Calypso'. Let the gentle soul of Leopold Bloom be your initial hand-hold.
posted by peacay at 6:59 PM on June 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

> With all due respect I think Ulysses is much more difficult than the average novel a non-specialist takes on.

Well, that's sort of a meaningless statement, in that there's an infinite variety of "non-specialists" and they take on an infinite variety of texts. If someone is accustomed to reading books like, say, Fifty Shades of Gray (not that there's anything wrong with that!), then sure, they're going to have serious problems with Ulysses. But that's kind of a straw man, in that such readers are not likely to even consider reading it. In my experience, many of the people who talk about Ulysses with fear and trembling are the kind of people who are happy to read Pynchon, DFW, and Neal Stephenson, and such people should not have a problem with it.

This is hard going for the 'normal' reader.

Well, it's meant to be hard going; we're being plunged into the mind of a highly educated, showoffy fellow with too many thinks about too many things. Compare the opening of The Sound and the Fury:
Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out, and they were hitting.
In this case we're plunged into the mind of Benjy, a cognitively disabled man (here describing a golf game); his narration is just as difficult as Stephen's, but in a different way. I think The Sound and the Fury is one of the very greatest novels of the past century, and I'm happy to recommend it to people, but I do so with the proviso that you have to give it time and not expect to get it right away; the same goes for Ulysses. But you can always do as peacay suggests and start with chapter 4, which is much easier going.
posted by languagehat at 6:58 AM on June 14, 2015

Well, that's sort of a meaningless statement, in that there's an infinite variety of "non-specialists" and they take on an infinite variety of texts.

Of course there are many types of specialist reading a large number of texts, but I disagree the statement is meaningless. To my mind the 'typical' reader reads books more challenging than 50SoG but less challenging than Pynchon/DFW, and that is what I meant by 'non-specialist', i.e. someone who is not a specialist in literature. Perhaps because Ulysses is so famous those people give it a go and find it difficult.

Also, I'm also not sure how on one hand Ulysses is 'not a difficult book', and on the other hand that parts of it are 'meant to be hard', but again maybe it just comes to very different conceptions of difficulty across the full sweep of the book. I have not read all of the book continuously but I have adored some of the writing and ideas in the parts I was able to get to grips with, wheres Finnegans is a literal and metaphorical closed book to me, at least for now.
posted by StephenF at 7:25 AM on June 14, 2015

As it's not a noun I'm familiar with - although I thought I got the gist as the root of the adjective - I did a Google image search on 'diaphane'. Two themes readily became apparent, neither of them expected, and after the initial lol I've got sucked into conceptual juxtaposition.

Now, being an unreconstructed surrealist, I'm thinking of making a picture based on image search results on all the words in that paragraph. What does Google think when it reads Joyce, eh?
posted by Devonian at 9:29 AM on June 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

> that is what I meant by 'non-specialist', i.e. someone who is not a specialist in literature.

Ah, I understood you to mean a professional specialist (critic, professor, etc.). I still disagree with you, but at least now I know what you mean.

> Also, I'm also not sure how on one hand Ulysses is 'not a difficult book', and on the other hand that parts of it are 'meant to be hard'

Really? It seems pretty clear to me. A "difficult book" in the sense I thought we were talking about here is a book people have reason to fear and avoid (like the Wake); a book with nothing difficult at all in it is, to my mind, a pretty boring book.
posted by languagehat at 9:37 AM on June 14, 2015

As a book is in some major sense a presentation of a reality, one conjured up in the mind of the author, how does the book reality compare to real reality? I don't mean in terms of realism, instead in terms of comprehension. A simple book presents a simple reality, one that doesn't take much to understand. For a lot of books it doesn't take any effort to understand. Then there are books that present a more complex reality. You have to work at it to understand the world the author created. Ulysses, for me, is one such book. But if we look at real reality and actually ponder it's complexity it is just as difficult and even more so than reality in the pages of Ulysses. To read Ulysses is to grapple with a world that more parallels our own, complex, hard to grasp, but rich, full, and one that makes us appreciate this reality we experience every single day of our lives.
posted by njohnson23 at 10:12 AM on June 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

For me, what kept me going at Ulysses was the reward-effort ratio. On the very first read, I missed a ton of things and didn't understand extended passages. However, there was also the Cyclops which was so funny, I laughed till I cried. That doesn't happen that often. So the first effort I made wasn't much but the reward was rich enough for me to try it again.

Now, with the book club, I'm relishing the beauty of the language, and I can get into the arcs of all the individual characters (the cameos are brilliant - the little son of Paddy Dignam on the day of the funeral; Sargent, the boy struggling with math...). On top of that, there's the social dimension of sharing our discoveries, reading favorite passages. At the end of each monthly session, we also pass around a piece of paper and everyone doodles a little sketch inspired by the chapter we read!
posted by storybored at 1:52 PM on June 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

I've read Ulysses once, and I really enjoyed the experience. But I have to agree it's not easy. The problem, compared to an ordinary novel, is that the author isn't doing any "tracking" for the reader. In an ordinary book, if something happens in chapter 40 that follows up from something in chapter 2, you'll be reminded of it. (In a badly-written book that would be done too obviously, but even in a good modern work there are always some techniques we readers can recognize.) In books that focus on romance, for instance, we don't have to be reminded of Elizabeth's & Darcy's last interaction when he comes back into the story many pages later; we paid attention to that sort of thing because we know what matters, but we might have to be gently reminded of an upcoming ball whose invitation arrived ten chapters ago.

In Ulysses, Joyce doesn't do that sort of "tracking" for you at all. Leopold Bloom mentions (in his stream-of-consciousness internal mental narration) that he has a potato in his pocket when he leaves the house. Many chapters later, there's the potato again. In one section, a secretary is reading and eating lunch when she gets a phone call from her boss who arranges to meet someone else in the Ormond Hotel; in a later chapter we stop by the Ormond and there's those two guys -- with no explanation of why they're there offered. Mr. Bloom whistles "The Rose of Castile" all morning, and then in the afternoon sees a train station full of locomotives on tracks and he thinks "the rows of cast steel!" If you can keep track of this stuff, it's a good read, and it's not any more complicated a plot than ordinary daily life.

But this is a big problem: what you need to pay attention to is often only clear after you've read later parts of the book. This is why everybody says things like storybored does: On the very first read, I missed a ton of things and didn't understand extended passages. Who the hell wants to spend months working through a long book solely in order that the next time you read it you'll have a good time??

This is why I always recommend The New Bloomsday Book by Harry Blamires. I had it given to me by a friend, a huge fan of Joyce and Pynchon, when I told him I wanted to read Ulysses. As he explained it, the NBB isn't a Cliff's Notes or summary, but it gives you the advance knowledge you'd have on your second reading in order that you can enjoy your first. As you read along in Ulysses, brush up a couple pages of the corresponding NBB sections so you're familiar with what you're getting into. If you're like me, it'll turn a confusing experience into a fun one.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 2:53 PM on June 14, 2015 [9 favorites]

I used the The New Bloomsday Book as well. It is quite good as Harvey Kilobit says. Among the other gear that our reading Club members packed:

The endnotes at the back of this edition of Ulysses.
The superb (and free) radio dramatization by RTE, the Irish network. Following along in the book is a thrill.
And the Shmoop outline and commentary which is surprisingly good.
For more in-depth exploration of historical and literary terms, the Ulysses Annotated is comprehensive but is overkill for a first or second read. It also doesn't have the text of the novel, only the notes, which means you have to switch back and forth between it and your copy of Ulysses.
Someone in our group also used a set of lectures from the Teaching Company. I tried those but found them not as useful as the above.

Thinking about it now, one reason why our discussions at the Club are so engaging is because we used these multiple sources. Add to that the life experiences of those around the table and we get the pot boiling pretty quick.
posted by storybored at 8:04 PM on June 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, also forgot Nabokov's Lectures on Literature which has an opinionated set of lectures on each chapter (recommended a few months ago to me by MeFi user colfax).
posted by storybored at 8:54 PM on June 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ulysses is optional.
Dubliners is mandatory.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 8:14 AM on June 15, 2015

shots fired
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:47 AM on June 15, 2015

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