My journey to Ulysses began with another classic of the modern canon: the Dr. Demento 20th Anniversary Collection. I listened to those two CDs ad nauseam, ceasing only when the 30th Anniversary Collection was released. Along with “King Tut” and “Monster Mash,” Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!” is one of the more well-known tracks. Though never a real favorite of mine, one verse in that letter from camp always stuck with me:
All the counselors hate the waiters,
And the lake has alligators.
And the head coach wants no sissies,
So he reads to us from something called Ulysses.
This was to be the first of many references to Joyce’s masterpiece that I would pick up on over the years. Mention of Ulysses is always couched in mysterious terms, characterizing the novel as dense, enigmatic, impenetrable. This reputation stands out to me as both a challenge and a warning; it is worth the effort of reading, but it will take effort to appreciate. I refuse to believe that any book written in English (or mostly English) is beyond my abilities, and I have decided it’s finally time to dig in and read the unreadable Ulysses.
Beyond the challenge of its reputation, I have a couple more reasons to read Ulysses. The events of the novel take place on June 16, 1904, and Joyce-lovers worldwide commemorate the date in an annual celebration known as “Bloomsday.” The very idea of a global book party is appealing to me, and I don’t want to miss another year of it. More significant, perhaps, is the personal connection I have to Bloomsday: June 16th is my birthday. Finally, the character originated by Gene Wilder in The Producers is named “Leopold Bloom,” and I want to get that joke.
In the dozens of guides to, annotations of, and lectures on Ulysses, you’ll find many recommendations that first-time readers just read it. Don’t get bogged down in trying to decipher each line, but immerse yourself in the art of the writing and save the analysis for later. I intend to follow this advice, but I don’t think that means diving in totally blind. I made a To-Do reading list to best prepare myself for Ulysses. I realize it would take a life’s education in history, literature, language, and culture to fully understand the novel from the get-go, but I’m happy to work with what I’ve got.
The Odyssey. The Odyssey is the most well known of Ulysses’ foundational works. I knew I wouldn’t make myself sit down to read it, so I took part in the ancient oral tradition of Homeric epics—an affordable audiobook set of W.H.D. Rouse’s translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey were too good to pass up and made for excellent road trip listening. The trials and tribulations of Odysseus are a significantly smaller part of The Odyssey than I realized. It has much more to do with the humanity of Telemachus, Penelope, and Odysseus than the monstrosities encountered. (As a side note, I was constantly reminded while listening that all my instincts for Greek pronunciation are dead wrong.)
Hamlet, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night. I’ve seen reference to these specific plays in various Ulysses guides. This year I tried to read a Shakespeare play a month, and these three fit into my schedule nicely. These plays must be particularly inspiring to authors—I last read Hamlet for its relationship to Infinite Jest (another challenge novel) and The Tempest for its part in Robertson Davies’ Tempest-Tost (the first of the marvelous Salterton Trilogy). The rom-com industry wishes it could get away with Twelfth Night’s ridiculousness.
Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. What better way to prepare for reading Joyce than by reading Joyce? Not only are the characters in these works said to reappear in Ulysses, but the earlier works will be a preview of the author’s style and voice. I read Dubliners on the beach, as the author intended. By all accounts Joyce’s most accessible work, the short stories are deceptively simple. I look forward to revisiting Dubliners in the future, perhaps when I am more worldly and receptive of its subtleties.
I connected with Portrait of the Artist in ways I had not anticipated. Catholicism truly knows no geographical or temporal bounds: Jesuits in 19th century Dublin and Sunday school teachers in 21st century Alabama communicate the doctrine with comparably terrifying efficacy. I finished Portrait, read a brief Cliffs Notes booklet, and read Portrait again. Rereading with an eye toward specific symbols, motifs, and themes enriched the experience and made the repetition rewarding.
The Making of Modern Ireland 1603-1923, J.C. Beckett. The politics and history of Ireland and its people are essential to the people and plot of Ulysses, and I am woefully behind in this realm of knowledge. The Making of Modern Ireland, published in 1966, begins with the end of the Nine Years War, when England established a centralized rule over the whole island, and ends right around the time of Ulysses’ publication. My years of American education seem to have left Ireland completely out, so I will be honest: I had no concept of Ireland as the conquered people who have spent centuries under the thumb of the English. The Making of Modern Ireland is a take-no-prisoners account of top-down political and parliamentary history. I may not remember all the names and dates, but I have a much better sense of the course of Irish history.
It goes without saying, none of these works is simply a means to the end of Ulysses; obviously Homer and Shakespeare are worthy of dedicated study themselves. One may train to run a marathon in the future, but each day of exercise carries with it health and wellness benefits that are themselves successes. I am excited to read Ulysses, but I am happy to have an excuse to absorb other great works with purpose. It’s a journey, and every step is a journey unto itself.
My post-Ulysses plan revolves around listening more than reading. I
downloaded an audiobook in the Great Courses series on Ulysses, taught by Professor James A. W. Heffernan. (While it is listed at $129.95 on the series’ web site, the price is right at one $14.95 Audible credit.) I am most definitely going to track down Joseph Campbell’s lecture series on Ulysses called “Wings of Art.” I’m passionate about Campbell, and Campbell is passionate about Joyce, so I think we’ll all get along very well. I also picked up a second-hand copy of Stuart Gilbert’s famous James Joyce’s Ulysses. Gilbert’s work will probably be a nice reference for future readings of the novel.
With every check off the list, I enjoy this journey more. I begin Ulysses January 1, 2016. My goal is to be ready for Bloomsday 2016, which shouldn’t be a problem as far as the reading goes (understanding is a different matter). I am sure I am not ready, but I’m no sissy.