The Ulysstes? The Ulistes?
What better day than Bloomsday to revisit my plan and preparations to read Ulysses. Right on schedule, I started Ulysses January 1, and I was able to finish on February 1. I am not foolish enough to make any attempts toward analysis, but I am comfortable saying that Ulysses is a very good book.
Preparatory Reading Rundown
Nothing I read was more fundamental to Ulysses than A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. If you aren’t familiar with Portrait of the Artist, the first three episodes of Ulysses are about some arrogant kid who isn’t even the main character.
Second in importance to Portrait of the Artist was, not surprisingly, The Odyssey. I did not, however, pick up on most of the allusions without outside help. While some episodes recreate particularly memorable scenes in Odysseus’s adventure–the Cyclops, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis–there are many based on minor characters or even passing references from The Odyssey. Even if I remembered the Lestrygonians episode, I can’t remember their name, and neither Proteus nor any Wandering Rocks are really in the poem. Nonetheless, learning how Joyce wove these myths into Ulysses is fascinating and arresting.
Dubliners prepared me for living literarily in Dublin. While certain Dubliners also appear Ulysses, I did not remember them while reading it. That gives me something more to look for upon future readings.
I didn’t keep count, but it felt like every single Shakespeare play is mentioned at some point in Ulysses. Most fundamental is Hamlet, but all the major tragedies and a hearty helping of the comedies take part in the novel. The life of the Bard himself is also a point of reference in Ulysses, making me wish I knew more of his biography.
Ulysses takes the reader’s knowledge of Irish history as a given, so I’m grateful for having read The Making of Modern Ireland. I needed refreshers at various points, but I had the foundation to pick up on major themes like home rule and religious conflict.
I read another book last year that inadvertently prepared me to read Ulysses: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Mrs. Dalloway consistently employs the stream of consciousness narration to which Ulysses frequently returns. Having settled into reading Woolf’s style, I believe I was better prepared to dive into Joyce’s text.
Midpersual Reference Confession
I did not strictly read Ulysses from cover to cover without consulting outside sources. I kept a copy of the Gilbert schema in my book to review before reading each episode. I didn’t understand most of it, but I used it as a general reference point regarding the corresponding Odyssey episode and the time of day. Otherwise, knowing that the “technic” was “Enthymemic” or “Gigantism” probably confused me more than assisted me. I taped to the back of my book another general list that describes each episode’s theme/technic/joke in layman’s terms. This second list was not helpful at all.
There were only two episodes during which I threw my hands up and found a summary to read online. The first was Episode 11, Sirens, which weaves action and speech from various characters into rhetorical chords and harmonies and melodies. Since this is a style born in the brain of Joyce, I am comfortable admitting I needed help midway through the episode. The second problem episode was 14, Oxen of the Sun. Unlike Sirens, knowing what happens in Episode 14 does not help me follow along with the text. Oxen of the Sun is probably the episode that most earns Ulysses its reputation for impenetrability.
One notable consolation to the reader is that Ulysses does not get progressively more difficult to read. For example, Episodes 9, 11, and 14 may be relatively obtuse, but 8, 13, and 17 are more straightforward and easier to follow along.
Postliminary Learning Listing
The Great Courses series taught by Professor James A. W. Heffernan was the ice cold bottle of orange Gatorade following the grueling workout of Ulysses. Heffernan lit candles down dark corridors that I didn’t even know existed and untied knots that would have kept me eternally tangled.
There is a lecture series available through iTunes U called “Ireland in Rebellion 1782-1916″ that brings to life many major figures, places, movements, and events in Irish history. The opening sentence of the first lecture is a quote from Ulysses: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” The speaker, a Trinity College professor, attributes the quote to Portrait of the Artist, which may invalidate the entire series, but I’m willing to let it go.
Presently I am reading Ulysses again. (Currently in the middle of Oxen of the Sun, ora pro nobis.) After each episode I read the corresponding chapter in Stuart Gilbert’s book, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Every reading and every annotation brings more light and depth to the novel. I also picked up a copy of Daniel R. Schwartz’s Reading Joyce’s Ulysses to get yet another round of illumination.
I used to envy those who share a birthday with some celebrity or historical figure, but now I am confident that June 16 is the best possible birthday. Ulysses deserves the praise and deserves the effort.