The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Wednesday, June 16, 2004  

Reading It All Wrong

It’s that time of year again: mid-June, more specifically June 16, also known as Bloomsday. I know I’m not alone in experiencing pangs of guilt each June arising from never having completed James Joyce’s Ulysses, an emotion accompanied by a sense of inferiority that I just wasn’t up to the task. Every educated person is supposed to have read Ulysses, expected to cherish this novel of novels, right?

For the past few years my annual bout of Ulysses guilt has been more acute, that due to extensive local media coverage and events surrounding Ulysses and Bloomsday arising from the presence, in Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library, of Joyce’s original signed manuscript of Ulysses.

This year, the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday, it was only worse.

Anyone feeling similar guilt and inferiority, whether or not they tried Ulysses three times, as I did, can find relief in “Who’s Afraid of Joyce? The Key to ‘Ulysses’,” by Frank Wilson (Philadelphia Inquirer, June 13). I know I did.

Wilson writes:

David Butler, the education officer at Dublin’s James Joyce Centre, says the book is “about how language surrounds us and conditions us . . . how we’re within language.” So the language of the narrative is inextricably bound up with the substance of it. Robert Nicholson, curator of the James Joyce Museum, says this is “a feature of Irish literature generally -- the telling is as important as the tale.”

The problem is getting a handle on that language. Butler and Nicholson, both of whom have written guides to Ulysses, say one should read the book before reading any commentaries or taking a course in it. Nicholson, who says “there are far too many books about Ulysses,” says it’s best to “read Ulysses first -- then you know what questions you want to ask” -- instead of “reaching for books by people who want to tell you what you ought to understand.” […]

“I think you need . . . to read the whole thing without any notes,” he adds, “which is how I did it, even though I understood only 5 or 10 percent of it.”

One problem, Butler notes, is that “a lot of people get bogged down in Chapter 3 and never get beyond it -- which seems to me tragic.” That’s why he suggests starting with Chapter 4, which introduces “one of the great figures of world literature, Leopold Bloom.”

That, Nicholson says, “is a very practical way of approaching it. . . . Joyce presumably intended [the book] to be read in the order in which it was written, but I agree that [Chapter 3] kills off a lot of potential readers.”

Chapter 3.

Perhaps this passage?

Of Ireland, the Dalcassians, of hopes, conspiracies, of Arthur Griffith now, AE, pomander, good shepherd of me. To yoke me as his yokefellow, our crimes our common cause. You’re your father’s son. I know the voice. His fustian shirt, sanguineflowered, trembles its Spanish tassels at his secrets. M. Drumont, famous journalist, Drumont, know what he called queen Victoria? Old hag with yellow teeth. Vieille ogresse with the dents jaunes. Maud Gonne, beautiful woman, la Patrie, M. Millevoye, Félix Faure, know how he died? Licentious men. The froeken, bonne à tout faire, who rubs male nakedness in the bath at Upsala. Moi faire, she said, tous les messieurs. Not this monsieur, I said. Most licentious custom. Bath a most private thing. I wouldn’t let my brother, not even my own brother, most lascivious thing. Green eyes, I see you. Fang, I fell. Lascivious people. [Ulysses, Hans Walter Gabler, ed., Vintage Books, 1986, p. 36, lines 226-238.]

uh-huh I said uh-huh I, um, Uh-huh.

It was in fact, all three times, that I gave up in Chapter 3.

Someday I’ll try again. The “right” way. There’s no rush. Bloomsday will be back again next year.

[Links of interest: Bloomsday 100, the site of the 19th International James Joyce Symposium (June 12 to June 19, Dublin); ReJoyce Dublin 2004, the web site of the Bloomsday Centenary Festival.]

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