Every once and awhile I get it into my head that I’ve neglected my education, wasting time I should have spent on studies with games and fun. When I start to feel this way, I create elaborate scenarios in which I pull myself up by the bookstraps. The modification of the phrase is intentional because my self-help regime is nearly always predicated on going back to the basics and reading all those great books that I never read in high school or my time as an undergraduate. This lasts until I start with one of those “great books” and recall why I never read them in the first place (they fail to capture my attention, they are too “hard,” etc.). I try to justify to myself that such an education is unimportant or that teaching oneself through great books is flawed pedagogically.
I don’t believe myself, though. I feel there is a reason for the canon, and that I am short-shrifting my development as a writer if I am unaware of these books. When Modern Library released their list of the 100 great books of this century last year, I felt my guilt once again, for now I had a list of books for which I had never read past the cover. I resolved to read them, realizing that I might not make it through the entire list, but might be able to get myself through at least the top ten, or, if failing that, at least the top one. I could at least start there, right?
But therein lies the rub–the number one slot was held by that most modern of modernists, the man who made mainstream, that detailer of endless incunabula: James Joyce. Joyce’s writing was not so praised during his life as it is now, yet he knew that he was writing for the ages. One quote that is attributed to him that puts this into perspective went something like “I will put in enough minutia to keep the university professors busy” (my paraphrase).
My opinion of Joyce began to change when Michael Dirda, a Washington Post book columnist, responding to the Modern Library list, published his eccentric list of the best 100 novels of comedy and humor in this century, including Ulysses as both a nod to the Modern Library list and a backhand to the kibitzers who felt that Ulysses didn’t deserve the top slot. Okay, I thought, so I really need to read this book, kind of like I really needed to see Citizen Kane and Gone with the Wind before I started feeling comfortable with my comments on some movies.
However, I did not feel very confident of my ability as a reader to comprehend this mountain of a novel, so I found a companion volume that had annotations, written by a university professor, of course. Then I had to wait for an opportunity to present itself to read the two books. I needed more than a simple weekend for this book. When I knew that I would be joining Jill for two-and-a-half weeks in Germany, including a lot of time to myself while she was working. Thus, the reading material to take was decided automatically.
Even isolated, with the impetus of my own guilt, even with aid, this is not an easy novel to read. The first thing I discovered about Ulysses is that it is a sequel to Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners. SF and fantasy writers are often accused of being unimaginative when they create a world for one book, then continue to use this world for additional stories. I was surprised to find Joyce, the epitome of literary values, the antithesis of most “genre,” to have a shared world that he continued to visit. Not only that, but the world is the very one in which he lived–Dublin at the turn of the century. Rather than create something new (like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County), he simply wrote about what he knew.
If I stopped describing the novel there, Ulysses wouldn’t be much of an achievement. But from these humble beginnings, Joyce had some major plans. The idea: describe one day in absolute detail, missing nothing. But, more than that, concentrate on one man, a stand-in for the classical hero Ulysses from Homer’sOdyssey, and correlate action, events and characters to that story. Within each section, change the writing style from the realism of Hardy and Lawrence to increasing experimental modernist techniques (such as stream of consciousness), including diversions like a history of literature through writing styles, a section that tries to recreate music in prose, and a dream-like section that uses the format of a play to present a phantasmal sequence. Basically, Joyce devised a novel in which he was able to throw in everything, including the kitchen sink and toilet.
Initially I was lost, trying to follow Stephen Dedalus, trying to figure out where his story fit in with that of Leopold Bloom, whom I knew from commentary was the actual protagonist. I found myself undergoing a crash course in Irish history and Roman Catholic theology, as presented through the annotations, which also presented a problem in understanding the basic story, as I lost myself with diversions. Then things started to settle down. Once Bloom entered the stage, I began to enjoy some of the story and its setting. The endless notations about whether so-and-so was actually a fishmonger at the corner of such-and-such street in the annotations I found less than useless, however (for scholars, such information might prove necessary; for the casual reader, it is superfluous). Ulysses demands of its reader the trivial knowledge (at least from the standpoint of today) of every notable figure in Dublin at the time, along with the somewhat complex differentiation between the Catholics and the Protestants (I hesitate to call this information trivial, as it can help someone understand the current situation in Ireland). This is not a book that will survive 500 years, though, I feel–at least, not without the annotations–for it relies so much on things that are fading so quickly. Whereas Shakespeare had the ability to put something in his plays for everyone, scholar and groundling, Joyce may have forgotten the little people.
Am I glad to have read this book? Certainly, if only to be able to say that I have read it, and to understand when someone makes an allusion to it. But it is a flawed masterpiece.
[Finished Sep 1999]