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Should you read James Joyce's Ulysses?

Being of a certain middle age, I sometimes wonder what form my mid-life crisis will take.

Perhaps staying truest to who I think I am, I've gone back to reading in my spare time (when I am not running an architecture practice, or being a dad and husband). My wife and I recently cancelled our Netflix subscription and I've felt a lot more free since.

A good more than 15 years ago, I bought a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses. I wanted to know what the fuss was about and to have those reference points in my head to be able to draw from. However, like many before me, I became a casualty of the third episode and thought, "If this is how the rest of the book is going to be, maybe I'll put it on the shelf and save it for another day." Another day didn't come for a long time...

Second time around and I've now finished reading it. Would I recommend it to everyone? I would say to that a resounding... not really. Or at least not to everyone. I would however recommend it to anyone with an interest in creative/intellectual expression combined with a willingness to persevere.

Whilst I am glad I finally ticked this box, to be honest I cannot say that I enjoyed all of it; Getting through it was a real slog at times. So what follows are some of my tips for how I got through it (for the very few of you out there who might be interested).

This may end up sounding effusively biased, but I found the edition which I happened to buy - the Oxford World's Classics with notes by Jeri Johnson, to be invaluable. (For those who don't know, there is no single version of Ulysses which can claim to be the final authoritative one.) This edition reproduces the original 1922 text (with all its errors, whether intended or not). But what makes this edition particularly useful is the background information provided as well as Johnson's excellent introduction and her insightful but succinct episode-by-episode commentary. I'm not someone who usually hires a tour guide when I travel, but in my opinion, this is a book which hugely benefits from having a guide to show you around. I sometimes look at other editions of Ulysses when I am in a bookstore - which are devoid of much if any 'help' and I don't know who would be able to get through that on their own unless they were on some university course. (You mean you can't see this is a modern reworking of Homer? Oh gimme a break. Who in their right mind would make those connections on their own?) Plus it is a handy paperback size. (I've heard of a recent Cambridge edition which seems similar in contextual approach, but it looks enormous. I need to be able to hold this in my hands lying in bed; I'm not gonna read this on an altar like some illuminating monk.) So, with the Johnson edition in hand -

Mark up your copy of the book and use post-its. This is a book which requires active reading. Not only did Joyce leave out the episode names, he even left out the episode numbers. Perhaps this deliberate omission adds to the book's enigmatic-ness and impression of non-linearity, but it is not going to help with readability and referencing. The name of each episode is universally agreed - write them in. The episode numbering is perhaps less important but still useful - feel free to write that in too. Joyce's text will still be Joyce's text; No need to treat it as being untouchable. Its not like he treated the texts of those who came before him as sacred.

Get a rough sense of Dublin geography and use the Johnson episode-by-episode commentary to follow the characters as they move through the city. Among the many things this book does, it creates a picture of Dublin on that day in time. Joyce being Joyce, he also leaves out narrative courtesies like describing the location and setting of each episode. I have not been to Dublin yet, so I relied on the map at the beginning of my book. Because it was hard to graphically read, I coloured in the water elements such as the river and canals. It helped to distinguish north side from south side, centre from periphery.

The third episode takes no prisoners. I should know. Some say to skip it. My advice would be to understand in advance and be forewarned that it is deliberately ambiguous in describing what is happening in the story versus happening in his (irritatingly erudite) head - then speed read through it. The book actually becomes even more bonkers further in, but by then we at least have the benefit of getting used to the sudden shifts in style. And it is with those playful experiments with style where it starts to become creatively rewarding (insofar as one can consider reading Ulysses rewarding) - where you wonder, what is Joyce gonna do next? It could be argued that all 18 episodes each have their own 'style', but it starts to become more distinctly noticeable from around Aeolus (episode 7) and onwards. Hang in there until you get there.

There are numerous places where it feels like you are reading a phone book. Just glaze over those parts. In fact, it can be so loquacious at times you almost need to build up a tolerance towards a form of rambling that can feel distinctly Irish. (I hope that doesn't come off as racist?) I've found it even helped when I read some passages in my head with an Irish accent. (Again, hope that isn't racist.)

Don't go crazy trying to make literal translations of each episode from the Odyssey - a joyless (and possibly hopeless) exercise better left to academics. Joyce uses Homer as a very loose springboard to do things with words which he wants to do. Having said that, it does enrich the experience to have the Homeric background to each episode, which Johnson summarises in her notes. With that rough understanding, one can better appreciate the different ways Joyce chose to interpret/translate/adapt/abstract/contrast/ignore/transform/etc to do his own thing. For instance, in Cyclops (episode 12) there are some nameless figures espousing some xenophobic and racist sentiments. Having only one eye (like the Cyclops creature) "...allows no depth perception... [and so] sits fittingly with bigotry, self-centredness, and rage." (Courtesy of Johnson's episode commentary. Be honest, would you have made that connection on your own?)

This edition of the book also includes both the Gilbert and Linati Schemas. These help to break down the way each episode relates to a time of day, a body organ, an art form, a colour, a technique, "...being interconnected and interrelated in the somatic scheme of the whole" (Joyce's words). It says something that there is more than one schema. Although there is a good deal of overlap between Gilbert and Linati, they don't always agree. Probably the way Joyce would have wanted.

Ulysses tends to be known for its 'stream-of-consciousness technique.' Joyce was undoubtedly a master of writing like that, (the way we shouldn't if we want to be clearly understood,) but then again, a solid case could be made for Joyce more generally being the greatest ever chameleon of the English language. (It probably helped that he knew many other languages too.) But Ulysses is so much more than its style(s) of writing. It is a celebration of the mundane in the everyday. It is the tension between intellectual ideals (often associated with youth) and commercial pragmatism (often associated with older people). It is a point of view from a minority in society. It is a case for the primacy of the bodily experience as a playful response to the dichotomous notion of the mind over body (and by extension, mind over matter). (Is that last one a stretch? Maybe my wishful thinking?)

Consider all the different ways Ulysses has been ingrained into contemporary culture as a granddaddy. If a clever chef were to say, "I present to you, a tomato... in 7 different ways!" Sounds a bit Joycean, no? Or how the cacophony of overlapping voices in Wandering Rocks (episode 10) felt like a Robert Altman film. Or how colour theory was integrated in Breaking Bad to give it a richer dimension. Or the way David Lynch deliberately leaves the relationships between his characters unexplained. Or how the punctuation-less monologue at the end reminded me of the ending to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Or how Circe, (episode 15 - the 'stage play' which is really more like a self-referential acid trip,) felt similar to the moment in Being John Malkovich, where John Malkovich himself goes into his own head. Joyce was doing all this many years ago.

I hope this helps others who may want to take this journey. There is even a wikiHow page on How to Read Ulysses. I quite like their warning at the end: "If you start reading Ulysses, you will start talking about Ulysses, and when you talk about Ulysses, you are apt to lose friends."

If this is my mid-life crisis, I suppose there are worse ways it could have gone?



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