Friday, 9 January 2015

How to read James Joyce's Ulysses

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I have done this about five times, and had plenty of time to reflect on the experience - so here are some suggestions...

Firstly, it is best to be young - in the teens or early twenties, or else in that state of psychological neoteny which sometimes afflicts academics, scientists and artists. Indeed, I doubt whether it is worth reading James Joyce if you are a mature adult - married, a father, that kind of thing.

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Of course I am suggesting that it is worth at least some people reading some of Joyce; and that is because he does what he does very well - and he was a master of language (when he wasn't writing merely to advertise his technique, or to exemplify some tiresome theoretical framework).

But while Joyce's skill as a prose artist is of the front rank, and he took great pains with his writing; as a man he was immature, conceited, pretentious and shallow - so there is a limit to how much one can (or should) get from reading Joyce.

So Ulysses contains some really wonderful parts, and even more pointless, turgid and/ or wilfully obscure stuff (by my interpretation Joyce deliberately deployed obscurity to hide his self-obsessed monomania).

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When Joyce is good, he is always writing about himself - in the form of his alter ego Stephen Dedalus. The other characters either serve the goal of elucidating, highlighting, aggrandizing Stephen - or else they are essentially padding (and that stricture includes Leopold Bloom, as well as his wife Molly, insofar as he is not interacting with Stephen).

At root, Ulysses is an episode in the life, in the artistic development, of Stephen Dedalus - who is implicitly the author of Ulysses; Ulysses is 'about' what made it possible to become the man who went-on to write Ulysses.

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But, but, but - it is incredibly-difficult/ impossible for the na├»ve reader to know what the heck is going on in Ulysses.

Therefore, to read Ulysses, you need already to know Stephen - which means you need already to have read the earlier stages of his biography in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

But Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is also incredibly difficult to understand - therefore you need already to have read its plainly written draft version: Stephen Hero

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(Comparing Stephen Hero with Portrait shows the great increase in Joyce's skill as a writer - but also the degree to which he deliberately used obscurity in order to make his writing seem more impressive.)

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So, here is the scheme for How to read Ulysses:

1. Read Stephen Hero. (And if you can't abide Stephen - which would be understandable, stop here.)

2. Read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

3. Read the parts of Ulysses concerned with Stephen; skipping-over the rest.

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In fact, just read the first three chapters of Ulysses - which are the best things in the book - and if you don't like them then you may as well give-up at that point and save yourself a lot of pain.

4. If you have liked all of this, then read the rest - why not? But I warn you that much of the second half is both worthless and intensely-annoying - perhaps especially the 'Oxen of the Sun' and 'Circe' episodes.

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Sincere Note: Do not, I implore you, attempt to read Finnegans Wake.

You will not succeed; but even if you did you will have wasted your time and energy.

Everything that was bad about Ulysses, and nothing that was good, is put into Finnegans Wake - and amplified to the nth degree.

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8 comments:

Wm Jas said...

No one reads Finnegans Wake, but reading in it can be rewarding -- plenty of extremely clever puns and such, if you like that sort of thing.

josh said...

Lol. I was going to ask about Finnegans Wake. I wasted a small fraction of my wasted youth on that one.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - Tennis without a net isn't much of a game...

Adam G. said...

Not reading Ulysses was long ago checked off my bucket list.

Nicholas Fulford said...

Never read more than 1 page of Finnegan's Wake in a sitting. To do otherwise will set you on the path to madness.

If you insist on reading more than 1 page, you may as well pick two different pages at random, as it will make no more - possibly no less - sense than reading two sequential pages. You may also opt to read the pages bottom to top and right to left, or place the two pages side by side and pick words alternately between the two pages. (I have it on good authority that Finnegan's Wake makes a great cipher if you need to communicate secretly, or to really confuse your enemy just send the two pages as a message, since they will never make sense of it.)

If you have a "friend" who has airs of erudition, and who is having a big celebration, publicly present the book to him as a fine gift. Insure that he understands the significance of your gesture, by announcing how you are certain that with a little effort he will unlock the secrets of the tome.

The book is also a useful cure for insomnia, and has been highly regarded by many incurable psychotics in the local institute for the criminally insane. Such high praise is also given by the high priests of English literature. (One wonders if they also belong in an institute for the criminally insane.)

pyrrhus said...

Portrait of the Artist remains my favorite...along with Dubliners. I find them both very approachable...

HofJude said...

I'm stunned.
What Ulysses teaches, Bruce, is that Deadalus is a jejeune fool who is self-absorbed and incomplete until he achieves an aufhebung with the far superior (though vulgar and uneducated) consciousness of Bloom. And since most students (and, apparentluy, one middle-aged professor) identify all too easily with Stephen, the prescription is to close thy Portrait of an Artist and read only the parts of Ulyssses that deal with Bloom.

Bruce Charlton said...

@HoJ - Well, that is the way I saw recommended to read Ulysses (Bloom-centric)- but I'm sure Joyce did NOT regard Stephen as a jejune fool; quite the opposite - and when/ if we personally reach the level of maturity to regard Stephen as puerile, then it is too late to read Ulysses with full appreciation.

If Bloom is made the focus then the novel is pretty shapeless - but if Stephen is recognized as the focus it has the satisfying shape of a Bildungsroman.