Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Halfway through Ulysses!

I hit about 47% through listening to Ulysses, and I got stalled, big time. Part of it was catching up on the companion books that I finally got from the library, and part of it was realizing I didn't remember hardly anything from the second part (of 4) that I'd tried listening to in audio.

At least I now know I can't absorb audio books in the following situations:
  • Grocery shopping (such a shame!)
  • Right after work
  • While working on anything else (knew this already)
  • During any time my brain is spinning, like lately with the semester starting

I started to develop a routine.  Listen to one chapter in Ulysses, then read the companion books about that chapter - first Blamires, then Gilbert, then Hart/Hayman.  The only trouble is that neither the audio book nor the Kindle version (based on the public domain editions) have the modern chapters with titles.  The audio book has chapters but they are arbitrary and split by time, not contents (argh!).  So I've been juggling multiple versions of this thing, including a few online versions that have the named chapter titles. 

I'm getting closer to the chapter that every scholar talks about or alludes to - Circe.  Halfway through Ulysses, at least in the audio book, is about 1/3 of the way through Chapter 10 - The Wandering Rocks.  It is strange to post halfway through a chapter, but here I am!

What will follow are probably what seem like random observations, or little bits that stuck out to me.  I'll leave the food observations out, but I'm taking note of those to maybe make a Ulysses meal at the end.  Why not? 

"'A father,' Stephen said, battling against hopelessness, 'is a necessary evil.'"
This is from the epic chapter debating Shakespeare to infinity.  There does seem to be a struggle between Stephen and his father, and a greater separation than I remember there being in Portrait.  Of course, Stephen is 3-4 years older now, and has lost his mother in that time.

A few other things I learned about that chapter from the helper books.  Both of these observations come from the chapter on Scylla and Charybdis written by Robert Kellogg in the James Joyce's Ulysses: Critical Essays volume.  The very first sentence says:
"The soul of a city is its talk.  Whether its body is resplendent with avenues or is smudged with laborious grime the vital signs of civic life are verbal: gossip, stories, speeches, and conversations of every sort. The literary artist who would render a city must reproduce its talk. Of no city is this more true than of Dublin, and one of the rarest moments in the fictional history of human talk is 'Scylla and Charybdis,'....."
 Basically, the part I really had to slog through, the part that interested me in the least, is the very part I am supposed to be appreciating the most, according to this guy.  I think it was reading this essay that made me go back and try listening to it one more time.

I also had said I was puzzled why Joyce, over and over, calls one character the "Quaker librarian."  Apparently students who couldn't afford to go to Trinity College or some of the other universities would still meet at the National Library.  Not just students, but intellectuals of all sorts, would gather and the "Quaker librarian," Thomas W. Lyster, would lead the conversation.  Interesting.  It also makes me feel better as a reader to realize I wasn't supposed to just accept that this long, very deep, very detailed conversation on Shakespeare, etc., just materialized.  Rather it came out of a tradition, something Stephen and his friends probably do on a regular basis. 

It may still be my least favorite chapter, but I feel more approving of the young scholars.  They like to learn, and enjoy discussing their knowledge.  I really can't fault anyone for that.  And in the end, Joyce got one huge laugh out of me when Buck Mulligan is stumbling around and announces, "I smell the pubic sweat of monks!" He always manages to pull out something overly descriptive.  Or maybe that is just Mulligan's way.

It should all be downhill from here, right?  A new friend in GoodReads directed me to a very interesting blog/podcast by Frank Delaney, called Re: Joyce.  He is taking little bits of Ulysses and explaining them in detail.  The podcasts are short, but it seems like this might take years.  YEARS!  He is the most eloquent man in the world, according to NPR, so I would bet he has something to say.  I'm subscribing to see what I can learn.


  1. Hi Jenny - I have not attempted to get through such a difficult book on audio, but you are inspiring me to pick something and try it out.

    As for absorbing audiobooks, the best times for me are when I'm driving somewhere, taking a walk, or doing something repetitive. Unfortunately (only for audiobook listening), I don't drive as much as I used to, and I've had no repetitive tasks at work for a long time. I've also been playing basketball instead of taking walks. I don't imagine the other guys would appreciate me listening while playing, ha ha. So there's not much opportunity to listen nowadays.

    And I can't listen while grocery shopping either! Bummer.

  2. I am definitely impressed!

    When I listen to audiobooks, they have to be trashy. I just can't focus on serious literature whilst doing something else, and if I wasn't doing something else, I'd be reading a physical book.

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  4. You're really doing this right: reading one chapter in Ulysses and then reading about that chapter in the companion books. That's perfect!

    Parts of Ulysses are definitely a slog. I wanted to throw the book across the room at times! But believe me when I tell you that the ending will make it all worth the effort. The last 2-3 chapters are my favorite in the book, and the last chapter is the best of the bunch. I think it's because the last chapter is written in Joyce's own style rather than mimicking the styles of other writers or something like that. Joyce pulls a similar trick in Dubliners by putting "The Dead", possibly the best short story ever written in the English language, at the end of the collection. It's your reward for getting through the rest of the book, I think.

    I can't seem to get into audiobooks. I do listen to some podcasts on a weekly basis, but I've found that I can't really do anything else while listening to a podcast.

  5. @Scott - I've started taking the long way when walking across campus. It helps!

    @Sam - I agree that trashy ones are much easier. I'm taking a break and listening to Ready Player One at 2x speed and it is SO much easier!

    @Ed - Thanks for urging me on. After all I've read in the one book, I'm looking forward to the Circe chapter. Everyone seems to think it is very important!


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