Friday, August 5, 2011

Reading Ulysses, Day 2

Full disclosure - I've been reading a bit of information outside of Ulysses just to understand what is going on, and I downloaded the free Kindle version so that I could go back and re-read bits that stuck out and quote them correctly.

I mentioned before that the only Joyce I had made it all the way through previously was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the very first part of Ulysses actually features the same character, and was published four years after Portrait, although I'm not sure how much time has passed to Stephan Dedalus. The first three chapters of Ulysses are referred to as the Telemachiad, and chronicle Dedalus with his friend Buck Mulligan, and then follow Dedalus as he teaches, meets with an advisor, and then one long chapter where he's just ... thinking. Stream of consciousness, in multiple languages. I'm not going to lie and say that was easy to follow!

Part of the problem for me as far as reading comprehension is that Joyce wrote this as a parallel to the original Odyssey. Have I ever read that? I remember doing group projects having to do with the Odyssey in seventh grade, including a really fun radio play version that my group wrote and performed, but that was the last time I read anything close to the Odyssey. That would have been twenty years ago. I'm worried that I'll miss the connections, that I won't "appreciate" it as it was meant to be understood, but I'm just letting that go and trying to enjoy what I can.

There are a few bits of the Telemachiad that stuck out to me, which I will reproduce here:

Some of the language is descriptive, in a way that only young men could make it.
"A great sweet mother? The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea." (Mulligan talking about the ocean to Dedalus).

"History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."
(To Mr. Deasy)

"To learn one must be humble. But life is the great teacher."
(Mr. Deasy to Stephen)

"Reading two pages apiece of seven books every night, eh? I was young. You bowed to yourself in the mirror, stepping forward to applause earnestly, striking face. Hurray for the Goddamned idiot! Hray! No-one saw: tell no-one. Books you were going to write with letters for titles. Have you read his F? O yes, but I prefer Q. Yes, but W is wonderful. O yes, W..."
This last one is a good example of the Dedalus stream of consciousness that goes on for a while, but also made me laugh and think of C by Tom McCarthy, and I wonder if he chose it because of this passage (especially considering that most of his novel is a shoutout to other novels).

After the last chapter of the Telemachiad, the novel practically restarts and begins the morning with Leopold Bloom. I have more questions than answers at this point. Is there a connection between Bloom and Dedalus? Why bother with Dedalus at all?

I suppose I may find this out eventually. For now, I will content myself to hear about Bloom's breakfast preparations and toilet ruminations, which is how I last left off.


  1. I think a passing familiarity with The Odyssey in some form would be beneficial, but I don't think you need to have read it before reading Ulysses. There isn't much in the way of one-to-one character analogues between the two texts. It basically informs the overall journey, I think. That said, one of the chapters of Ulysses is basically the Lotus-Eaters from The Odyssey.

    The part I found most frustrating about Ulysses is how each chapter is written in a completely different style and each of those styles are basically imitations of other authors for the most part. Unfortunately, while those authors might be familiar to the well-read Irish or English reader of the latter 19th century/early 20th century, they were almost entirely unfamiliar to me in the 21st century. I think I had heard of a few of them, but I hadn't read any of their works, so I was completely befuddled by that whole aspect of the novel. Also, the abrupt changes in writing style from chapter to chapter was often disorienting. Just when I'd start to enjoy a chapter, the writing style would change, and it would be like starting with chapter 1 of a brand new book. I've been wondering if you'll even pick up on that in an audiobook. The ideal audiobook version, I think, should have a different narrator for each chapter. :-)

    For critical essays and commentaries, I recommend the book edited by Clive Hart and David Hayman, the book by Harry Blamires, and the book by Stuart Gilbert. There's also Gifford's Ulysses Annotated which is nothing but a humongous, phone-book-sized collection of footnotes explaining the text in minute detail, but I frankly didn't find that worthwhile reading and used it only as an occasional reference for the particularly obscure passage.

  2. Excellent, the library where I work has all three of these.

    As far as the different styles, I was completely thrown by the change to Leopold Bloom, actually. I was enjoying the tone of the Dedalus parts and Bloom thinks too much about really mundane things, at least so far.

  3. Ulysses is one of the big scary ones for me, so well done for going for it! And it sounds like you're enjoying it at the moment too.

    However I have always wanted to read the Odyssey, maybe I'll get to it one of these days ....

  4. The Odyssey is pretty grand, but I was unexpectedly blown away by The Iliad when I read it a few years ago. Achilles is the original anti-hero. He's a douchebag for most of the story, but then he does one of the most heroic things I've ever read and it's not for killing someone or defeating someone in battle or anything that was until then considered heroic. He recognizes the injustice of his whole culture and rejects it and all the fame and fortune it gave him and he tries to tear it down. It's an amazing metamorphosis of character and ethics, and it happened over a millennium before the Magna Carta.


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