Last month, over the Easter weekend, I finished re-reading “Ulysses”, James Joyce’s “illiterate, underbred book” in the words of Virginia Woolf. Or, if you prefer, “the most important expression which the present age has found … a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape” according to TS Eliot.
This 2016 piece from the Guardian links to a “Most difficult novels” list on Goodreads. It places “Ulysses” in top position, and Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” at #2. In recent years, in the Guardian’s Review section, many people have named “Ulysses” as the book they couldn’t finish. It appears in the pieces entitled “The Books That Made Me” for Sara Collins, Elizabeth Gilbert and Bernardine Evaristo, to name just a few. Susan Hill’s memoir “Howards End is on the landing” discusses her own inability to finish the book.
I can understand why so many people struggle with it. My father always said that you could only understand it if you knew Dublin well. There may be other readers who feel that you need to be familiar with Homer’s “Odyssey” to understand the book. My view is that if you have a bit of Dublin in you then you’ll have a decent chance of finishing “Ulysses”. My mother was from Dublin. She was born and raised in the street that now houses the Joyce Museum. Although I was born and raised here in West London, the Dublin accent and Dublin expressions were a constant part of my early life. My father (from Kilkenny) could quote Joyce at length, and he did. All of this made it easier for me to read the book compared to people of different backgrounds.
I first read “Ulysses” at the age of 19, at the end of my first year at university, over 35 years ago. I offer my usual disclaimer regarding the word “read”: my eyes were open, and they passed over every word of every line on every page. I did not have a dictionary, or a map of Dublin, to hand. They would have helped. I had easy access to both this time, and read the text in a “blended” way – in my original 1970s Penguin edition (the same copy that I read first time round), on my Kindle 1.0 (it’s from 2011) and on the Amazon Cloud Reader (online). I was surprised to find the word “egregious” on page 562. My eyes passed over it all those years ago. I didn’t look it up. I did so eventually, in 2018, as mentioned in this piece. The word crops up quite a bit these days.
I first visited the Joyce Museum in 2004, with my wife. I bought a number of items that help me to understand “Ulysses” better. You can see them in the following photo.
There are two CDs: “Joyce’s Parlour Music” and “Classical Ulysses”. The former contains songs that Joyce was known to have heard and sung in the early 1900s. The latter contains, as the sleeve notes tell us, “timeless classical music that features in James Joyce’s own enduring masterpiece …” There are excerpts from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”, Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and from half a dozen other composers. I played both CDs during the ten days it took me to read the book. I also used the “Ulysses Map of Dublin” and “The Ulysses Guide” (which maps out the routes you can take to re-trace the steps of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus). I know Dublin far better now than I did in the 1980s. I have visited the Martello Tower. Glasnevin Cemetery, where the mourners attend a funeral, is where my grandparents are buried. I have, without planning to, walked in the footsteps of the book’s main characters.
You will notice that in the photo above (in the bottom left corner) there is a postcard of Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. It usually sits between pages 192 and 193 of the volume that you can see in the top left corner of the picture. My brother was using it as a bookmark, and I believe that’s how far he managed to get through the book, which is further than most people. The postcard has been there since 1982, the year it was sent to him by his old school-friend Tony Slattery. Tony was at the Edinburgh Festival that year as President of Cambridge Footlights. He had won the inaugural Perrier Award for Comedy at the previous year’s Festival, as part of the Footlights show that included Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson. He has changed a lot since then, as you can see in the “Horizon” documentary shown earlier this evening on BBC2 entitled “What’s the Matter with Tony Slattery?” Click here if you want to check it out (available until 19 June 2020 on the iPlayer: “Contains some strong language and some upsetting scenes”). It was tough viewing at times, but unless you’ve got a bit of Dublin in you, reading “Ulysses” could be even tougher.