It All Comes Back to Me

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve started and stopped Ulysses a number of times. The first was maybe a decade ago, when I checked it out from the library, read a few pages, and decided it wasn’t for me. Several years ago, I decided to buy my own copy of the book, and I’ve tried to start a couple of times since. I think I once got maybe 100 pages in before deciding it wasn’t for me. The experience is similar to my experience with Gravity’s Rainbow, another one I started who knows how many times before finishing. I think I once got some 300 pages into that one before being distracted by a shiny object and putting it down. I did finish GR at last a few years ago, and I was left feeling like it was a great book but not so terribly enjoyable a book on the whole. It was a bit like taking medicine.

Having started (and restarted, and restarted) Ulysses again, I begin to feel history repeating itself. I’ve read the first ten pages three or four times in the last few days. I’ve gotten only so far partially because it’s a busy time for me and I can’t ever seem to find more than a few minutes to read. And even then, I’m reading a page (or a part of a page) at a time before being interrupted. So I can’t place all blame on the text for my slow start so far.

But I think I am going to blame the text some. Or I am going to blame Modernism, which I now remember, not having read much from that camp in the last decade, I fucking hate. Before it occurred to me to affix that dread label to Ulysses this morning, I found myself trying to enumerate the reasons I was having difficulty slipping into the book. The best I could come up with was that it is obnoxiously allusive and meandering. Some meandering I’m ok with. I suppose I like meandering that is entertaining. But in the opening of Ulysses, I find little so far that entertains (or engages) me. There are words I don’t know and references that apparently even the scholars can’t agree upon the referents for. There are still others that I simply can’t make sense of (a gardener masked with Matthew Arnold’s face?). There are phrases in at least two foreign languages I don’t understand. And there’s stagnation. So far, a fop and a wet blanket are standing on a tower shaving and talking briefly but ornately about things as varied as death and money and clothes and dreams. There’s nothing so far to really hold my interest. I’m not dazzled by the prose, and I’m actually a bit put off by the allusiveness and meandering.

These seem to be the hallmarks of Modernism, at least as I understand it. Take “The Wasteland.” Take Pound. (Please!) One of the problems I have with this sort of literature is that it often seems like a big in-joke. Modernists seem to be intentionally obscure and to wink at and nudge one another about their smartness. It’s not an inviting sort of literature. It makes me feel not only like I’m not one of the cool kids but also like I’m not even one of the smart kids.

I don’t expect (or want) a book to be easy. Most of the books I read, I read because they have reputations as hard, worthwhile books. I enjoy working to grok a book. Sometimes, I even enjoy working hard to grok how to grok a book (I’m thinking in particular of Gaddis’s JR). But boy am I worried about my ability to hang on for this one. I will. I will, even if I just stare at every word on every page without really getting what Joyce is saying. But if the opening — which I must have read a dozen times in my life by now — is any indication, this is going to be a slog and a half.

21 thoughts on “It All Comes Back to Me

  1. cforster July 2, 2010 / 10:31 am

    This is surely a discussion that we’ll all be having for the next couple of months: the function of difficulty in literature; the origins, boundaries, and identity of modernism, etc.

    In anticipation of all of that, perhaps it makes sense to offer this bit of wisdom from Michael Levenson. I had the enormous benefit, a couple of years ago, of taking Levenson’s graduate seminar titled, at the time, “Ulysses and the Question of Modernism.” The course has had a number of different titles but is always centered around a slow deliberate reading of Joyce’s novel. Levenson is more passionate about Ulysses than anyone I know and has read the book countless times. I remember quite well disagreeing with him on a question relevant here. At the end of the semester people were asking, “Okay, but who can really read this book?” While I was skeptical of his claim, Levenson insisted (in a way that is generally echoed, I think, by Declan Kiberd’s recent book “Ulyssses and Us”) that Ulysses is a book for everyone; most emphatically not just a book for literature majors or modernism scholars.

    Putting aside the very interesting question of who “should read” Ulysses (or what that might mean), I mention Levenson here because even he would talk about three notorious stopping points for readers of the novel: points where people get frustrated enough to drop the book and stop reading. One was the “Circe” episode. One I can’t remember. But the most notorious was the “Proteus” episode, the third chapter, which in my mind merely continues and culminates the frustrations of the first three episodes.

    I remember hearing a very similar argument last year w/r/t Infinite Jest (just get to pg. 200 and then you’ll see!). In the case of Ulysses though I think much of the frustration comes not from Joyce so much as from Stephen Dedalus. The first three episodes immerse a reader so fully in Stephen’s incredibly intellectual and closed off consciousness that they often feel almost claustrophobic. It is hard to understand or empathize with Stephen’s (sometimes) strong reactions. Why, for example, all the hostility to Buck Mulligan?

    It is Stephen, as much as Joyce, who is frustrating in these early pages. I always think of episode 4, “Calypso,” our first encounter with Leopold Bloom, as immensely freeing.

    I can’t guarantee that everyone will love the novel after that point; and we return to Stephen. But just get to “Calypso” and then you’ll see…

    Looking forward to the rest of the read.

    • silverseason July 7, 2010 / 8:47 am

      I am halfway through Ulysses and like you find Bloom a much more interesting character than Dedalus. Stephen is very self important, whereas Bloom experiences the world more broadly. Usually when involved with a long or complex book (Clarissa Harlowe, the Odyssey, War and Peace), after the initial difficulties, I enter into the characters and their situation. It may not be my life — it is their life — and I am delighted to get to share it. Not so far with Ulysses.

  2. crazymonk July 2, 2010 / 12:33 pm

    I read the first 10 pages last night, for the very first time, and I know exactly how you are feeling, Daryl. The first two pages of the book in my edition are filled with “he said sternly,” “he cried briskly,” and “he said gaily” — but also bandies about “Chrysostomos, “some religious Latin, and later on the line, “To ourselves…new paganism…omphalos.” This is certainly not the most captivating start, even though I’m already intrigued by the relationship between Stephen and Buck.

    However, having read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I have a sense of how Joyce plays with style (are all those speaking adverbs a sign of Joyce’s “Narrative (young)” that he associated with this chapter?), and know that he has the ability to slip into sublime moments. So I’m not quite ready to throw my hands up just yet.

  3. Judd Staley July 2, 2010 / 1:01 pm

    cforster is absolutely right, Daryl: just get through the first three chapters and the book gets a lot easier (for a while). I’ve read Joyce critics (I forget exactly who) who claim that first-time readers should skip the first three chapters and go straight to Bloom: I can see the point, but that does seem a bit sacrilegious to me. Anyway, just trust me: the slog of the opening chapters is “intentional” (can we use that word?), and is Stephen’s fault. I still love him though.

  4. Daniel July 2, 2010 / 1:55 pm

    I don’t know if your comments allow embedded videos, but I can’t stop thinking about this:

  5. Daryl L. L. Houston July 2, 2010 / 11:15 pm

    Well, I wrapped up the first three episodes tonight. The second I actually sort of liked. The third was something of a trainwreck, but I just plowed through and pretended not to care. In that one at least there were some pretty interesting turns of phrase (I found myself writing scansion notations a time or two) and some pretty clear returns to things Joyce left breadcrumbs for in the first section; there’s a sense at least of artifice and purpose, even if it’s short on clarity.

    The funny thing about the “get to page 200 and then you’ll see” advice for Infinite Jest is that I didn’t need it. I got that book for Christmas one year (I had been reading long-dead guys in college, and my sister thought I should read a guy who was still alive; also, she had bought it for herself and couldn’t deal), and over the remaining ten days of my Christmas break, I lay in bed and read for literally 12 – 15 hours per day until I finished it. It wasn’t a slog at all for me, and every time now that I reread the opening sections (Wardine aside), I pretty much have to get up and walk around the block to cool off because it’s such good stuff.

    So I find myself now trying to decide what the big difference is. There assuredly is something about both books that some find unmanageable, but for me, there’s just a huge difference between the two. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is, but maybe it has to do with a sort of familiarity or relevance. When I first read IJ, I was in college, had been a very poor (but enthusiastic) tennis player, was something of a grammar nerd, etc., so it makes sense that IJ clicked with me. I have never been a World War I-era Irish intellectual or lapsed Jesuit, and so the hook that Ulysses offers is somehow poorly adapted to have caught me up.

    Even that’s not quite right, though. I’ve long been kind of a sucker for the likes of Dickens and Hardy, though I’ve never watched a small pauper die or gambled my wife away in a card game and rebounded to become the mayor of a fictional town. Maybe it has to do with the investment required to get into a book. Dickens and Hardy are considered literary, but they’re really not especially challenging. You can almost go on auto-pilot when reading them. Joyce requires a bit more effort. Wallace does too. But because I can more readily identify personally with much of what Wallace writes than I can with what Joyce writes, I find Wallace a much more appealing read.

    In any case, I’ve cleared the first hurdle. If I didn’t know that this was an important book, I don’t know that I’d continue on the merits of what I’ve read so far. I have made it past this point before, I know now. I think the last time I put the book down, I just got sidetracked and never made it back on track. Anyway, onward!

    • Daniel July 3, 2010 / 8:31 am

      So how did it go for you with 2666?

      • Daryl L. L. Houston July 3, 2010 / 10:08 am

        I read 2666 twice in two years, once when it first came out in English and again recently because there was an Infinite Summer-style read of it just prior to Moby-Dick that I decided I wanted to participate in. It’s not a hard book. Well, it’s hard to read the one section because it’s so grisly and goes on and on. It’s not a book I love, but it’s one that I can at times seem glimmers of greatness in. I doubt I’ll ever read it again. I’m not a fan of what many take to be Bolaño’s greater work, The Savage Detectives, which I stalled several hundred pages into.

    • Ezekiel Crago July 8, 2010 / 1:48 pm

      I believe that Joyce wrote in a deliberately challenging style as a way of forcing the reader to engage the text in such a way that it becomes impossible to go an any kind of auto-pilot. Text is hypnotizing and Joyce meant to break the trance.

  6. Greg Carlisle July 3, 2010 / 10:53 pm

    My first shot at Ulysses got curtailed b/c summer ended and I had to go back to grad school. In my second reading, I got about halfway through and just had to have a guide for big picture purposes. I would get bogged down in spots, but always loved the language. I asked for the least intrusive guide and was advised to read Blamires’s Bloomsday Book. It is worth whatever slogging is required for those utterly transcendent moments. There are hundreds, but my favorites are the page-and-a-half preview/opening of Sirens, the paean to water in the next-to-last chapter, and the rush to Molly’s soaring finish. The beauty is in the turns of phrase Daryl mentioned. There is generally about one every one or two pages.

  7. Hunter Felt July 4, 2010 / 8:03 pm

    I had the same issues with “Gravity’s Rainbow” and “Mason & Dixon” (and now “Against the Day”, I’ll finish it soon!), I got halfway through and then had to bail!

    I didn’t understand ANYTHING about the second half of GR until I re-read it, and I had the same issue with “Ulysses”.

    I’ll agree with everyone: the third chapter is a big hurdle, and once you get through that it becomes easier.

    Uh, until the “Siren” and “Oxen of the Sun” chapters, which are brutal.

    It’s not an easy read, well duh, but believe me it’s not a dry and boring read. It’s not a difficult read like how reading Kant is a difficult read, it’s as fun to read as it is difficult.

    It’s worth it. It’s like long-distance running or an acid trip: There’s a lot of stress and pain and trouble and effort to get through it, but there’s enough pleasure involved that it’s worth it.

  8. Ezekiel Crago July 8, 2010 / 1:57 pm

    I read the third episode as prose poetry. It prefigures the stylistic tricks that Joyce will later use in “Wake”. One thing that I look for to help decode his symbolism is any use of repetition, so, in this section I notice the use of the word “ineluctable”. I guess I find many of the things that frustrate other readers only serve to fuel my curiosity about the text.

  9. MT July 18, 2010 / 11:07 am

    Daniel, funny video! Thanks for sharing!

    Slogging, too, so far. But can see it could be just that Stephen is difficult. I don’t really like him personally (yet), so it’s hard to care what happens to him or to learn more about him.

    Also feel like I’m slogging b/c the text has been working like a pinball in my pinball-machine of a head. Have been looking away from the book a lot to process, probably a sign that a bigger hard drive is needed here.

  10. MT July 18, 2010 / 11:17 am

    PS, Celine Dion is now warbling in my head…don’t exactly know the lyrics, but she’s saying something about “when I touch you like this and you hold me like that?”

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