Ulysses on the Web

In my last post I discussed many of the “old-fashioned” (e.g. print) resources that are available for the struggling reader of Ulysses (and we’re all struggling readers when it comes to Joyce). But these resources have largely been supplanted in the Internet Age– the web has proven to be a very hospitable place for Joyce-studies. The man who is credited with inventing the term “weblog” was a Joyce-fanatic, to give you some idea (more on that in a moment).

I’ve referred you here before, but I think it’s a good place to start so I’ll mention it again: the Joyce page at the Modern Word has a lot of great background information and introductory essays (their Pynchon page is excellent as well, FYI). Here is their page introducing Ulysses in particular. They also have a page of links, but many of them are broken: the site does not appear to have been updated since 2004. (If anyone out there knows what happened to the site, I’d love to hear: I tried contacting them, but their email is out of service as well.)

A couple of commenters have mentioned Jorn Barger (the aforementioned coiner of the term “weblog”) and his incredible Robot Wisdom site. This is an incredibly extensive resource, but it is sometimes daunting: Barger is a lifelong Joycean, and his readings are often intricate and polemical. So, proceed with caution. (But do proceed!) The site is no longer being updated, but you can keep up with Jorn here.

More useful for the first-time reader are Michael Groden’s notes. Created to aid his students, Groden provides extensive background and though-provoking analysis of each episode (navigating the site takes some getting used to, though). It’s sort of like really smart Cliff’s Notes.

One of the most captivating (and distracting) sites is JoyceImages, which collects period images for all sorts of references throughout Ulysses. It is truly amazing, and was praised by Rob Berry at Ulysses “Seen” as “my favorite, most inspirational and most commonly used Joyce site. For a visual understanding of the world ULYSSES works in this is as seminal a text as Gifford’s.”

And, oh yeah, there’s also Ulysses “Seen” and their amazing Reader’s Guide. A work in progress, this site will get you through the first chapter, and leave you wanting more. (And more about that will be forthcoming, here, soon). 

These are the sites I’ve found most useful, but there are many, many more: not to mention the fact that people are writing about Joyce on blogs and Twitter every day (here’s a nice post from the past Bloomsday). Feel free to post links in the comments to any relevant sites I’ve failed to mention: I’m always looking for new distractions.

How much “other stuff” do I have to read in order to understand Ulysses?

The short answer to this question is: none. No ancillary reading is necessary to enjoy Ulysses, and I tend to tell first-time readers to actually avoid all the guides and reference books: I think it’s best to just let Joyce’s prose carry you along, and enjoy the ride. You can try to figure out “what it all means” later.

However, I do recognize that this approach isn’t satisfying to everyone, and some people prefer to have some of the more difficult aspects of the text cleared up for them as they go. (This seems an appropriate thing to acknowledge in the light of Daryl’s post earlier today). So here are some of the things that you might like to take a look at, as we read.

1. In addition to a good dictionary, the one indispensible resource is Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated. This hefty tome will elucidate the vast majority of Joyce’s references, from literary allusions to local Dublin “street furniture.” Some people like to read with this open alongside, checking out Gifford’s commentary as they go. I did this, in fact, my second time through: it’s enlightening, but as you might imagine it really slows down the reading, and takes a lot away from the rhythm of Joyce’s writing, so I’m not crazy about it as an approach. Instead, I’d suggest marking words and passages you are curious about as you read, and then after you finish a chapter go to Gifford and look them up. But everyone reads differently, and you’ll have to find a method that works for you.

2. There are any number of guides to Ulysses, which provide plot summary and explain various allusions and parallels. There are two that are particularly worth mentioning. One was written by Joyce’s friend Stuart Gilbert, with Joyce’s guidance, and so it has the authorial imprimatur: it’s sort of the “official” guide to Ulysses. It is an excellent book. It’s rather heavy on the summary and quotation of the novel, but when you consider that it was published while Ulysses was still banned in most of the English-speaking world, that makes a lot of sense. Gilbert spends a lot of time on the Homeric parallels, cementing that mode of reading for a generation of Joyceans. His introduction to the book is fascinating (and almost as dense as Ulysses itself, at times), so I’d suggest looking at that at some point (preferably after you’ve finished your first reading of the novel), even if you don’t want read his summary/analysis of each individual chapter.

More recent than Gilbert, and rather more popular among contemporary readers, is Harry Blamires’ The Bloomsday Book. This is a lot less inflated than Gilbert’s book, and provides a sort of walk-through of the text, pointing out various connections that might escape the casual reader. It’s very helpful, but I often find myself questioning his conclusions. (I believe I’ve spotted a few outright errors, in fact.) But really, I think my problem is that I just find his reading a little too cut-and-dried, whereas I find Ulysses is more ambiguous.     

Then there is a more recent guide, which I’ve heard was actually a best-seller in Ireland (though I have not confirmed this to be true): Declan Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living. As the title suggests, this is less a guide to the plot of the book or exegesis of its literary depths than a discussion of what the book has to tell us about being human. In that regard, it’s maybe a little touchy-feely for some, but it’s really quite good, and it’s interesting to see how Ulysses is regarded “today.” (Well, last year, anyway.)

3. Moving up the scale from “notes” to “guides” to “studies,” there are any number of great introductions to Ulysses that take a more whole-cloth approach, rather than walking the reader from chapter to chapter. One I particularly like is by Hugh Kenner, probably the greatest modernist scholar of his generation, and just a really good stylist in his own right. His book on Ulysses  is brief, but full of interesting observations. There are others, but this is my favorite.

4. Then there’s the literature that Joyce was drawing on for background. I don’t think reading the Odyssey is very important for understanding Ulysses: a grasp of its basic plot (a hero trying to get home, a son trying to reunite with his father) and major characters and mythological monsters (Cyclops, Sirens, etc.) is sufficient, and can be gained from reading a children’s “stories from the Odyssey” (which is, I believe, essentially what Joyce was drawing on). But if you have the time, of course, there’s no harm in reading the Great Poem of the Western Tradition (I like the Fagles translation). 

The other big canonical text referred to throughout Ulysses is Hamlet. I’d imagine everyone reading this has read Hamlet at some point, but if you have a free couple hours, it’s worth revisiting it: there’s a whole chapter (the ninth) that centers on it, so it’s good to have it fresh in your mind. But not necessary, by any means. (As a matter of fact, the discussion of Hamlet in the book strays pretty far from the play itself, looking more towards Shakespeare’s life for material. But you’ll see.)

The most important precursor to Ulysses is Joyce’s previous novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This you probably should read before you start. Ulysses picks up the story of Stephen Dedalus where Portrait left off, and a number of other characters carry over as well. Again, you’ll totally be able to get into Ulysses without it, but it provides useful context. There are also a number of characters from Dubliners, Joyce’s collection of short stories, that crop up, but it’s not necessary to have read that one first either.

5. And of course, like all his books, Joyce drew much of Ulysses from his own life, so Richard Ellmann’s magisterial biography provides a lot of useful background.

Of course, there’s also a lot of stuff online (for example, the annotations at Ulysses “Seen”): my next post will explore Ulysses on the web. And I’d like to invite comments on secondary sources from you, as well: I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t mention, and probably people have their own ideas on how to best approach the book: please share.

Ultimately I’d like to reiterate, even though I’ve listed a semester’s-worth of reading here, absolutely none of it is necessary, and I strongly encourage first-time readers to just jump into the book without all this excess baggage holding you down. The book more than stands on its own.

Which edition of Ulysses is best?

Hello. Let me introduce myself: my name is Judd, and I’ll be joining the group in some sort of “coordinator” capacity for the upcoming read of Ulysses. Daryl gave me a very nice introduction in his introductory post last week, but I feel I should make one thing very clear from the outset: I am not an expert. I am a student, and a lover of all things Joyce, but I don’t want to present myself as anything more. I’ve read Ulysses a few times, and the rest of Joyce’s work (although I resist using the past tense of the verb “read” in reference to the Wake; but I’ll save that discussion for the end of this whole project), and a fair amount of Joyce criticism (much of which I am certain to be ripping off throughout my discussion of this book, mostly unconsciously: I will do my best to acknowledge my sources when I can remember/find them, but as many great Joyceans have acknowledged, reading Joyce is a collaborative process)– but I’m sure there will be plenty of people here who know more than me, or catch me on mistakes, or just really disagree with me. And I welcome that– it’s what this is all about, right?

So anyway, this is my first post, and we’re a little over two weeks away from our start date, but I wanted to address one question that every new reader of Ulysses faces: what are all these different editions, and which one should I read?  A great overview of the different editions is available here (scroll down to “Which Edition?”): I’ll be basing my commentary largely on what they’ve already said, just throwing in my own two cents. Also, for anyone who is interested in the whole history of the text and its history of censorship, pirating, copyright disputes, and academic squabbles, the book to read is Bruce Arnold’s The Scandal of Ulysses: The Life and Afterlife of a Twentieth-Century Masterpiece, which will give you more information than you could possibly ask for, and is a hell of a read.

Essentially, there are three major versions of the Ulysses text, and then one very strange fourth version. First, there is the 1922 first edition text, which went out of copyright in the 1990s, spawning a host of “facsimile” editions. This version is rife with typos and printing errors: the first edition was rushed to the printers amidst all sorts of difficulties and, needless to say, with a complex book like Ulysses it’s pretty easy for mistakes to seep in. (Another book recommendation: there’s a great study by Tim Conley on the role of error in Joyce’s writing and in Joyce scholarship: Joyces Mistakes [title punctuation sic].) If you do a basic Amazon search for Ulysses, these facsimiles are the first things that pop up. I’d avoid them.

The next edition is the 1934 text, published after the ban on Ulysses in America was lifted, and reset in 1961. This was the standard edition for several decades, and any Joyce criticism written in the mid-century heyday of Joyce-studies will refer to it. There are two versions of this available: a Vintage paperback, and a Modern Library hardcover.  I have the Modern Library edition for a “reading” (as opposed to “studying”) copy, and that’s the version I’d recommend for someone reading the book for pleasure: it’s got a great binding, it’s easy to hold, it lies flat, it has nice quality paper. It’s just a nice book.

But then there’s the third version of the text: Hans Walter Gabler’s famous/infamous “Corrected” edition. Published in 1984, Gabler’s edition reflects over a decade of close, careful work with various manuscripts and notes from the Joyce archives, introducing thousands of changes, most small but some very significant. It was met with initial enthusiasm from Joyce scholars: here is a positive review (spoiler alert, though, insofar as any review of something like this is going to talk about stuff that happens late in the book) from no less a “name” than Richard Ellmann, author of the definitive Joyce biography.  However, several years later, once the Gabler edition had basically become the only one on the market, all hell broke loose. It all started with a lengthy essay by John Kidd exploring all of the problems with Gabler’s editorial process, and claiming that he introduced more errors into the text, rather than correcting it. However, rather than get into the details of the whole “scandal,” I’d just refer you to Bruce Arnold’s excellent book (cited above), which documents the whole affair. Suffice it to say that the Gabler edition remains the standard edition used by Joyce scholars and academics, so if you think you might want to publish an article in the James Joyce Quarterly some day, you should probably be working with this edition. But it is an unwieldy, ugly book, as an object, and the paperback version has a binding that comes apart. Just so you know.

And then there’s this crazy-ass “Reader’s Edition” edited by Danis Rose, which seeks to simplify the text and about which probably the less said the better. (I’ll simply refer you back the Modern Word, and let their comments on it stand here.)

One area in which I am woefully unable to comment is regarding the e-book versions available, so I’d like to invite anyone who has any experience in that area to chime in, in the comments section below. There are some reviews on Amazon here, and there are free versions on Project Gutenberg here, but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten. A friend asked me about an iPad version, and I was like: “Huh?” So, please, if you have any knowledge of this area, help me understand this technological stuff.

One problem we will probably face is keeping our page references together across editions. This is one of that handy things about the Gabler edition: he provides episode and line numbers on every page, which makes referring back to the text very easy. Don Gifford, in Ulysses Annotated (I’m going to post next week on secondary sources, but this is the one book that is basically indispensible, if you want to order ahead), refers to the Gabler edition, but provides page references to the 1961 edition in parentheses, so that’s how I usually track references from edition to edition. I’ll see if I can find anything more useful before my next post.

Which brings me to my conclusion: next week I’ll be writing about secondary sources, websites, and background reading, but in the meantime you might want to order your copy of the book itself. Bottom-line: do you want “Joyce” to tell you the answer to the question “What is the word known to all men?”? Get the Gabler edition. Want to figure it out on your own? Get the 1961 edition.  But either way, you’ll be getting a great book, so don’t let the (fairly minor) differences weigh too much on your mind.