Approaching Ulysses

by Paul Mathers

So, I decided to live-blog my way through James Joyce’s Ulysses. There are many “guides” out there for reading the (what I think is far over-stated) difficult text. I recently asked one of my online friends about a book called Ulysses Annotated, which is annotations to go with Joyce’s book, specifically about the usefulness of such books. Some of her reply/recommendation:

“…there is something to be said for reading a book without being too influenced by the ideas of others – you could come up with your own thoughts and preferences first, before using the other book to help consider or develop them afterwards…While there is the benefit of having certain puns explained, they can be ruined in the telling! The notes can be just as dig ublin useful, and my googling ‘ashplant’ was a revelation (I don’t know what I thought Stephen was carrying!).”

I remembered I had a copy of A Key to the Ulysses of James Joyce by Paul Jordan Smith in a City Lights Books edition somewhere in my used books. (I used to operate an online used book business before the industry collapsed. Some of the inventory, probably a scant few hundred books at this point, still sit on shelves in my garage in spite of multiple stabs at unloading them.)  This guide is not much longer than a pamphlet and I read through it in an evening. The thesis seems to be “It’s The Odyssey… except not.” It has a list of Ulysses characters and their corresponding Odyssey characters. All of which I found to be not terribly illuminating.  But it did contain something that my friend also suggested and which I think will be helpful in this project.  It contained not only a map of Dublin from 1904, but with key points in the book marked.  So I photocopied this and am carrying it with me in my copy of Ulysses.

I’ve been itching to read Ulysses and live-blog my way through it for some time.  It is also well known how great, and in need of great digestion, are the individual chapters of the book.  So I thought I would read through Ulysses and blog about each chapter.  What you are getting in reading this series is this – my credentials, as it were:

* By no means am I a Joyce scholar, although j’adore what I’ve read of his.  This will not be the comments a Joyce expert, but rather a Joyce layperson enjoying his way through the book.

* I do, however, know a bit about classical literature and, in my reading, will probably be able to work out what is being said in the Latin he occasionally throws in without having to look it up.

* I am also a poet and a Shakespearean actor/booster (a sort of embarrassed Shakespearean actor, but no less of a booster). I am also fairly well versed in the Modernists and art/literature movements contemporary to Joyce.  I have a suspicion that being able at the drop of a hat to talk extemporaneously about Nightwood or Tristan Tzara or Pere Ubu for an hour might count as a credential here.

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I also pulled my copy of Ulysses from my used book inventory. It’s a nice blue Modern Library hardcover from the 1960s which I look forward to utterly thrashing in my messenger bag on my bicycle and with marginalia and dog-ears.  This copy did have a previous owner who did not hesitate to put his name on the front end page, but, judging the condition of the book, seems unlikely to have read it.  It was an odd name.  I don’t always Google the names of previous owners of my books, but occasionally one will catch my eye.  I have an art theory book from 1910 which Googling taught me that the previous owner was a minor, but known, American composer.

Googling taught me that my copy of Ulysses used to be owned by a tax attorney in a town about a forty minute drive from here. This past Autumn, the 73 year old lawyer was convicted of defrauding his clients of millions of dollars for personal trips and other such luxuries.

I can’t quite put my finger on why, but this seemed fitting in its way.

More soon.

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