Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ulysses at the Halfway Point, or Who's Buying the Next Round of Guinness? (No Seriously, Who?)

UlyssesI suspect that my prior view of the work of James Joyce was very similar to most people's conception.  I remember picking up a copy of Finnegan's Wake from the public library in Dubuque, Iowa, where I was studying for the LSATs at the time, thinking that it was the perfect opportunity to delve into a literary classic and, perhaps, to learn a bit about my own Irish heritage beyond the holy and hereditary trinity that is the love of the drink, the written word, and all things green.  I remember just as clearly returning that volume only a week later, confused, dejected, and certain that its "classic" status depended entirely upon its impenetrability, coupled with the very human tendency to judge as genius anything that we feel that we cannot fully understand.  In short, I judged it as a complete fraud somewhat-lyrical, stream of consciousness relic of an age long past that had little to no applicability to my life.  I viewed anything written by Joyce with the same colored lens.

Then, earlier this year, my wife and I planned a trip to Ireland (my first, though I dare say not my last).  I generally endeavor to read some classic piece of literature from or about the region while I'm there, if only to pass myself off as intelligent while I'm getting sauced at the bar get a flavor for the local literary history.  And so, I decided to take another crack at Joyce.  But I hedged my bet by choosing Dubliners, a series of completely non-stream-of-consciousness short stories that depict the lives of ordinary people in and around Dublin at the turn of the Twentieth Century.  While I generally do not enjoy reading short story collections, I loved Dubliners and reviewed it in glowing terms here.  More importantly, I felt like I understood every word.  And, though I stepped away from Joyce for a bit, I vowed to return to his more complex works and give them another shot.

And so, about two months ago, I began reading Ulysses, Joyce's classic tale of everyday life in Dublin as superimposed on the wandering plot of Homer's epic, The Odyssey, which Joyce himself held in the highest esteem.  I tried hard to focus on the lyrical value of Joyce's prose, though I was often lost in its meaning, and I managed to follow the action through several chapters before I began to feel the old frustration starting to build.  It was at that point that I began to drink heavily and it all made sense began looking for outside help.  Now, I really do not like to make a habit of this.  Like many of you, I suspect, I like a classic work of literature to stand on its own.  If I have to go searching for meaning and enjoyment, then I begin to suspect that neither are truly there to begin with.  But I also hate to put down a classic once I've begun, and Google is just so damned convenient, and so I began to look a bit further afield.  The Internet alone sustained me through several more chapters, and I felt like I had an understanding of the structure of the work and its characters, if nothing else; but it still was not enjoyable.

Then I stumbled on a downloadable, college-level course on Ulysses by Princeton Professor James A.W. Heffernan.  I have listened to a few of these courses now on topics as diverse as classical music to Buddhism to anthropological study of the modern Maya, all of which have been produced and distributed by The Teaching Company.  To be perfectly honest, I find them somewhat hit and miss (though, to be fair, they are more than hit than miss).  If you are truly interested in a particular subject matter, they can be, not only worthwhile, but very entertaining.  Be forewarned, however: there is no getting around the dork factor, and you have to be willing to be labeled as such if and when you are caught listening by your friends and family.

Anyhow, the Ulysses course has changed my perspective on the work entirely.  I now recognize that without a working knowledge of either Anglo-Irish history or Homer's Odyssey and preferably both, no one is likely to take much away from the work other than its quirky characters and its lyrical prose, which is truly only scratching the surface.  I won't bore you with what I've learned--suffice it to say that the characters and the story have come alive on both a human and a mythic level.  Only approximately a third of the way through the course materials, I now not only look forward to reading the balance of Ulysses, but I want to return to the beginning to reread the tremendous amount of material that passed through my mind wholly unappreciated.

My question for all of you is this: is this a legitimate practice in the appreciation of works of literature?  Does the fact that a particular work requires explication make it more or less of a great work in your eyes?  And, finally, who's buying that next round?  Seriously, I'm all tapped out ...   


  1. Depending upon the book, requiring explication can certainly be a sign of a great work of literature. Generally, I am of the opinion that most great literature requires at least some. You can't build a house without a solid foundation, eh?

    Having said that though, I admire your desire to delve into Ulysses. Having tried to read Ulysses too many times over the course of my life, that road will remain less traveled from this point forward, at least by me. And don't even talk to me about Finnegan's Wake. Ultimately, it all comes down to the fact that I detest stream-of-consciousness writing. For me, there is just too much really good literature out there that I've not read yet to have to do battle for months-on-end with Pynchon, Joyce, or writers of their ilk.

    I must say though, that I have thoroughly enjoyed reading about your overall generally positive experience with Joyce, and 'good on you!' Happy reading and writing, my friend! Oh, and go have a beer! Cheers!

  2. That is a lot to go through for a book! I'm quite impressed by your dedication. I think seeking background information, etc., from outside sources is a completely legitimate practice.

    To me the value of a work is a very individual decision. Where one person is willing to devote many hours of study to fully understanding a single work of literature, another might say "Screw this, I have better things to do" or write the same piece of literature off as crap. I'm not usually interested in investing so much time and energy in one book. If a novel is so dense I have to turn to multiple outside sources, I'll usually set it aside, if I've even picked it up to begin with. Usually. Not always. This doesn't affect its standing as a great (or not great) work for me.

    That being said, I do think there's value in studying a work from multiple angles like you're doing. I hope to someday choose one of those massive, intimidating tomes that appeals to me (NOT Joyce!) and dive in.

    Perhaps, where the Guinness is concerned, you should set up one of those "Donate!" buttons?

  3. @ Chris - Thanks for the kind words. I generally consider Sometimes a Great Notion to be my favorite novel of all time. While I read it without any outside explanation, I enjoyed it so thoroughly that I later read several critical reviews of the work. Until recently, I had never considered that the deeper understanding that comes with such in-depth study might have affected my long-term view of it. Now I'm wondering if it wasn't precisely because I read those works that I have such a deep understanding and appreciation of it. I suspect it had some significant effect.

    That said, Ulysses aside, I'm generally with you on the stream-of-consciousness writing. I tend to think that if I don't at least understand the flow of the action, the writer is not doing his or her job. Thanks again, and slainte!

    @ Erin - Thanks for the comments. Of course you're right that appreciation is ultimately an individual valuation and no two readers will come to the same appreciation on any work. And I'm usually the one to put a book down if it doesn't really grab me within a hundred pages or so. I'm glad I was drawn back to this one.

    Thanks for the great idea for the "Donate" button - I think we might have to do something like that!

  4. Ulysses is quite a task, one I am not ready to fully engage in because I do think it requires outside reading and in-depth analysis. I wrote about just one tiny concept (the way the use and description of clothes reveals something about the characters) in only two of its chapters and discovered I could do a full-blown, in-depth study on it. Ulysses is dense, no doubt about it.

    Everything in Ulysses seems to have significance, and Joyce's brilliance in putting it all together is undeniable. Yet in answer to your question, I think that perhaps a great book ought to be able to be read on both a superficial and an analytical level. I would argue that Ulysses cannot be appreciated unless you study it while you read. The very best books (in my humble opinion) are the ones that anyone can appreciate on the superficial level, but if you take the time to dig into them, you discover an enormous amount of depth and insight. I have experienced this many times over, when research and concentration have revealed to me symbols and underlying messages I missed in my initial reading.

    On another note, I want you to know that I finally reviewed Blood Meridian if you're interested. And I hope you don't mind, but I included a link to your review. I really enjoy hearing your perspective!

  5. Hi-I found your blog via the hop-to me explication is of value when it leads to a revelation of some sort-by coincidence I recently read and posted on Joyce's masterful short story, "The Dead" and am now into Elizabeth Bowen-I am now a follower of your blog


    Mel u

  6. I agree with Christopher's comment.Great Literature sometimes require explication (sometimes) Sorry I can't buy the next round.

  7. Stopping by from the hop -- new follower! Though we are not male reviewers, we still can (and do) appreciate books written by men.


  8. @Amy - I'd be interested in your paper (seriously). And I agree with you completely - the more I study Ulysses the more enjoyment I'm getting out of it. It's like peeling back an onion to find successive layers of fruit beneath. Great post on Blood Meridian, BTW. My respect for that book grows the further I get from actually having read it.

    @mel u - Thanks for stopping by and for following. I loved "The Dead" when I read it in Dubliners earlier this year. I'm headed over to your blog now to check out the review.

    @bookaddict - Me too. The only problem with explication is ... who has the time? But I guess that's everyone's lame excuse for not reading in teh first place. Fortunately for you, it's payday ... I'll meet you at the Ormond Hotel.

    @Blue - Thanks for following! I've been reading and enjoying your blog for a while now. While we're a male-centric blog, we're definitely not the He Man Woman Haters Club. That said, we do need a bit more balance ... I keep meaning to put up a review of Anne Enright's The Gathering, which was awesome.

  9. Hi! I'm stopping by from the hop to check out your blog. I'm a new follower. Happy Reading!

    Ramblings of a (Future) Librarian