So. . . . My sense of love, curiosity, obligation, and secret shame brings me back to James Joyce. Don’t get me wrong. I have enjoyed and reread A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners. I go particularly shivery for The Dead, which I’ll stand by as an example of a pitch perfect English language novella. Hell, I even attempted Joyce’s pre-beatnik facial hair for a whole week before acknowledging that I couldn’t pull it off. Plus, I know the man had eye problems, but I’ve rarely seen a more convincing literary pirate/riverboat blackjack dealer.
But I can’t try to bluff him, eyepatch or no. I’ve claimed reading Ulysses. And I have. But I did skip large sections in the middle where I felt it was useless to pretend I understood half of his references. I’m not the academic type–I refuse to buy a guide that explains his puns, Biblical referrals, and plain old you-might-want-a-map-of-Dublin-handy moments. But I have pleasantly traversed enough of the book to understand a few things:
1) Despite the obscenity trials and the fact that my edition–published in 1992–devotes the entire inside flap to describing the hassle it took to get this book published, Ulysses could not have had this as a subtitle:
2) Both that title and the fact that my edition’s dust-jacket gives no idea whatsoever of the plot or characters tells me a few things: a) people are aware of the difficulties of the text before opening it, and b) the book attracts readers who are well aware of the basic plot already. No print needs to be wasted on the book cover persuading someone to buy it. The book has its own audience based on reputation. That is, I suppose, enough to qualify it as a classic for the lay reader. Mark Twain best defined what that questionable label means: “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”
3) And goddamn it, Joyce can be a smug bastard confidant in his own self-appointed genius. In Ulysses itself he says, “The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring.” He also says something along the lines of Ireland not having its great masterpiece yet. Yet. The smug git.
4) But lastly, I know that I’ve tried to read this book in whole or in part no less than four times. And I’m not reading it for the stamp on my English major passport. I’m genuinely drawn to the kind of language and sheer grammatical gymnastics he pulls off. For all the plodding bits Joyce really does deliver on his promises in 8 out of 10 instances. For the parts of this book that I have ReJoyced over rereading multiple times, I know that the whole thing must be worth a concentrated go. I’ll try to read slow. This time I have something urging me to push on past the pompous parts besides this picture of Marilyn Monroe. (And yes, she was extremely well-read and this wasn’t just a publicity shoot. Arthur Miller, Carson McCullers, and Isak Dinesen must have had literary conversations with her at some point.) You see, I’ve got a blog now to encourage me.
My plan is to write a short sum up of my thoughts to all 18 sections. That doesn’t only make it easier for me to stick to my finish line; it will also force me to refrain from trying to come up with a dissertation-worthy conclusion on this book’s “meaning”. Ulysses is full of humor, so I’ll try to keep my praise and Joyce arse-kissing down to a minimum. I’ll try to write my ballsy opinions, slagging off self-righteous Joyce when I feel it is proper, while mainly discussing the choice beauties and laughs to be found.
And maybe people will join me, even if its only to read a good chapter or two. I promise your local library will have this book, so feel free to read along cheaply as if Joyce’s masterpiece were as simple as his Pomes Penyeach.
Well, I’ve made my (potentially flimsy) promise. I’m off to ReJoyce!