There is nothing like forcing yourself through the ultra-realist-modernist hell that is James Joyce’s Ulysses. For the last several months my “To Read” list has been mired in quicksand while this behemoth of a tome, with its micro-font, thin pages, and countless footnotes/ endnotes / addendum notes – plugs a hole in my brain. I couldn’t move on. I certainly couldn’t abandon it. But this time I actually didn’t want to abandon it.
I first tackled Ulysses way back when I was on exchange in York, England for a semester. A module on modernist literature tried to jam it into a two week stretch, where I am certain few if any of the students even got past the opening chapters. Even the professor admitted that he hadn’t read it in full! I read it incessantly, out loud, in my dorm room, on park benches and from the city’s medieval walls. I read it while lounging in a huge inflatable Guinness chair I won by drinking, you guessed it: ten pints of Guinness. All this was to establish a certain mood so I could comfortably navigate my way through the book. I got about 300 pages in. Not a bad effort, but failure nonetheless.
I next went about it more than a decade ago using an email service that sent three pages a day, which I read on a flip-phone while on my daily hour long commutes through Yokohama. It was a laborious and painful process, but I managed to get through it. I retained almost none of the plot however. The words just flowed through by brain like a drunken tinker telling a tale at the local pub.
This last time (but probably not final), I decided to take a decidedly different tact and used an audio recording from RTE circa 1982 (available as a podcast). Each episode is acted out dramatically and is followed by a short thirty minute analyses. This worked wonderfully. There are just too many characters, songs, accents, and dialects to do the text justice by tackling it in your own voice. As an audio play, Ulysses moved along with a level of understanding I hadn’t managed before. I also followed along in my Ulysses: The 1922 Text, a version that seems to sync up well with the RTE version.
I won’t say I completely grasped everything going on in the text. There were still large swathes that left me stumped. But with this audio follow-along method I was able to find fragments of the text that peeked my interest and follow them down their own rabbit holes. The next time (Yes, I said it.) I will glean even more I am sure.
In the end, what strikes me most, when coming out this literary Stockholm Syndrome, is how anything I read from this point forward, at least for a couple months, is absorbed quickly and with a focused understanding. It is like coming out of a long meditation session, opening your eyes wide and just breathing in the world around you. Reading becomes fun again.