Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bloomsday 2010: Some Words on Ulysses

Today is Bloomsday, the day that marks worldwide celebration surrounding Ulysses by James Joyce since the novel takes place on June 16, 1904. I just remember that and don't have anything planned to mark the occasion -- nor have I ever in the past. I just wanted to talk about Ulysses briefly since it's a novel that holds a big place in my life.

It's been almost four years since I've read Ulysses. That was my second time reading the novel, which I'd read a year-and-a-half previously when I took a one-semester special topics course on it. The class was taught by Michael Groden and I was very pleased to learn on the first day that he's a rather prominent Joyce scholar. The class was focused on Ulysses, but we began by reading Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and ended with a selection from Finnegans Wake. You need context after all. That course is probably still one of my favourites from my six years of university. My favourite, actually. It was a very relaxed course where the schedule was one or two episodes from the novel each week, a weekly quiz on plot points to encourage us to keep up with the reading, a presentation, and two essays. No final exam, no testing of what was actually taught. It was a course where the goal was to genuinely learn about and interact with this stunning work of fiction. I never took notes, I simply sat in the front row (a rarity for me) and listened. It was a wonderful way to experience the novel.

The first time reading Ulysses isn't great. You stumble around trying to figure out what's happening more than anything. Joyce's writing is obtuse and difficult in a lot of places, so just understanding what's happening is a chore. You don't really have time to appreciate what's he's doing a lot of the time. You obviously appreciate it nonetheless, it's just that you're distracted by the plot. Reading it in a large group like that class is a great motivator and place where you can feed on the energy of everyone. You're all in it together, all wanting to understand and work your way through -- and having a guy like Groden to lead things made it fantastic. I reread it during the late summer of 2006 prior to moving to Windsor to do my Master's and liked it more. With the plot not a strong concern, there was more freedom to revel in the style and the language of Joyce's writing.

Ulysses consists of 18 chapters (usually called episodes) all done in different styles, each also representing a portion of Odysseus's journey in The Odyssey. It focuses on Leopold Bloom on a single day with Stephen Dedalus playing a supporting role. The novel begins with Dedalus for three episodes, spends the next 14 with Bloom as he wakes up, goes out into Dublin, and returns home, and the final episode is all Bloom's wife Molly. The plot is mundane -- just another day really. Important things in the lives of the three happen, but I don't think it would be a day that stands out necessarily. It's the way that Joyce tells the story that makes this book so wonderful. His use of the underlying structure, the shifting narrative techniques that become more bold as the novel progresses, his willingness to take on any idea or subject...

I'll be honest: on an emotional level, I like Portrait more. I see a lot of myself in Stephen Dedalus in that novel and just relate to it better (not Dedalus in Ulysses, though). But, Ulysses casts a larger shadow on me. It was one of the big influences on the novel I wrote for my Master's thesis, "Infinite Future" where the first part focuses on one character, the second part is twelve chapters all in different styles, and the final part is a stream-of-conscious finale. I love the idea of using an underlying structure and shifting your style between chapters.

The funny thing about that is that the tour de force of Ulysses, the episode where Joyce really shows off how amazingly talented he is, is also the chapter that's the most difficult to read: "Oxen of the Sun." In that episode, Joyce moves through the history of literature, changing style with every paragraph. It begins without language, progressing through time and writers. It's astonishing how well he does it, but it makes following the narrative of the episode difficult since he will filter actions and events through the writer/genre he's mimicking. A gothic or romantic convention obscures what's happening.

Of course, that begs the question: is it really that great if you can't read it?

Well, yeah. You can read it, it's just difficult -- or, rather, it's challenging. Ulysses is a challenging, demanding work. You need to pay attention and take things slow. You need to reread sentences and paragraphs. You need to not go it alone.

I've often tried to put into words why Ulysses is so great. It makes the mundane epic. It experiments and pushes. It's ambitious -- probably the most ambitious novel that I can think of. So, Happy Bloomsday. If you've never given Ulysses a shot, I highly recommend it. It's worth it.

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