Reading Diary: Ulysses

Sucked In


I couldn't help but be sucked into the maw that is Ulysses. I started the novel a few days ago, and its first two chapters are relatively easy to get. However, that third chapter was a free-form stream of consciousness that had me reading and rereading the text so that I could figure out that all Stephen Dedalus was doing was simply having a lazy walk on a beach.

That said, I'm now into the second part of the novel, which features Leopold Bloom.



I'm on page 170 of Ulysses. Over the past few evenings, I have begun reading where I left off almost twenty months ago. To make things easier for me, I only read two pages at a time. This has been enough so far. Leopold Bloom has attended a funeral, visited a newspaper, and runs into some people as he meanders through the streets, seeking lunch. The wiki says that I'm into Episode 8 ('Lestrygonians').

Original photo: Nate Angell

Picking Up Steam


After yet another break, I'm picking up more steam on Ulysses. I'm on page 361, which is Episode 13, Nausicaa.

One of the things that's helped has been the recent purchase of two books.

The first is the Cliffs Notes on "Ulysses". When I was in high school, these were quite popular, but back then I frowned upon their use. It seemed to me that Cliffs Notes were often the substitute for the work itself, and I considered it a mild form of cheating when classmates used these references. I have come to the polar opposite of that opinion. I don't see how it's possible to read any piece of great literature without some form of guidance. The Cliffs Notes have helped me understand the structure of what I have read, and (even better), it reveals the highlights of James Joyce's writing.

The second book is Stuart Gilbert's 'Ulysses: A Study'. This book is a deeper look at the novel, and one of the keys that I have picked up from this book is that Joyce wrote in different styles for each of the chapters. Gilbert calls these "technics" (techniques), and they include Monologue, Narrative, Dialectic and Gigantism. This was very helpful because after reading the first two chapters, it seemed like a straightforward book, but then the "technic" changes, and I'm left wondering why the book has gotten slower.

The book continues to engage, and I hope to finish before the end of the year.

I Can Read This


A little over a year has come and gone since I last made an entry in this BLOG. I'm on page 665 in my edition of Ulysses, and I'm just about to start Episode 17, "Ithaca", the penultimate episode.

I still can remember how I felt when I finished Episode 13, "Nausicaa". "I can read this book!" I thought. That episode featured Gerty McMacDowell's leg, and our hero Harold Bloom masurbating on a beach as he watches her: "O, he did. Into her. She did. Done. Ah!"

The chapter is memorable for its 'syrupy' language, which I found extremely accessible. Even now, as I leaf through its pages, its atmosphere instantly appears in my mind: the worn beach, the fireworks ("And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind..."), Bloom writing in the sand. If the rest of the book was like this, I could take it.

"Oxen of the Sun" (Episode 14) changed that. "Deshil Holles Eamus. Deshil Holles Eamus. Eeshil Holles Eamus." And thus begins one of the most complex chapters in literature.

The language of "Oxen" is initially impenetratable. In the beginning, it is gibberish. Then it turns into a wall of long words, with nary a punctuation mark to be found. Then the chapter transforms into the story, but its hidden behind a language that is on purpose difficult."This chapter is a sucker punch compared with Nausicaa!" I thought. I was brought low by this chapter.

I do remember that the going got somewhat easier as "Oxen" wore on. I definitely had the sensation of the style shifting and changing as I kept going. Later, when I read the Cliffs Notes, I understood that Joyce was mirroring the development of the English language, comparing it with the development of a baby in utero. Joyce wrote the chapter in the various "forms" of English from the grunts of pre-history to the slang of modern Ireland. No wonder it was difficult to figure out what was going on!

With only two episodes to go, I feel like a 2012 finish of Ulysses is possible. But I had that same feeling last time!



I loved reading Ithaca, the 17th and penultimate chapter of Ulysses. Supposedly, this was Joyce's favorite chapter in all of Ulysses, and that makes me glad, because in some respects, it's the easiest chapter to get through (though it is long).

The style is written in the form of question-then-answer. In Gilbert's book, the style is "catechism", and its highly detailed and overly observant style reminds me of two book experiences I had. The first was Nicholson Baker's book The Mezzanine. In this, his first novel, Baker takes a singular escalator ride and tears into all of its details, diving further and farther into an ordinary moment, rendering it into an extraordinary moment. The second book experience: Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears. In that high-paced thriller, Clancy took a chapter and described in minute detail the explosion of a nuclear bomb.

Both of these book moments came to my mind reading Ithaca in Ulysses. In this chapter, Joyce describes the flow of water from Bloom's faucet in terms that a plumber or civil engineer would find germane. Joyce details the contents of Bloom's kitchen, right down to the difference between two onions, and the books in his bookshelf (including the colors of the spines and pages).

The 'answers' in this chapter do include some short retorts: "For what creature was the door of egress a door of ingress? For a cat." Also: "And the problem of possible redemption? The major was proved by the minor." But perhaps the response that drew the widest smile from me was from the question on whether Bloom would accept a dinner invitation from Stephen Dedalus: "Very gratefully, with grateful appreciation, with sincere appreciative gratitude, in appreciatively grateful sincerity of regret, he declined."

As I write this, I'm now on page 772. I'm close!

Original photo: Paul Cooper

Stream of Molly


Molly Bloom is the focus of the last chapter of Ulysses (aka "Penelope"), and she is rendered so clearly that we know her immediately, perhaps more so than any other character in literature. The last chapter is famous (or perhaps I should say "infamous") because there are no punctuation marks. Despite this, I was able to get into a rhythm with her thoughts (and if you look you'll see that the chapter is broken into 8 sentences / paragraphs / breaks).

When you look up "stream of consciousness" in the Wikipedia, you'll find the cover of Ulysses, and rightly so: in Penelope, we enter right in the middle of the stream that is Molly's thoughts, and when we leave it, there is very much the sensation that Molly will continue pondering her life until she falls asleep and wakes up the next day.

We enter her mind as she tries to get back to sleep. Bloom and Stephen Dedalus have parted ways, and Bloom enters their bed. They sleep "feet-to-head", meaning Bloom's head is at the end of the bed opposite Molly's. This is only one modest example of what a current reader might call "too much information" (TMI).

In her attempts to fall asleep, she conjures up the past men in her life, and her intercourse(s) with them. She does so in graphic detail which produced a ban of this book with a charge of obscenity in the the early 1930s (exonerated in court by Hon. John Woolsey). The reader will enjoy the 'naughty bits', and Molly's various insights ("he never knew how to embrace well", "they want everything in their mouth all the pleasure those men get out of a woman", "I had a skirt opening up the side I tortured the life out of him").

Molly impresses me as an extremely self-aware woman. She's a charmer, a seducer, a temptress ("I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes"). She understands the power of her sexuality. She also is very observant about the people in her life, and she catalogs their strengths, weaknesses, peccadilloes and fetishes. She focuses most on Bloom, the book's hero, and despite his own perversions, her waning thoughts are of their young love ("he said I was a flower of the mountain"), and how she felt she couldn't do any better (or worse).

In a podcast about Ulysses on In Our Time, one of the guests suggested reading this chapter first, but I feel it works best at the end. It's Joyce's most challenging chapter in his most challenging work, and it makes for a superb finish.



One of the gifts I received during my reading of Ulysses was a bookmark with this declaration: "Yes I'm Actually Reading This". I promptly put the bookmark in my place at Ulysses. At the bottom of the bookmark were two check boxes: "For Pleasure" and "To Prove Something". I checked off the latter.

Finishing Ulysses is my equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest. There are acknowledged great literary works of art, and to say that I've read the one that is considered the great work of modern literature is an accomplishment to take pride in. To read it outside of a classroom setting means that I set aside time to get through it. And it took me three years to get to the end!

It might be weird to think that I 'proved something', but I do know this: I am easily impressed by marathon runners. Anyone who tells me that they've run a marathon (or are planning to run one) immediately gets a star next to their name in my mind. Running 26.2 miles is an established achievement, and very few can "just do it." It takes preparation, and planning, and training.

In other words, it takes dedication and commitment, the same qualities you'll need to read Ulysses.

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The contents of this web page originally appeared on Posterous, an old web site in which the content is updated by e-mails. That's right, you'd send an e-mail, and your Posterous web site would be updated. That seemed original to me in 2008.

Posterous was acquired by Twitter in 2012, then shut down in 2013. (It's got a bit of a second life as Posthaven.) Before the shutdown in 2013, I retrieved my content (though I needn't have worried as I had the old e-mails), and kept it in a computer file. After a few years, I decided to repost it on my own domain. This is what you're looking at.