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How to Read “Ulysses”

Another Bloomsday is upon us — the 106th Bloomsday, to be exact — when litterateurs raise a pint in honor of James Joyce’s 800lb. gorilla of Modernist writing, “Ulysses.” Famously banned for indecency and famously regarded as a high point of literature in the 20th Century, the novel follows the wanderings (very loosely based on “The Odyssey”) of one Leopold Bloom as he navigates Dublin on June 16, 1904, thus giving intellectuals their own version of St. Patrick’s Day: an excuse to celebrate Irish culture while consuming copious amounts of alcohol. The only difference is a preference for Guinness to green-dyed Bud Lite and the sound of someone trying to read aloud from the novel in an Irish brogue.

The dirty secret about Bloomsday is that many of those raising a glass often haven’t come within a mile of finishing Joyce’s masterwork—many haven’t even bothered to start. Annoyingly, there are those who wear their literary sloth in this regard as a badge of anti-intellectual pride, decrying Joyce’s tome as so much high-falutin’ claptrap. This is perfectly understandable: nobody wants to feel inadequate to the task of reading Ulysses, and so, in the grand and growing tradition of “anti-elitists” everywhere, the perplexed give up after a chapter or two and claim the fault lies with the book, not them.

Inconveniently, and unlike any number of avant-garde monuments that truly make the eyes glaze over, Joyce’s novel really is all that it’s cracked up to be: an astonishing and deeply human document that reinvents and reinvigorates language and narrative itself. Sorry, Charlie. But it’s certainly no beach read; so in the spirit of Bloomsday, we’re here to help with some strategies for wrapping your mind around the book.

Buy a “Ulysses” companion

Each chapter of Ulysses is a discrete literary universe, even as it moves the plot along—there’s a lot going on both at the surface and under it. Confusing? Sure. But a good reader’s companion, like Harry Blamires’ “The New Bloomsday Book” will help you tackle each chapter with a basic plot summary and some thoughtful analysis (and Ulysses is best read one chapter at a sitting). By reading the companion’s essay on each chapter before you read the chapter (or, better yet, reading it after you’ve read each chapter), you’re pretty well located in the dazzling forest of Joyce’s prose, which isn’t so much stream-of-consciousness as streaming consciousness: a live feed into the thoughts and perceptions of the characters.

In addition, the companion comes in handy when you hit the most notoriously difficult chapter, Chapter 14 (aka “The Oxen of the Sun.”) In this chapter, Joyce maniacally parodies every style of English prose from Chaucer to Thomas Carlyle—just the sort of thing that English professors love and general readers find stupefying. (Don’t feel too bad if you skim this one.)

Listen to the audiobook

Speaking of streaming consciousness, it’s difficult at first to always discern who’s thinking what in Ulysses. The second time I read the book, I listened to one of the many fine audiobook versions as I moved through the chapters, and thus began to catch the shifts in point of view and voice that are crucial to the flow of the prose. You can’t just listen without reading along, however: there’s too much that slips past (unless you listen to certain chapters over and over). Also, be sure to get an unabridged version like the one read by Jim Norton on “Naxos.”

At least watch the movie

In an episode of “Cheers,” Sam somehow struggles through “War and Peace” in order to impress Diane, who is charmed and declares herself amazed that he just didn’t watch the movie. “You mean there’s a MOVIE?” cries Sam.

Yes, there’s a movie, even of a novel long considered unfilmmable. In fact, its director, Joseph Strick, just recently passed away. Strick’s 1967 version is obviously much shorter and can’t really compare with the experience of reading the novel, but it retains much of Joyce’s language and is an absolutely honorable attempt at reproducing the novel onscreen. If you can’t commit to much more than pressing play, it’s available on DVD from Amazon.

If none of these strategies avail, you can at least take satisfaction at giving it the old college try (especially if your attempt takes place outside of an college lit class). Go ahead and raise that pint, and be thankful that Bloomsday and its celebration of the knotty genius of James Joyce isn’t based on “Finnegan’s Wake.”

Gregory Crosby

PHOTO BY MIKE QUEST

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