Several years ago I decided to read The Iliad
that year, and did so. It worked so well I decided in 2012 to read another book I'd been planning to read for years, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
. I didn't quite get through it, but that's no big deal, the book isn't going away anywhere. As Barbara Kingsolver said, this project isn't written on tablets.
So this year I resolved on January 1 that I was going to read James Joyce's Ulysses
. Since I'd heard it was a difficult book, I tried to persuade the people in one of my Dunnett reading groups to take it up as a group reading project, but only one other person was interested. Pity.
By August, I was thinking I should maybe get started. By September I was wondering if I might pick another book as my special project....
Then a while I was washing dishes in the kitchen and listening to an unknown radio station. A woman was being interviewed about James Joyce - she teaches university-level classes on his works. She mentioned that there was a local group who met every month to discuss Ulysses
in a pub. I wondered what city they were in, envying them.
Turns out it was Ottawa. I made a note of the woman's name, and e-mailed her.
And then went today, for my first discussion of Ulysses
. They're up to chapter three, so I had to rush through chapters one and two over the past few days. It's a little difficult to speed-read Joyce, but hey, I did it. And I read chapter 3 with somewhat more care.
And fell in love with his style, his content, his observations, his words. With the fact that he mentions Pico della Mirandola and Perkin Warbck and has phrases like illfounded heresiarch
and ineluctable modality of the visible
What really surprised me was the tone. I expected something dark and difficult -I knew there were themes of death and disillusionment. I didn't expect to find it funny.
I'm told that it gets more difficult after chapter three. We shall see.
We were each asked to pick a favourite line for discussion - it could be a sentence, or a passage, or a phrase, or a line. The really hard thing was picking only one bit. I chose something from the beginning of the chapter, where Stephen thinks of a snatch of song:
Won't you come to Sandymount,
Madeline the mare?
Rhythm begins, you see. I hear. A catalectic tetrameter of iambs marching. No, agollop: deline the mare.
I loved the image of marching iambs, and I had to look up "catalectic" - it means unfinished, or cut off. I love the way the image works (for me) from the centre out: first I chose just the key phrase "catalectic tetrameter of iambs" and then added the "marching", and then the rest... like constructing blocks of ideas.
But it was so hard to pick. I also love Shut your eyes and see
- which, to my disappointment, no one picked. And "We have nothing in out house but headache pills," which says so much to me. And the image of "a dryingline with two crucified shirts", and... so many more.
One which pretty much describes my life: "We don't want any of your medieval abstrusosities."
I'm having such fun with this. The more I look, the more I see. And the more I want.
Joyce's writing reminds me of two of my favourite writers, ever, not counting those he quotes or cites, like Shakespeare and Milton. He also reminds me of a few writers I don't much like, like Ezra Pound and Lewis Carroll, but the significants ones he brings to my mind are T.S. Eliot and Dorothy Dunnett. Now, T.S. Eliot was pretty much his contemporary and I suspect some cross-pollination there: one might have been a fan of the other, and influenced, or they might each have been reflecting a certain way of seeing the world and talking about it that was in their time. But Dorothy Dunnett was born after Ulysses
was published. I wonder if she was a fan.