Saturday, May 2, 2015

Ulysses, Episode 1 – Telemachus

The study group met this afternoon at a coffee shop just a couple blocks from my house.
Today began my deep immersion into what has been touted as the most challenging book in the English language – Ulysses, by James Joyce. Written between 1918 and 1920, and originally published in Paris in 1922, it is a very dense, but evidently very funny story of a day-in-the life of a couple of guys (Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan) in Dublin on a very ordinary day, June 16, 1904. Until today all I knew of this book was that it was written by a famous Irish writer in a kind of stream-of-consciousness style and that it's a "difficult book," so of course I had to add it to my bucket list. But I've made it through Moby Dick and the entire Bible already, so I figure this can't be impossible. (Frankly, I found the first chapter a much less confusing and more enjoyable read than the first chapter of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and that doesn't get as much press for being so challenging.) 

I found a copy of Ulysses broken up into episodes online and read the first of the 18 chapters/episodes, entitled Telemachus, this morning on my laptop, as well as the Sparknotes and a New Yorker article about it. Technically not a lot happens in this first chapter. 

Here's my quick and dirty summary: A couple of guys living in a tower by the sea get into a conversation while one gives the other a straight shave, and then they have tea with this other guy and a woman comes by to deliver milk, and then the three men go for a walk down to the water and one goes for a swim and another eventually leaves and they all decide to meet up that night at a pub for drinks. 

But that's just the plot. There's a HELL of a lot of other stuff going on. Allusions to Shakespeare (Hamlet) and Oscar Wilde and of course Homer's Odyssey, plus all kinds of references to the historical and political context of Irish subservience to England, and Irish art and symbolism, and religion, and all these in-jokes and puns and dialogue I don't understand, and loads of other things. Sparknotes was helpful. But I'm sure it gets at just the tip of the iceberg. 

I've wanted to read this book for years, mostly to be able to pretentiously quote from it and be able say I've read it, but I wasn't sure when I would get around to it. Fortunately, the opportunity presented itself recently when I found a notice posted in the Writers' Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador newsletter by a local academic who wanted to start up this study group here in town. So I jumped at the chance to join and engage in stimulating discussion with a guy who did his PhD on Joyce. How perfect is that? He's not at all pretentious, and he's really excited about Joyce, and it's really fun to be involved in a little academic club like this. It's nice to be intellectually charged up again. 

There are six of us, and we're going meet every Saturday to discuss episodes (chapters) of the book, until we make it through to the end. The host (the Joyce scholar) says "You don't so much read Ulysses as immerse yourself in it. Like the ocean." I love this idea of sinking deep into this text, figuring out the characters and plot and context and digging through the layers of language and symbolism and chewing it over for a good long while to get a good overview, if nothing else. Some say it's the most difficult book in the English language. Some say it's the best book ever written in the English language. And some say it's way too hyped up. Whatever the case, if I actually read it, I'll be able to have an opinion, and for someone with a Literature degree, that's always a good thing. 

I've just dipped my toe, so this week I'll be wading deeper into the Joycean sea. Thalatta! Thalatta!

No comments: