Ulysses is for life, and not just Bloomsday
Too many writers to mention have been quoted saying something along the lines of anyone who thinks writing is easy is doing it wrong. And the same goes for anyone who thinks reading Ulysses is easy. If it feels easy, and the person is not some kind of freaky-genius, they aren’t doing it right.
Here is my advice in case you are thinking of tackling Ulysses, as I feel it really is worth it. But similar to the way running a marathon, and childbirth, are worth it. Hard work, but ultimately rewarding, and reading Ulysses involves less blisters and sore muscles than the first, and infinitely less expense, sleep deprivation and damage to lady parts than the second.
1) Read Homer’s Odyssey first. It’s not long. Or, at least read through the summary on Sparknotes, as it will make the chapter titles in Ulysses familiar, as well as the whole searching theme that’s going on.
2) Buy an annotated version. All that flapping back and forth to the section at the back is worth it. I have a student edition from eBay, which some nice student filled with handy post-its and underlined sections. Thank you, dear unknown student.
3) Read along with the audiobook. It’s often hard to work out who is talking, or even singing, and their mood hard to tell. And not one of the free audiobooks on Youtube, which Sarah would say sounds like they dragged a shopper in off the street and got them to read some things out in a phone booth. There is a version on Amazon/Audible with Jim Norton that is incredibly well done. Not only is his voice rich and entertaining, I find when a book is hard going my mind often wanders, and I’ll see a squirrel outside, or an amusing cloud, and I’m gone for five minutes. With audio and a book in front of me, my senses are all occupied and I have to keep up with the voice, and keep reading the words.
4) Literary guides, the Ulysses Sparknotes, go forth and hit them all up. I did this before and after each section, to make sure I knew where I’d been before starting forward again, as if I lost my thread, I’d rather find out sooner rather than later.
5) Ulysses was initially banned due to the last chapter where Molly is thinking some pretty saucy thoughts to herself, although not a huge deal by today’s standards, but I did find myself pulling some pretty fierce Kenneth Williams/Frankie Howerd faces, ‘Ooh, matron!’ indeed. If reading or listening in public, be aware of rogue facial reactions. This stream of consciousness stuff involves haemorrhoids, the cat’s bum, and handy places to wipe snot. A couple of times an ‘Ew!’ came out of my mouth involuntarily.
6) Don’t be too hard on yourself if you occasionally find your eyes appear to be reading words, but your brain is not in on it. There are some amazing sentences, and it’s worth having a notebook handy, to write down some of those perfect poetic lines, but there’s also some stuff that I couldn’t make sense of, and had to move on. Luckily, there is a line very early on regarding Stephen’s dead mother, which echoed the situation with Joyce’s own mother’s death, which I liked so much it motivated to keep reading.
Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes.
Making notes does often remind us why we are doing things, but maybe not as much as I have 😉
7) Biscuits. Every time I sat down to work on Ulysses I’d have tea and some biscuits. I associate the book with sugary rewards. I don’t see that as a bad thing. I’m sure if you’re fond of crisps/booze/Faberge eggs, those treats will work just as well.
There’s an abridged audio version with Andrew Scott as Stephen Dedalus. Yes please, and thank you very much.