30 March, 2012

Ulysses

A little while ago I mentioned that I am working my way through the  BBC Top 100 Books. After I read each book I give it a mark out of 10 - not on how good it is (who am I to judge?), but just on how much I enjoyed it. Having meandered my way through 90% of the list, I have only had one book score 1/10 (On the Road by Jack Kerouac, if you're interested). Now however, I am perilously close to scoring a 0/10. I only give a book zero if I can't finish it. The rule I set myself is that I must read the first 100 pages at least, and I can only stop reading if I'm finding it too hard to read - not boring or irritating, just too hard. I might have met my match in Ulysses by James Joyce.

Have you read Ulysses? Is it worth getting through? 

Now I know Ulysses is a good book. I can find essays and quotes from tonnes of professors telling me so. But I don't understand it. I know that it is written to parallel the characters and events of Homer's poem Odyssey (which I'm mostly unfamiliar with) and that it is "revolutionary in its modernistic experimentalism". But I still don't understand. It's not the storyline exactly, it's the strange, stream-of-consciousness language itself. Let me give you an example of a paragraph from chapter two. Leopold has popped into a chemist on his way to a funeral (as far as I could tell anyway):



"Bring out the darkness of her eyes. Looking at me, the sheet up to her eyes, Spanish, smelling herself, when I was fixing the links in my cuffs. Those homely recipes are often the best: strawberries for the teeth: nettles and rainwater: oatmeal they say steeped in buttemilk. Skinfood. One of the old queen's sons, duke of Albany was it? had only one skin. Leopold yes. Three we have. Warts, bunions and pimples to make it worse. But you want a perfume too. What perfume does you? Peau d'Espagne. That orange flower. Pure curd soap. Water is so fresh. Nice smell these soaps have. Time to get a bath round the corner. Hammam. Turkish. Massage. Dirt gets rolled up in your navel. Nicer if a nice girl did it. Also I think I. Yes I. Do it in the bath. Curious longing I. Water to water. Combine business with pleasure. Pity no time for massage. Feel fresh then all day. Funeral be rather glum."


It's made me feel very uncultured and ignorant. I knew it was a very difficult book, but I'm a smart person, right? I never imagined I actually couldn't finish it. Funnily enough, I don't hate it - there's some beautiful language and ideas in there - I just don't get it at all. I don't get why it was so amazing that someone wrote a book that is so obscure I feel like a degree in classics is necessary. I'd hate to say I gave up on one of the greatest works of literature, but it's that or another month of wading. My only potential salvation is to use Wikipedia, which gives a breakdown of what's happening in each section. I just feel like I should be clever enough to read a novel without the aid of Wikipedia!

James Joyce himself is a really interesting man (there are autobiographical details in Ulysses) and he said a lot of really interesting stuff. He married a chamber maid called Nora Barnacle and his dying words are supposed to have been, "Does nobody understand?", for example. But there isn't space to talk about him now, so tell me...

Do you ever abandon a book part-way through? Have you ever read a classic that you can't see what the fuss is about?

10 comments:

  1. I'm so pleased to hear you describe Ulysses in that way. I was intrigued by the use of language, there were some wonderful turns of phrase, but it was all said so strangely that I had real trouble following what was happening. I too turned to Wikipedia to tell me what was happening, and felt like a cheat for doing so. I have only read the first 100 odd pages and while I haven't officially given up I have read several other books since I last touched it. I'm curious as to whether anyone else has battled further and whether it was worth the effort....

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    1. I didn't realise you'd tried Ulysses. You kept that quiet! It's the one I've been dreading on the list so I'm glad to have tackled it anyway. I haven't quite given up yet, I'm treating reading it as a daily exercise!

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  2. I read On the Road and just didn't get it at all. I know it's admired as a mould-breaker or trend-setter or some other hyphened plaudit, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. Conversely, Catcher in the Rye was recommended to me, years ago, and I loved it. I really did! (You need to read the book to find out why that's funny - or not). Sometimes I think giving up on a book is as important as seeing one through to the end. Because life is too short to not enjoy what you're reading.

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    1. I loved Catcher in the Rye too! I also didn't like The Great Gatsby and then I found out later that Jack Kerouac and F Scott Fitzgerald are considered to be similar, so I obviously just don't like that style. Might try TGG again someday though, because most people can't believe I didnt' like it - perhaps I missed something?!

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  3. Ulysses is also the only book I've never managed to finish - I think the only people who read it all are academics who are paid to do so... and they haven't necessarily got to the end - I've quoted it in my thesis, which proves my point. I've watched a film of it, which didn't shed that much light on it, but at least I managed to get to the end of the film!

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    1. Well if Dr. Naomi couldn't finish, I definitely feel let-off! You're smart and everything. I was discouraged from the start by the fact the book has an introductory essay written by a team of academics. A novel shouldn't need that!

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  4. Couldn't bear Ulysses. I mean, what is it meant to be? Enjoyable? No. Informative? No. Erudite? No. Entertaining? No. Insightful? No. Didactic? No. Exciting? No. Compelling? No.
    It is the self-conscious ramblings of a self-absorbed Irishman, and do I need to indulge him? No. Ceve

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  5. He was self-absorbed but still really interesting. I just can't deal with his style! Did you get to the end?I haven't heard from anyone who has yet!

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    1. No. After about 50 pages I found myself with eyes following along the lines and brain working out the weekly supermarket shop ~ that's how riveting it was. Gave up and never looked back. Have you read Joyce's The Dubliners? A much better read; his talent's not in doubt, but I always find stream of consciousness writing rather self-indulgent, and to write at the length of Ulysses.... Get a life, Man!

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  6. I've decided not to give up, but to read it in sections. Read a few sections, put it aside to read something else, re-read the synopsis of the bits I've read, then read another few sections.

    Now I've appreciated that it's pretty much entirely a stream of consciousness, it actually makes a fair bit more sense anyway. It's just tiring to read!

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