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Pretender of Pretenders

IMG_SandymountStrabd1461Remember two posts ago…all the brave talk about how “hard ons should be gotten honestly or they shouldn’t be gotten at all” and how Ulysses is words on a page, nothing more?

In Joyce’s words…

Pretenders of pretenders, then and now.

So, as referenced in Barb’s post, chapter two was not unreadable.  In fact, it was mostly dialogue and actually was relatively easy to track.  It was Chapter 3 where the pretenders were exposed.

It’s rough.  Following Barb’s advice, I read the analysis in The New Bloomsbury first and then went to read the text.  This was not especially successful if by that you mean “not successful.”  So I was reduced to reading a section of TNB, then a section of the book, and then back and forth until I got to the end.

One of the problems is that the third chapter is entirely (or 98%) inside Stephen’s head, and Joyce means to capture what goes on inside someone’s head, which is a messy and distorted set of memories and associations climbing over one another on their to the surface.

The Chapter is named Proteus.  I did a little refreshing on my mythology.  Proteus was a proteus_589sea god who knew the truth but had to be captured before he would tell it.  To avoid capture, he was capable of changing his shape to other things…which gives us our current word, protean.

It’s a beautiful association with the sea.  Anyone who has watched the ocean has seen it take many forms and colors.  Joyce is as good as anyone at cataloging the many looks of the sea, ranging from grey to snotgreen.  It’s a wonderful way to capture the mysteries of the ocean.

Daedelus’ goal is nothing less than stripping down the mind’s processes to the bare studs in an effort to finally understand how the mind and the world relate.  He gets as far back to Aristotle’s theory of “forms.”

At one point, he’s trying to flip flop his perception, first “seeing” something as he’s “seeing” it, and then another viewing it as if it were an abstraction, like a painting.  (Have you ever done that?  Picture what you are looking at and wondering how it would look if it were painted, maybe by an early impressionist.  There are apps that do this, too.  See below).

He also questions the very idea of art:

You find my words dark.  Darkness is in our souls do you not think.

In other words, if a work of art is seen as dark, who made it dark…the creator or the viewer.

And we can see how perfectly Protean this all is.  The mind is ever-shifting, between what is seen and what is perceived, once it is filtered through our “soul, shamewounded by our sin.”  Yet truth is in there, but it must be captured first.  Good luck.

I don’t feel too bad about needing help.  I don’t know if it will be necessary for all the sections.  This is unlike anything else I’ve read.  However, beneath the allusions and the invented words and the relentless speed, there’s real genius.

Ulysses Part 1: We needed help

The Three Dancers 1925 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973I’ve read the next two “chapters” (or whatever they are called) in Ulysses, which means I  finished the first part. Whew. This is one weird book.

The second chapter was fairly straightforward – Stephen went to work where he is a teacher, the kids went out to play some sport, he helped some kid with his homework, then he had a conversation with his headmaster and got paid. Then we got to the third chapter where I was like…..WTF.

As an aside, BJ had researched the book and how to read it and came across ‘The New Bloomsday Book’ that is a companion to Ulysses. So we got it. I decided that I was going to try to read each chapter without help and then consult the Bloomsday. So I’ve been reading it after the chapters to see if I was close at understanding them, and I was, kinda sorta.  As they say, best laid plans…

About halfway through chapter 3, I tapped out and read the Bloomsday companion. The challenge with this chapter is that it’s pretty much an internal dialogue from Stephen. On the upside, it made me feel better about my own mental state and internal monologue. (That Dedalus dude has some issues!) Reading the companion for this one really helped. Like BJ’s experience re-reading chapter one after reading the companion, it went much more smoothly.

I know that I have a soft spot for Joyce, but I really do think he is a master craftsman. Much like I feel about Picasso. He had to be a master artist to be able to deconstruct his work enough to pull off cubism. And I think Joyce is the same. He is a master at words and crafting them to tell a story and that’s how he gets to write this book. He had to be able to understand language enough to deconstruct it and cobble it back together. His ability to paint a picture with words, is in my mind, extraordinary. I give you these sentences, as Dedalus is sitting on the beach watching a dog:

The dog ambled about a bank of dwindling sand, trotting, sniffing, on all sides. Looking for something lost in a past life. Suddenly he made off like a bounding hare, ears flung back, chasing the shadow of a lowskimming gull. The man’s shrieked whistle struck his limp ears. He turned, bounded back, came nearer, trotted on twinkling shanks.

I don’t know about you, but I can hear, smell and see what is happening in that scene. You don’t get to pull that off if you are not a master of words.

The ultimate question of the novel becomes, is it worth it? Does the internal monologues, references to greek mythology and the crafty language build something that has meaning and heft to it. Or is it just showy, intellectual rubbish.

Time (and about 600 more pages will tell).

 

 

Episode One: Eesh

SeapointSo, I’ve finished Episode 1, Telemachus.  Man, it was something else.  I had to read the section twice, with a quick reading of the Episode 1 recap in The New Bloomsday sandwiched in between.

This book earns its reputation for being hard to read.  Honestly, the first reading was like reading a book after all the words were dumped on the floor and slapped back together.  Very confusing and disorienting.  Barb joked by asking how many people were involved in the episode…when that’s where you are on basic facts, it isn’t going to be easy.  The problem is, I think I almost got into a fugue state as a reader–expecting things to be disorienting–but in reality, once you get oriented–once you look for the narrative and not the confusion–the story is actually more direct than it seemed.

So, I had gutted through.  The first section is 18 pages or so and it took me like three separate sittings to get through it.  If you want to call what I did getting through it.  I got to the last word.

Anyway, last night I picked up the New Bloomsday and read the summary of the episode–which is like five dense pages on its own–with the plan of starting episode 2.  Instead, just for fun, I read episode 1 again, and this time I read it like a normal 18 pages…in like 15 minutes, with flow and sense to it and I actually appreciated what people say about the book.  It was energetic and poetic and picturesque.  The use of language and metaphor is truly brilliant.  He can describe the changing sea landscape in more pitch perfect ways than I ever imagined could be done.  More on that later.

So this leaves me with two options.  One is to read the Bloomsday first and then the next episode.  Or, read the episode, and then Bloomsday and then read it again, which, as Barb points out, means I am going to read Ulysses twice.  She mentioned that it might get easier from here on in, now that I have cracked the code, that’s true, it might.

So, for episode 2 I’m going to try and do it the right way and read the text the first time in an uncoached fashion before reading the recap.  We’ll see.

One thing I did notice.  You absolutely have to read and focus on every word.  Lots of us scan/read, but that won’t work here.  The book requires your full attention because major changes drop in two words and in the flow of the narrative, without the signaling we have gotten used to.

On we go….

Ulysses, Chapter 1: It’s not as bad as I thought

joyce towerHere is what I forget sometimes: that books are deemed classics for a reason. Although I am 20 pages in, I would say this book qualifies.

I read the chapter straight through and tried not to get tripped up by the latin quotes or the sometimes odd language. Once I finished, I looked up a summary of the chapter to see if I understood it. I wasn’t too far off. First, I wasn’t sure how many people were actually involved – it was sort of like a Russian novel where people were called by different names – so I wasn’t sure if there were three or four dudes. Second, Joyce basically drops you right in the middle of a scene with no explanation – so I didn’t know if they were on a ship (there is lots of talk of the sea) or on some sort of battlefield or castle.

It turns out there are three dudes, and they are living in a tower. The tower is actually based on one that Joyce stayed in (pictured above) for six nights in 1904. (It’s now a museum dedicated to the author.) The main character in the chapter is Stephen Dedalus (who I remember from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) and if I recall correctly, is a representation of the author. Basically, Stephen gets mad at the dudes he is sharing the space with and gives him they key and it looks like he won’t return.

The chapter is ‘titled’ Telemachus – he is the son of Odysseus and is a central character in Homer’s Odyssey. Telemachus is the one who goes out searching for his father when all of the suitors come calling on his mother. Here is what we know: Ulysses is based on the Odyssey BUT does not follow it exactly. (Also, Ulysses is the Latinized version of the name Odysseus, according to Wikipedia.) So I take from this that Dedalus is going on some sort of journey.

There are some strange words – BJ and I just had a discussion on what an ashplant is. It’s a walking stick, FYI. It’s sort of like (but not as difficult as) reading Shakespeare or Chaucer. There are strange words put together in a way that we don’t use here. However, it’s very lyrical. The sounds of the words paint a picture. I know that sounds super weird, but that’s how it seems to me. Even though I don’t exactly know what’s going on, the way the words sound give you a clue. If you haven’t read it, you will just have to trust me on this one. The other difficult thing is, I think he also makes up words. So I can’t tell the made up words from the ones that I just don’t know the definitions of.

I think what makes this so interesting is – you can just read it and get the gist of what is going on. Or you can study it and get into the meaning and symbolism. But you don’t have to do both to enjoy it. Keep in mind, I am only 20 pages in so I might change my mind.

Overall, I liked it. It’s definitely challenging but not impossible. Let’s see what happens next!

It’s Bloomsday….what else is a book nerd to do?

james joyceWell, it’s that time of year where the book nerds start their summer reading project. This year: Ulysses by James Joyce. (Previous projects include, War and Peace, Infinite Jest and Brothers Karamazov.)

I am actually pretty excited to read this. I was a bit of a James Joyce fan girl back in my university days. (I may have had a poster of Mr. Joyce on my wall. My book nerd blood runs deep.) I was trying to think back to why I was enamoured with him and his writing. I think it has something to do with the fact that it was different from anything else I had ever read. The short story “The Dead” and his novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” were to me, at the time super cool. They were a different style. And I felt pretty literary, to be honest. I remember reading “The Dead” in high school and my mind exploded. It was just so good and so different. I am a bit afraid that it was easier when I was younger to have an open mind about reading his stuff. At my advanced age I have expectations of how a book should be, and might not be able to go with the flow. However, I do have confidence in the fact that this book has been around for a while and people are still reading it, so it can’t be THAT bad, right?

As BJ mentioned in his post the book has been in the news lately, being referred to by political figures lately as favourite books. BJ’s right, we don’t want to be thought of as being mainstream. (But, if it’s good enough for Pete Buttigieg, it’s good enough for me!)

After we decided this was our book for the summer, I found a Facebook group: Keep Calm and Read Ulysses. I asked for some advice on how to read it, and got a wide variety of responses. (27 of them, to be exact.) They ranged from: “Read Portrait of an Artist. And Dubliners. Familiarize yourselves with Irish political history. Read the Iliad and the Odyssey” to “Just jump on in.” I am going to go with the jump on in suggestion.

BJ was spot on in his blog post when he compared this to experiencing art – just let it wash over you. I love looking at a Rothko – I have no idea what it means, but I just know it’s something I like. So I am going to be awash in Leopold Bloom….wait, that didn’t come out right.

So as the Facebook group says…let’s Keep Calm and Read Ulysses!

Summer Reading Project: Ulysses

dublin 1904So, we’re back!  It’s time for the annual reading project…where Barb and I read a very long book that is considered to be unreadable.

The first was War and Peace.  Next, Infinite Jest, followed by The Brothers Karamazov.  This year it’s Ulysses.

I’m not going to lie.  This is the one I am most nervous about.  Ulysses is famously unreadable.  Major authors and literary figures–from Philip Roth to Virginia Woolf–have found it impossible to finish.  JOSE LUIS BORGES couldn’t finish it.  Have you ever read one of HIS books?  When I see it compared to The Waste Land, which I found impenetrable in college, I begin to shudder.

In fact, I re-read the Waste Land as a warm-up last week and it didn’t fill me with confidence.

A moment ago I told Barb that Ulysses is just words on a page…but who’s kidding who?

Of course, it’s no coincidence that we are starting today since it is Bloomsday.  June 16th is literally the day that is captured in the book.

I was reading around trying to find advice on how to read the book. First, as a digression, I found that Joe Biden, Pete Buttererergieg, and Beto O’Rourke (listed here in reverse order of insufferability) have been praising Ulysses.  Which we are not in favor of.  We don’t want to be trendy.

Anyway, my reading found two types of advice on how to read the book.  The first is to have the book open, with a Ulysses-companion on one side and a reader’s companion of literature on the other.

The other is recommended here by British Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who shows a touch for nuanced thought not seen during Question Time.  His advice:

But then “you stop trying to focus on the narrative and start just enjoying the vignettes”.

Or, just let the work wash over you, like a symphony or, more importantly, abstract art.  When you see this….

rothko

you feel what it makes you feel.  You don’t have to understand it.  And putting a bunch of academics between you and the work isn’t respectful of you, as a reader.

As delivered by Robert DeNiro in Analyze This, “a hard-on should be gotten honestly or it shouldn’t be gotten at all.”

Yes, I understand that Joyce has layered the work with a rich set of allusions that I’m likely not to catch.  That’s no crime…the only person to catch them all would have lived in Dublin in 1904.

So, my general practice is to read a section straight through, experientially.  Then, if you like, you can look back and see what was layered inside the section.  You just can’t read four words, look up the meaning and then pick it up again for another four words.  You won’t capture any of the famous rhythm of the book.

gablerWe picked the “Gabler Edition.”  This is a story in and of itself.  Apparently, previous editions of Ulysses contained a lot of mistakes, both from difficulty transcribing the original manuscripts and from Joyce’s lack of proofreading.  So Gabler decided to get a committee together and go through the whole thing line by line and fix what ended up being hundreds of mistakes.

At first, this was well received, but then there seems to have been a backlash about new mistakes being introduced, etc.  So far as I can see, knowledgable (let’s not say reasonable) people disagree, so we’re going to let it ride with Dr. Gabler.

One last thing.  The book is notable for being dirty and censored.  I hope I’m not too dense to find the dirty parts.  As Corbyn said:

You almost feel sorry for the censors who had to read and try and understand it, until they found something they deemed offensive.

No one said it would be easy.

So off we go.

Brush with Infinite Jest

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So BJ and I went over to Ann Arbor for a nice lunch and to visit one of our favourite bookstores (that’s Literati if you are wondering, and I would highly suggest you seek it out if you are in the area).

Picture if you will: We are at lunch and can’t help but overhear the two young women who are at the table behind us:

“Some people say that Infinite Jest is over-wrought writing, but I just think that David Foster Wallace was using language as an analogy.”

Wait…what. We both were like…THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT INFINITE JEST!!

First, we found someone who actually read Infinite Jest (other than BJ and I). And second, someone, a real-life person, who actually liked it. It’s like I found big foot, the loch ness monster and a unicorn all in the same place.

Let me confess something right here, I am an introvert by nature and I don’t seek out conversations with people…never mind strangers. But, this was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I told BJ I was going to go over to their table and ask some follow up questions….and he looked a bit like this

say what

I will admit, it was a bit unconventional, but how many chances to you get to talk to a unicorn…I mean someone who has read Infinite Jest.

Luckily, they were pretty chill and happy to talk about literature. I started by confessing that we overheard their conversation and that I pretty much hated Infinite Jest. I did get two nods of understanding on that point. So I asked, why they liked it.

Their response was interesting – basically it boiled down to a couple of things:

  1. Trying to read Infinite Jest as a novel will lead to disappointment. If you approach it in small essay type chunks that is a better approach.
  2. The “story” is an allegory for other things – so it’s not the story itself but what it represents.

I get both of those things. I also admitted that I do think DFW is a brilliant writer, but more of a sprinter writer and not a marathon guy.

I respect their view and found it helpful. But here is the thing for me – when I read I want it to be an escape from my day-to-day drudgery – I want to either be transported or informed. Infinite Jest did neither of those things for me. It was tedious and irritating. Which I don’t find an escape in, since it’s kind of like my regular life.

There is a teeny-tiny part of me that has considered re-reading it to see if I might have a better understanding of it. But here is the thing, life is too short to waste on books that irritate you. So unless I run out of reading material, or I am stranded on a desert island with a copy if Infinite Jest – I don’t see myself trying to crack the code.