Well, I’ve done it. I’ve finally started Ulysses by James Joyce. I’ve done a deep dive into preparatory materials, I’ve talked to those that have taken this journey before, and I’ve read the books that inform the background of this one. And now that I’ve jumped in and finished the first chapter….
I’m feeling pleasantly over-prepared.
Really. I know it gets crazy later in the book, but for all the reputation this book has for complexity, allusions, background, depth, and opacity, this first chapter is a pretty fun and straightforward narrative. In it, one of our main characters, Stephen Daedalus, wakes up, gets teased by his roommates, has breakfast, and sets off for his day at work. The book will chronicle this one full day, following the steps of its two main characters.
What I’m learning is that (so far) Ulysses is not a difficult read. Yes, there are many, many layers that I know are there, but not knowing them right now isn’t hindering my comprehension (and, more importantly, my enjoyment) of the book at all.
There are indeed Latin phrases, strange words, some jokes that go over my head, and such. But it actually feels a lot like reading Shakespeare (though quite a bit easier to immediately understand): you still can know what’s going on and recognize the beauty with which the narrative progresses, all while knowing there are jokes, words, and references you just let wash over you as you tell yourself, “if I care enough at the end of this, I can sit with that more closely during another time reading it.”
Long story short: much to my surprise, the depth doesn’t take away from your reading; it just lets you know there are many more diamonds to mine in future readings.
So don’t let this book’s reputation scare you off. It moves at a playful clip. It saunters, with the occasional little skip. Joyce is well aware of how you are experiencing the book and he wants to play with that and send you down paths you don’t yet see coming.
Already I can fully feel what many others have said: Joyce intends for the reader to be a participant in the book, not a mere “observer” of words on a page.
The Chapter & The Odyssey
As you may or may not know, Ulysses is a riff off of Homer’s The Odyssey. And just like the Greek epic, this book begins with a secondary character and sets up their situation before moving on to the real “main” character of the book.
Homer begins with Odysseus’ son, Telemachus. The story sets up Telemachus’ situation at home where a bunch of suitors–thinking Odysseus is dead–are trying to marry his wife, Penelope. They are trying to usurp the head of the household (and by extension, his son, who ought to take over in the event of Odysseus’ death). Telemachus just wants to feel like a man in his own home, but is repeatedly emasculated and prevented from doing so by these suitors.
Joyce begins with Stephen, the bohemian, romantic, artistic dreamer (who was the main character of Joyce’s previous book, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) before moving to the more bodily, pragmatic, and grounded Leopold Bloom. Daedalus is also trying to find and prove himself as a man, but others in his home are constantly knocking him off his sure-footing. They do it under the guise of friendship and friendly teasing, but they wound far more than Daedalus lets them know.
And just like the suitors in the home of Telemachus, these roommates of Daedalus talk him into getting his paycheck from his work and using it to fund their partying later tonight. But for now, the chapter ends with Stephen leaving his friends swimming in a creek so he can head to work (and pick up said paycheck). It’s a bit on the nose then that the chapter ends with this one-word sentence muttered by Stephen as he departs: “Usurpers.”
So now I’m about to dip into Chapter 2. I’ve heard, however, that the book does in fact get difficult in Chapter 3, when Stephen leaves work and starts daydreaming while walking along a beach. So we’ll see how that goes, but I’m committed to seeing this through.
As I do, I’ll continue to blog through the chapters as I’m able. I want to chronicle both for myself and any other first time readers what it’s like for a relatively “normal person” to read this book. Yes, I’ve done a lot of work beforehand, but I still feel like I’ve got some fresh eyes on this. Onward!
If you’d like to join in on this reading journey, I’ve compiled some resources to help you along your way.