A beginner’s guide to a first reading of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’

There is a pithy old joke, told again and again, perhaps most famously by Woody Allen at the beginning of his film Manhattan, that summarises my view of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It goes something like this: two women walk into a restaurant. One says – the food was terrible; to which the other replies – yeah, and such small portions, too.

Well, following Allen’s gag: Ulyssses is both difficult and, at over 900 pages in my edition, there’s a lot of it.

So, how do you approach reading it for the first time? That phrase ‘first time’ is deliberate because I think it’s likely that it will need more than one reading. I hope, because I think it merits it, that you’ll want to do that – I do, having just finished it. Here was my approach, along with one or two ideas, on how you might undertake a reading of Ulysses. I chose 11 points of guidance because it seemed to follow Ulysses’ perverse and contrary spirit. I hope you find them all useful.

1. Ulysses is a work of art to be enjoyed, not an obstacle to be overcome. I say this because it’s not always how I felt. I had to remind myself that in the most difficult and obtuse passages, I was reading this to be enlightened, moved, amazed, awed. If you can keep this in mind, it will help motivate you and keep your mind open its delights.

2. You’ll need other books to help you. Ideally, you should have read Homer’s Odyssey (and remember it). In my view – and this is not shared by others – you’ll also need a commentary. I used Harry Blamires book, which is a line-by-line discussion, written in continuous, clear and concise prose.

I would also strongly recommend reading T.S. Eliot’s poem, ‘The Waste Land’, along with notes that explain it. This gives an idea of the flavour of the much grander enterprise of reading Ulysses: both are Modernist masterpieces, so you’ll learn something about context; both are difficult and display a variety of style and allusions; both will introduce you to the idea of reading a primary text (the poem and novel), alongside notes on it.

3. You’ll need lots of structured time. As I’ve said, the novel runs in at over 900 pages in my Penguin edition. I read much of the novel in very small chunks, around 20-30 pages at a time. If I had more time, or the inclination, I would read more. For every sitting I would read the Blamires’ commentary, too, so it’s quite an undertaking. Moreover, I would recommend structuring your time a little: say, devote the next month to reading 20 or so pages per day.

4. Embrace the idea of a second reading. In a sense, this is a cop-out. It means those thorny issues can be postponed until the next time. But it also means that you won’t get so demotivated by the difficulty because you know you can return to it later.

5. Read with a pencil in your hand. This is another way of saying ‘be an active reader’. Make notes on things you need to look up. But – importantly – not too many. You might need to leave some things alone for now. Since Ulysses condenses deep reflection on the most mysterious and sophisticated questions of life, you can’t expect to cover it all. Just note those things that will aide your reading or take your interest.

6. If you’re not confused, you haven’t ‘got’ it. Get used to the idea that not all of Ulysses’ ‘problems’ will be solved in either one or several readings. The reading is extremely difficult in some sections and sometimes you’ll wonder why you’re reading it all. Some of the problems of the novel will remain mysteries. That’s ok.

7. Absorb and believe that reading Ulysses is unlike anything you’ve read before. When reading, as with many things, we often use our past experiences to get to grips with a new idea or format. This is unlikely to be the case with Ulysses. It’s not quite like anything else, which is one of the reasons it’s so highly praised. Reading ‘The Waste Land’ (see Point 2, above) will help in at least introducing the process of reading.

8. If you can’t get past a difficult part, skim read it and read the commentary… But don’t read the commentary instead of reading the novel. Although everything in me says this is bad advice, if it’s the difference between giving up and going on, then read what you can, how you can and the commentary be your guiding light. For example, Part 1, Episode Three (‘Proteus’) appears early in the novel [note that your version may not be divided into these named sections – Blamires and others do so, however]. It’s a notoriously difficult read and had me completely puzzled and demotivated. So, I read it, absorbed what I could without becoming anxious about the finer points of interpretation, I read the commentary – then moved on. I think many people stop here, when the novel really becomes difficult. Don’t be one of them.

9. Preview your reading by learning more before you start. I knew quite a bit about Ulysses already and it had coloured my reading. I have done this for other books and it has worked well. Since Ulysses is not plotted in the conventional sense – that is, you’re unlikely to find most satisfaction in how it resolves itself at the end – then I think it’s fine to learn more about it. It’s the telling, not the tale (on the whole), so previewing the structure and learning more about it online might help ‘position’ it as you read. The wikipedia entry is useful in this respect, offering short summaries of the sections.

10. Augment your reading with an unabridged audiobook. There are unabridged versions and so you’ll get the full text. Perhaps these are most useful when supplementing your own reading of the text, for which there is no replacement in my view. Perhaps listening to a difficult section again, in the car on the way to work, might help.

11. Don’t give up! Reading Ulysses is probably one of the most difficult enterprises we can start when reading. But the rewards are immense. Other books will seem easy, you’ll be more popular with your friends and you’ll find life’s slings and arrows bounce off you harmlessly. Well, not quite. But you will have achieved something that many claim and far fewer actually have and what’s more – you will have engaged with a work every bit as good as people say it is.

Good luck with your reading and do share your thoughts and experiences here below.

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A life less ordinary: William Boyd’s ‘Any Human Heart’

A life less ordinary

What an audacious ambition – to write the life of another, from the teenage years until the moment just before death. That’s what William Boyd has attemped with his novel ‘Any Human Heart’. Through a series of candid and frequent, if not exhaustive, journal entries we come to learn about the thoughts, feelings and events in Logan Mountstuart’s life: his uncertain academic path at university; his intellectual development and his writing; his loves, friendship, affairs, his wives and children; and finally, his old age and death.

This novel is wonderfully evocative of a past that many of us know only from history books and films, but which we’ve never lived through. Placing a flesh-and-blood character at the centre of such pivotal times and places adds an enormous dimension, bringing them closer for us to not only see but to feel. Paris in the early 20th century, London during the blitz, New York during the volatile but economically booming years: this novel provides a vibrant and sustained insight into some of the 20th century’s most fascinating times and places, from the perspective of events during Logan Mountstuart’s life.

And it’s the events, especially, that Logan (one feels comfortable calling him by his first name, since we come to know him so well) shares with his unintended, unconsidered, unknown audience. Despite the opportunity offered by the candid qualities of the journal format, the novel is essentially plot-driven rather than reflective or philosophical. Boyd takes seriously Henry James’ edict that one must not ‘attempt to know any human heart’.

Instead, we come to know Logan through his actions and trace a path of highs and lows through his rich and busy life. But this isn’t a novel in which one can readily associate with the central character because Logan lived a life that is far from commonplace. This is not an exhaustive list, but a representative one: Logan quickly becomes a published author upon leaving Oxford. His intellectual curiosity and impatience with his home in England takes him to Paris and later Spain, where he meets a series of well-known cultural figures, including Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and most significantly for this novel, the abdicated former king, now Prince Edward VIII and his wife, Wallis Simpson. He witnesses the civil war in Spain; parachutes into Switzerland during World War II to aid the Allies; is captured as a spy and kept in a cell overlooking Lake Geneva; becomes an art dealer in New York during the 1960s; and eventually retires to France and dies there.

Contemplation and action: Woolf and Hemingway

We’re given a clue as to the kind of approach this novel takes in its treatment of two literary figures, Woolf and Hemingway.

Virginia Woolf

Woolf, whom Logan meets in England, arguably most successfully fulfils her Modernist ambitions in the short story ‘Kew Gardens’. In this story she takes the iconoclastic step of focussing, in minute detail and over a relatively prolonged period, on flowers growing in a flowerbed; the random flight of a dragonfly; and later on a snail trying to reach its goal. Against this seemingly unpromising background she sets the lives of several characters who congregate at different times around the flowerbeds in which the flowers and creatures are to be found. In doing so, she shows how these two different worlds – of the mundane, trivial world of the insects and those troubles of the characters who pass by unaware – are intimately connected. It is a story that seeks to introduce subtly drawn, ungilded, commonplace moments as a highly revealing subject for fiction – even if that revelation lacks the kind of narrative resolution that many short stories of the time possessed. Woolf’s writing, in this respect, represents an interest in the revelatory power of the commonplace, even banal, aspects of life. Its method is to emphasise the thoughtful, subtle, nuanced aspects of human thought and feeling.

In contrast, Ernest Hemingway writes stories on grand themes, populated with heroes and anti-heroes, which often focus upon intense human suffering as painted on the broad canvas of war. His collection ‘In Our Time’, for example, bears the scars of war most notably, as men (rarely women) try to come to terms with lives destroyed by modern warfare. His ‘romantic egoism’ as Jay McInerney called it, is far removed from Woolf’s abnegation of the self in her Modernist writing. In the kind of simple description of what is a much more complex reality, Hemingway’s writing is characterised by activity at the margins of human experience; Woolf’s by contemplation of the commonplace and its amazing revelatory power.

Ernest Hemingway

Woolf is lambasted in the novel as socially intimidating, elitist, almost inhuman (interestingly, a new biography asserts that Woolf was more politically engaged and less socially detached than might otherwise be thought). Hemingway, on the other hand, is celebrated as a man of action: he summons his car in war-torn Spain and accompanies Logan on a hunt to find a man with a mysterious gift (the gift is a notable collection of expensive paintings wrapped in a carpet, intended for a friend of Logan’s who dies: Logan keeps the paintings and sells them later).

In turn, Boyd rejects the purely contemplative approach and follows the path of action. He answers the question ‘who would want to read a series of journals based upon an ordinary life?’ – by writing of a life full of incident, heroically lived. But in doing so, Boyd has created a sometimes old-fashioned story of derring do, which flirts with the extremes in human emotion and action and as a result lacks a handle which we might turn to open the door of Logan’s heart. At worst, he is dangerously close to farce by the time he writes Logan as an imprisoned spy: at the end of the novel we learn and remember much more about the events of his life than we do about how he feels or thought about them.

Despite this, there are moments when such extremes of experience is thwarted or restrained. During his period as a journalist in Spain during the 1930s, Logan fires a machine gun at some fascists in an approaching car. Although they appear to take evasive action, their distance makes it impossible to tell. This notion of distance – that Logan skirts around but rarely penetrates the prized inner circle – goes some way in providing a connection between the reader and the life of Logan. But for some it might not be enough. This isn’t our life we watch stretched out over 80 odd years of intermittently completed journals: it’s the life of someone else, someone better connected, luckier (as the novel’s main thrust would have it) than our own. As such, perhaps it’s a critique on our contemporary society, sterile as it sits in front of computer screens, tracking the world in rolling news.

It is a simple line to draw to connect Logan’s relationship with the novel’s attitude to the characters of Woolf and Hemingway and what this reveals about Boyd’s attitude to his chosen approach. It’s churlish, of course, to berate an author for writing about this or that, in this way or that, instead of another. And it’s a coarse analysis to suggest that Woolf writing was purely contemplative, Hemingway’s purely interested in action. Nevertheless, it is revealing that these two writers hold significantly different positions on the ways in which fiction is written and its ‘proper’ subject; and how their treatment in the novel reflects Boyd’s approach to capturing a life.

A luckier life

Logan's life stages, from the TV production

There are memories, dreams, reflections – many of which appear close to the end of the novel and therefore Logan’s life, as befits a life already lived, then weighed and considered. The central idea of the novel – expressed in a rare foray into summarising in a work that is overwise joyously bereft of cod-psychology, armchair philosophy or home-spun contemplation – is that the value of your life is expressed as a sum of the the luck you have, good and bad.

But this is not borne out by the book or Logan’s life. Rather, he continually takes the opportunities when offered to him: and when they are not, he seeks them. Some of those – like his art dealings – are the result of contacts he has made throughout his life. Lucky, yes. But the manner in which he deals with a troublesome colleague in the art world relies less on luck than it does with deliberate, carefully considered decision. Elsewhere, the luck he possesses is a result of who he knows. In a reduced analysis, he becomes a spy because he plays golf with James Bond author Ian Fleming; or a pawn in a radicalised anti-capitalist plot because he can no longer to afford not to eat dog food for dinner.

This does Logan, and the reader, a disservice. It implies there is an essential quality to Logan which sees his life spread out before him, with an uncontrollable and random force of luck as the only influence, when in fact he makes his life what it is, just as we do. We are all subject to the whim of luck but even embracing such caprice we make our own fate; in this novel it is Logan’s fate to live an extraordinary life which we will either be impressed and inspired by, or find lethally out of reach.

Charles Baudelaire wrote of his ‘Journaux Intimes’ (‘Intimate Journals’) that a work that simply captured the mind of a genius – unmediated, without explanation, without recourse to literary conventions – would necessarily be a masterpiece. In his journals, he tried to achieve just that. But it was a failed experiment: the work wasn’t a masterpiece. But it is instructive because it tells us that the unmediated life, captured verbatim, contains no less an authentic story. As JG Ballard wrote, you fictionalise to reach the truth. And the truth of this novel is that we do not – cannot – understand Logan Mountstuart’s very human heart, just as we cannot know the heart of anyone else, including our ourself.

Quick review: “Picasso, Matisse, Dubuffet, Bacon…” musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon

The musee is a beautiful place, too

The musée is a beautiful place, too

I went to the new art exhibition at Lyon’s Musée des beaux-arts last weekend, on its first day of opening (by chance rather than through planning). Called ‘Picasso, Matisse, Dubuffet, Bacon… Les modernes s’exposent au musée des Beaux-Arts’ it is a chronologically organised history of modern painting and art objects, arranged in two dozen or so rooms.

The gallery itself is a beautiful space, full of clean and well-organised rooms with the work displayed well. Its floors don’t creak. It has lots of benches for sitting on and pondering. It has a cafe. What’s more, it has its fair share of the old masters and some fascinating ancient work, too. I was in love with the world when I wandered around – the city, the new experiences, the atmosphere on the streets, the food – had me besotted. Coupled with the fact that I’m no professional art critic, this could be an exuberant review.

But it’s hardly an exuberant exhibition – and is all the better for it.

Rather, it’s actually quite conservative in my estimate. On the whole, it’s a history of painting arranged chronologically and thematically. Artistic periods are linked with the era in which they appeared, or to which they referred. So, we have the ‘return to order’ grouping following World War II. In this room, history represents upheaval, to which the artists reacted by returning to order. Five or six paintings (and sometimes other art objects) represent this deliberately simplified approach.

The overall effect is to create an excellent historical primer, in which it makes it simpler to contextualise artists and their relationship with their wider world, to create connections, begin to make sense of those many movements, artworks, periods. It is as good as any art historical book I’ve read, and you do feel a sense of development both artistically and historically as you walk round.

Art as a mirrored reflection of society and its history is of course a very simplistic relationship and it’s one that is interrogated as the exhibition moves towards its final stages. In the final works of post-modernism, those very notions of a stable art, history and what they mean in relation are discussed in the artworks and the commentary that accompanies them. If you’re in Lyon – and why wouldn’t you be? – I’d highly recommend it.