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Reading James Joyce's Ulysses: a beginner's guide 

by Diannek
reading
Don't bother me, I'm reading.

A while back, James Joyce's Ulysses was voted by a distinguished panel of reading experts as the finest English language novel of the 20th century. High praise for a novel that lots of people have never read. As a result of that award my reading group decided to put it on our list. Actually, the suggestion was in the form of an ultimatum handed down by our senior member. There was some grumbling in the ranks but we all finally agreed to give it a shot. The result was fairly predictable, none of us could make much sense of it.

Another member, perhaps anticipating that this might happen, suggested that we invite a Joycean scholar to our meeting to talk about the book. What a brilliant suggestion that turned out to be. Mr. Jim Harville, a high school English teacher (at Bellarmine College Preparatory, San Jose, CA) joined us. His enthusiasm for the novel was apparent from the moment he sat down with us.

He began the discussion by asking us for comments or reactions to our first attempt at the great work. We didn't have much to say. Nobody had read the whole thing, some had read a couple of chapters, some had just read the Cliff's Notes. We couldn't work up much enthusiasm. He was sympathetic with us. "That's to be expected," he said. "You need some help with this project. Nobody gets it at first." He passed around a handout. (No respectable English teacher ever does a lecture without one.)

To quote from Mr. Harville's introduction: "Joyce has been called 'the most difficult of the entertaining novelists…and vice versa.' He is probably best known as the father of stream of consciousness writing -- the narrative style which imitates the brain's thought process. He is also a highly symbolic writer, and his novels can (and should) be interpreted on several different levels of meaning. Above all, he is one of our great comic writers: Fun to read, but only for those who like intellectual humor."

We then looked at a page of very small print, in columns, entitled Joyce's Schema for Ulysses. Once Mr. Harville explained this schema, it was as though we had broken the secret code. He told us that Joyce had not intended to present the Schema for readers, perhaps he gave us more credit than we deserve. However, Joyce's writer-friends convinced him that this code-breaker was indeed necessary for the average reader's understanding of this most complex of novels.

Briefly, let me try to explain this schema. The first column is a list of chapter titles. The volume I had tried to read didn't even label the chapters. What I finally discovered was that there were asterisks within the text itself that delineated the chapters. The book is written in three parts, with 18 chapters and each chapter corresponds to some part or character from Homer's Odyssey. Ah-hah! The next column is the Scene, and then the Hour (the whole novel takes place in a 24-hour time period). All but the first three chapters can be related to a body part, so those are listed. Next, comes each chapter's corresponding relationship to Art, then Color, and then Symbol. Finally come columns of the writer's Technique and Correspondences. Joyce displayed his writing genius by employing a different technique in each chapter, hence the extreme shifts in writing style from chapter to chapter.

Let me give you an example of how the Schema works. Let's use Chapter 12, "Cyclops", which takes place in the tavern, at 5 pm. The organ is "muscle" and the art form is politics (muscle is a fitting organ for politics, you see), and the symbol is "citizens." Let me quote the first sentence of this chapter: "I was just passing the time of day with old Troy of the D.M.P. at the corner of Arbour hill there and be damned but a bloody sweep came along and he near drove his gear into my eye." (Ah-hah! A Cyclops reference right off the bat.) (p. 428, Knopf, 1997 edition). Well, it's not actually going to be all that obvious, because the chapter really illustrates the politician's "narrow" focus, or as Mr. Harville explained, "the politician lacked parallax."

But there is more you need to know before you can begin to plow ahead with this novel. I suggest you buy the Cliff's Notes, if only for the character list. The central character is Leopold Bloom. He's Ulysses. You might not like him, especially at first. He'll grow on you over the next twenty-four hours. What was Joyce really up to when he wrote this novel? To show off his genius? Perhaps. Mr. Harville argues that Joyce is really the star of this novel. But Joyce's goal was to summarize the human condition at the beginning of the 20th century.

So why should we read this difficult, confusing, complex work of fiction, even if it is the greatest novel of the 20th century? Well, you might use the mountain climber's rationale: because it's there. Or you might just be curious, like me. Or you might even want to take a more analytical approach. Now that we're near the end of the cycle, approaching the turn of the century, it is interesting to ask ourselves: Has the human condition really changed all that much? Read Joyce, and see for yourself.

To become a Joycean scholar you probably have to read the book at least twice.  There's just too much to understand in one reading.  And, you probably need some additional help understanding it all, even after you look at the Schema.  You can find lots of information about James Joyce on the internet. 

Speaking of which, check out Ulysses for Everyone, by John Mood


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