As a plucky undergraduate student I attempted to enlist in a course on James Joyce's Ulysses, which celebrates its centenary this year. The professor was a stern, imperious type, who plainly stated that as someone majoring in something other than English literature, I had no business undertaking the formal study of this daunting epic and so refused me a special dispensation to take the class. Unbowed, I picked up a copy and attempted to work through it myself, my initial interest in the novel (and its lofty literary reputation) overshadowed by my desire to spiritually stick it to some snobby lit prof.
Thing is: Snobby Lit Prof was right. To a 20-year-old with little to go on but his wits and a functional knowledge of the English canon, Ulysses was simultaneously baffling and wholly tedious. Even the things about Ulysses I appreciated (the bawdy language, acutely intelligent turns of phrase such as "The leaning of sophists towards the bypaths of apocrypha is a constant quality") with an accompanying pang of poseur-ishness. While I hacked through 700-plus pages of perspective-shifting, meandering, modernist prose, to say I "read" Ulysses then would be generous. Pages were flipped, paragraphs were scanned, but beyond a hypothetical "I Read James Joyce's Modernist Masterwork Ulysses" trophy, little was gained. It was, in Joycean terms, an utter botch-up.
A decade or so later, adrift in downtime during this past holiday season, I made another crack at it. A purchased a new (used) edition of Ulysses, with a tatty black paperback cover plain enough to cloak my identity as The Guy Reading Ulysses At A Bar Alone, and dove back in. But this time, I did not proceed alone. One great thing about the modern world is that it affords us ample reading supplements.
I referred time and again to a fairly detailed Wikipedia entry, I downloaded a Great Courses lecture series dedicated to Ulysses, and even picked up a copy of Homer's The Odyssey (Penguin's Robert Fagles translation, worth it for Bernard Knox's introduction and notes alone), after which Joyce's Ulysses was famously modelled. Chapter by chapter, lecture by lecture, I carefully staked through Joyce's bustling Dublin, making thorough use of online guides, essays, reviews, YouTube videos and other newfangled tools that might have made me feel like a fraud when I was an undergrad. A few dozen pages in and Ulysses started to feel less daunting. Somewhere along the line, I even began enjoying myself.
In his 2014 book The End of Absence, Michael Harris spends a chapter unplugging and reading Tolstoy's similarly intimidating War And Peace. Harris attempts to rewire his brain to pre-internet standards by engaging with a slow-moving text that was the "product of a culture with far fewer YouTube videos than our own." Attempting Ulysses – on the auspices of its 100th birthday, or as an affront to our own hectic, go-go-go media culture – would seem to offer a similar reprieve. But I found in the experience something quite different. Joyce's book wasn't so much an oasis from the hurly-burly of the modern world, but a complement to it.
One of the book's "episodes" affords narrative pride-of-place to 19 different characters; another parrots 20-odd English literature styles in one whooshing, breathless explosion of wordplay. Even the debates about what constitutes citizenship, and the tirades by Fenians and anti-Semites, feel vaguely, eerily topical. And the book's perambulating protagonist, the cuckold Leopold Bloom, was practising whole beast cookery (savouring "giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart," etc.) well in advance of the current nose-to-tail trend.
Ulysses' formal and dialogic mishmash of literary styles and tones, its commingling of references (Biblical, Classical, Shakespearean) with workaday toilet humour, resonated in a world where the reader's mind is ever-distracted, where one's eye may rove from an incendiary tweet, to an online newspaper article, to an e-reader, to a book of paper-bound fiction, to a Blue Apron recipe card. Ulysses didn't assuage the hyperactive chaos of modern existence. It embodied this chaos.
In 1918, following the first serialized publication that March of what would become Ulysses in The Little Review, Joyce brought an early draft to Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard, eager for them to publish it. While Leonard loved the book, Virginia (an acerbic critic, and herself no slouch, modernist lit-wise) was underwhelmed. "An illiterate, underbred book," she wrote in her diary, "The book of a self-taught working man."
Yet Woolf's criticism betrays something wonderful about Joyce's work. It's that bit about it being "the book of a self-taught working man" that provides an enticing lure for anyone keen to read Ulysses in 2018. It's sometimes said that great books teach us how to read them. But following from Woolf's comments, I'd say that Ulysses is a great book that we might teach ourselves how to read. With the right guides, a little humility and the verve to appear both eagerly keen and hopelessly pretentious, that self-teaching is a snap; modernism deciphered through the techno-culture of modernity.
In other words: Spiting the scowling, imperious Snobby Lit Profs of the world has never been easier.