Is it possible to not fully understand something – while being aware that you don’t fully understand it – and still get pleasure out of it?
When picking my next audiobook to listen to, I decided I was in the mood for something classic. I also thought it would be a good idea to pick something that might not be easy to read in written form and thus I might be better off experiencing in audio. In the end, I decided to give Ulysses by James Joyce a try after watching Ted-ED’s video on why it’s worth reading. Before watching that video, I didn’t know much about Ulysses, though I had seen it on plenty of “books to read before you die” lists. Much of what I did know, I’d learned while researching the General Slocum disaster; the events of Ulysses take place on 16th June 1904, the day after this historical event, which is referred to a few times by the characters. The main thing I’d picked up was that Ulysses was really, really hard to read, which intimidated me. But I decided, why not? Let’s give it a go.
Here’s what I was thinking for the first few chapters:
Chapter 1: “This isn’t so bad. We’re following this man called Stephen Dedalus. He’s eating breakfast with his companions, and he’s tormented because his mother just died and he didn’t pray over her like she wanted. Fairly comprehensible.”
Chapter 2: “Stephen teaches a class. A man at the school gives him a letter on foot-and-mouth disease to publish in a newspaper, and then makes some anti-Semitic comments. Well, some of this vocabulary goes over my head, but I’m following it okay. I don’t see what all the fuss is about!”
Chapter 3: “……………..Um.”
Not being able to make sense of a book, movie, etc is normally a real turn-off for me. For example, when watching the Hugh Jackman movie The Fountain – where he plays three different characters who may or may not actually be the same person – I couldn’t understand what was supposed to be happening and was more frustrated than entertained. Yet with Ulysses, as I listened to streams of dense, disorderly, disconnected prose where it was sometimes hard to discern simply where a character was and what they were doing, I felt more stimulated than bored or annoyed. Part of that, admittedly, might have been due to how good the narration by Jim Norton was.
So what’s really so good about the book? It takes place in Dublin, on an ordinary day in 1904, and follows two men – Leopold Bloom, and the aforementioned Stephen Dedalus – as they wander separately through the city. Not exactly a setup for a grand adventure, and indeed Ulysses doesn’t even have a real plot to speak of. But Joyce makes it an interesting and unique book through the things we see his characters think about, and the style (or styles) in which he presents them. Much of the prose consists of Stephen and Bloom’s thoughts, and they have all sorts of little philosophical musings, of the sort that many of us might briefly have when examining the quirks and absurdities of everyday life. There’s talk about Ireland itself, and the rules of society. Bloom goes to a funeral and thinks about death; later, he and some other characters are at a maternity ward and think about birth. Joyce certainly manages to cover an awful lot of subjects in the story of one ordinary day.
Every chapter is different, self-contained by both its content and its style. Some of these styles are wildly different from each other. In Chapter 5, which takes place at a newspaper office, the prose is interspersed with blaring newspaper headlines relating to what’s going on. Chapter 15 is mostly a fantasy sequence which is presented in the form of a play; it involves Bloom being put on trial for inappropriate behaviour towards women, then being declared an emperor, then being turned into a woman. My favourites were Chapter 12, which features descriptions of ordinary things done in an overly dramatic, awe-inspiring fashion, like in some ancient legend; and Chapter 17, which is in the form of a Q&A describing every little detail of what Bloom and Stephen are doing. (This last one was a bit easier for my scientific mind to follow.) It’s all very cleverly written, and I personally didn’t find it pretentious; it felt more like an exercise in literary experimentation.
A big part of what makes Ulysses such a difficult read is that so much of the prose is pure stream-of-consciousness. In most books, the author brings order to characters and events, and makes them straightforward for the reader. With Ulysses, there’s no filter to bring order to what the characters are thinking: their thoughts go back and forth, disconnected, changing quickly, a jumble – just like thoughts in real life. Maybe that’s one reason why Ulysses is considered a classic: in this way, it’s a more accurate reflection of reality than most stories. (To say nothing of the descriptions of the characters’ bodily functions – ahem.)
This style, combined with the vocabulary, was what made Ulysses difficult to follow for me. Sometimes, after finishing a chapter, I would look at crib notes online and be surprised at what I hadn’t comprehended as happening. But I didn’t feel like it was necessary to understand every single word. The parts that I did comprehend, I enjoyed, and it was certainly a reading experience like no other. Having listened to the whole audiobook and thus gained some familiarity with the story, I now want to go exploring in it again – this time, in written format – and find things that I missed the first time.
But that will have to wait. Fresh off experiencing Ulysses, I am now attempting to read War and Peace before 2017 is over. Fortunately, War and Peace is a refreshingly simple read compared to Ulysses. Apart from being really, really, really long….