Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Wandering Rocks

I had intended to approach Episode 10 of Ulysses on two paths -- simultaneously listening to it while reading The Wandering Rocks. As I walked in the coffee shop early Saturday afternoon, I realized I'd left my earphones at home, so I was on my own. I got a coffee and a cheese Panini and got down to it.

We spent the previous episode holed up in the library, and for this episode of Ulysses, Joyce puts us back out on the streets of Dublin. The best way I can describe it is this: Robert Altman's film The Player, which opens with a tracking shot (no camera breaks) that goes on for nearly eight minutes -- besting the tracking shot Orson Welles used to open Touch of Evil by nearly five minutes. Altman's camera wanders around a movie studio as various characters walk in and out of frame, occasionally peering into offices and then out again, allowing the viewer to pick up snippets of conversations here and there. It took 15 takes to do this. 

It's a tribute to Joyce's genius as a writer, then, that The Wandering Rocks is even more complex than that. Not only does his "camera" (the text) follow a multitude of characters (both old and new) through the geographic space of Dublin, he jumps back and forth in time -- going back to pick up a sailor that you saw three pages earlier, revisiting the scene from his point of view. And of course, he also occasionally jumps into the minds of the characters, visits their memories. One small victory to note: I'm at a point where I can pretty much instantly tell whether I'm reading Stephen's thoughts versus his dialogue. I know how he thinks.

It became immediately clear to me what Joyce was doing -- and like each preceding episode, it was utterly different from each of the episodes before that. I immediately fell into the rhythm established by Joyce, pausing only to circle the names of new characters as they appeared. 

Then, I was lost, and it is here that, once again, I struggle to find the words to describe what Joyce does with words, and to describe the effect of those words on the reader.

Yesterday I was looking at photographs of Crater lake, the deepest, cleanest lake in the United States, and I was particularly fascinated by the image of divers swimming along the edge of the rock, the abyss falling away into cold darkness. Reading Ulysses is like swimming along the edge of such a cliff, following Stephen, Bloom, Molly, Buck Mulligan, etc. But they are better swimmers, they know the waters, and they're well equipped for diving. As you swim along, they get further ahead of you, and you are aware of the fantastic depth into which they're disappearing. You're keeping up, barely, but even as you swim along, you find that what really commands your attention is the abyss that yawns beneath, and you are filled with awe and fear.

This is a profoundly different experience from the 1,500-page Clarissa. Ulysses seems to get longer and bigger the more you read. Given the fantastic complexity of the previous 200 pages -- and knowing that Joyce (so far) trots out a different literary trick in each episode -- it is impossible to regard the coming 500 pages with a sense of relief. Only five hundred pages go to! You realize how deep the abyss is. You're gonna need a bigger submarine. 

Increasingly, as I get deeper into the book, I find myself asking the same question as I emerge more or less unscathed from each episode: How does one read this book? I can already see that I will read it again (and, like Hamlet and King Lear, again and again and again) but upon finishing The Wandering Rocks, I was unsure of what to do. So much of it clearly was over my head. Should I read it again now? Should my first reading of Ulysses actually be two, back-to-back, one-chapter-at-a-time readings? Or should I just plow ahead, knowing that my next ascent of Ulysses may be months or even years from now? (I do have Proust, Tolstoy, George Elliot and Pynchon left in this insane project, after all.)

Last night, I sat down with a glass of Jameson and thumbed through the Bloomsday book. Almost as bewildering as the actual text. Burgess was a little easier, but I was growing drowsy and finally got real. I'd spent two straight hours or so with Ulysses earlier in the day. My brain was fried. I'd planned to spend the evening with Joyce, but it obviously was not going to happen.

So I watched The Blob

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Episode 9: In Love with Shakespeare

Once again, I take solace in the words of Anthony Burgess, a supremely intelligent writer, a man of letters and an incessant reader of Ulysses, who gently advises us in his book ReJoyce that Scylla and Charybdis is an extraordinarily difficult episode of Joyce's novel. 

Once again, the final paragraph of his chapter on Scylla and Charybdis:

This is a difficult, subtle chapter, as befits its central character, its symbol and the art it glorifies. It draws on more literary forms than anything we have met so far -- the lyric, the dramatic (both verse and prose), and an interior monologue that contains (like a whirlpool) concentric layers of reference, touching on the very verge of consciousness. The vocabulary is immense and the Shakespearean scholarship formidable. An apparently simple theme -- the drawing together of the brain and heart and senses in a father-son symbiosis -- is dealt with on various interlocking levels, some of which seem to contradict each other.

The scene plays out in a library, and it is Stephen's show: He is presenting his theory on Hamlet, and everything Shakespeare. Previously, his perspective has been described by Buck Mulligan this way:

It's quite simple. He proves by algebra that Hamlet's grandson is Shakespeare's grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father.

This is ridiculous, obviously. Hamlet did not have children, or at least, we are not told that he did. Of course, Shakespeare doesn't tell us everything about his title characters. We can gather from Lady Macbeth's single line about having "given suck" that she has breastfed at least one child, but there is no mention of offspring beyond that. If true, the child likely died. 

I am not going to pretend that I'm able to follow Stephen's argument, which makes up the bulk of the episode. (I know this because I highlighted all his lines in yellow, and he has by far the most dialogue -- and that doesn't include his thoughts). But near as I am able to understand it, his perspective is: A text cannot be understood and appreciated unless it is viewed through the prism of the author's life.

We know little about Shakespeare, although we do know he had a son named Hamnet, and he died. Stephen basically takes this and runs with it, although Joyceans more seasoned and learned than I (which would include basically all of them) might object to this gross simplification. The opposing view is best articulated early in the episode by George Russell, who is a poet:

But this prying into the family life of a great man. Interesting only to the parish clerk. I mean, we have the plays. I mean, when we read the poetry of King Lear what is it to us how the poet lived? As for living our servants can do that for us, Villiers de l'Isle has said. Peeping and prying into the greenroom gossip of the day, the poet's drinking, the poet's debts. We have King Lear, and it is immortal. 

It would be a gross simplification to describe Scylla and Charybdis as a simple back-and-forth between these two neatly described and compartmentalized positions. They -- and Stephen -- meander all over the place, citing nearly half of Shakespeare's plays. When the references are to Hamlet, King Lear, Falstaff, The Merchant of Venice and even Coriolanus, I'm on fairly stable ground. When it veers into others -- even Antony and Cleopatra, which I have not seen or read -- less so. 

And is is here, if I may be permitted to upstage Stephen, that I would like to introduce my theory of Hamlet, or at least an observation. To do so, we must begin with Macbeth:

One of the primary intrigues of this play -- one in which the violence is arguably the most important action -- is that virtually all of the mayhem occurs off-stage. The title character, dubbed by the critic Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human as "a great killing machine," in fact kills only three people: Duncan, and the two guards keeping watch (unsuccessfully) over the sleeping king. This all happens off-stage, meaning that this great killing machine is never actually seen killing anyone.

The script has two characters dying on stage: Macbeth's companion Banquo and Macduff's son, murders ordered by Macbeth, but not actually carried out by him. And, finally, he dies off stage. Macbeth and Macduff "exeunt, fighting," and after a brief bit of dialogue, Macduff returns carrying the title character's head.

So Macbeth is about the sociopath, the "great killing machine" who kills three people -- hardly unique in one's climb to power during the Middle Ages, while Shakespeare's masterwork, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is about ... what?

Hamlet is arguably Shakespeare's most intelligent character, an enlightened soul who reminds Horatio that more things are in Heaven and Earth than he can possibly imagine. He's cultured, well-read, a student at the University of Wittenberg, and a theatre aficionado.

He also, if one takes the time to count, is personally responsible for the deaths of three people, arranges for the deaths of two others, and is arguably to blame for Ophelia's suicide -- hardly be a surprise, given the exuberant cruelty he subjects her to in the "Get thee to a nunnery" scene. Had the Ghost of the dead King not implored him to leave Gertrude to her conscience, can we rule out the possibility that Hamlet might have slit her throat before stabbing Polonius?

I've never seen the phrase "killing machine" attached to the Prince of Denmark, but Macbeth is described this way all the time. And yet: Hamlet invites our sympathy; Macbeth doesn't, though Shakespeare seems to dare us to at least identify with him. What do we make of this?

To just return to the argument, I'll just weigh in with this: I agree with both of them. Is there some value to be had from understanding something about writers and the times that produced them? Of course there is. I've read a few writers' biographies myself: Shakespeare. William S. Burroughs. Andre Breton. I hope to one day read Ellmann's biography of Joyce.

On the other hand, it is possible -- as with anything -- to get carried away, to wallow in material of interest only to the parish clerk. I mean, after all, we have the plays. One could spend a lifetime drawing pleasure and insight from a play such as King Lear without ever knowing the name of the man who wrote it. 

I suppose my understanding of Scylla and Charybdis is no more wobbly than my grasp of any of the preceding episodes. This is, after all, my first reading of Ulysses, and I must remind readers that these blog posts are only my very rough notes, not intended to be a comprehensive overview of anything. I haven't mastered the episode, but I at least survived it -- largely thanks to a lifetime of reading and thinking about Shakespeare's plays and seeing them (about two thirds) performed. It was difficult, though what's interesting about Ulysses thus far is that each episode is difficult in a unique way. Scylla and Charybdis and Proteus are both maddening, but for different reasons. And neither is anything like The Lotus-Eaters.

I expect the same challenges in the tenth episode, The Wandering Rocks, which even looks different from the first nine: It is broken up into 19 short, unnumbered sections. It is thirty pages long (which will get me past the 200th page!) and runs 1,280 lines.  

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Comment on Robin Williams ... and James Joyce

In the last year and a half, I've written tributes to two public figures I really was not ready to say goodbye to -- Roger Ebert and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It pains me to add to this list the amazing Robin Williams, dead at 63 of, apparently, suicide.

No one -- and I mean, no one -- has ever made me laugh harder or longer than Robin Williams. The only one who comes close is Albert Brooks, whose histrionic lecture on the Nest Egg Principle to his frazzled wife in the 1985 comedy Lost in America had me on the floor in tears. But the Nest Egg lecture lasts for a couple of minutes. I recall watching a Williams concert DVD on my 40th birthday that had me laughing, non-stop, for nearly two hours. Explosive laughter that made my face feel as if it were physically shattering into pieces, laughter that, once my body was no longer able to physically contain it, ultimately transcended laughter, going beyond it -- or perhaps retreated into some deeper, primal place in which the origins of laughter may be found -- until I was making bizarre, wailing sounds with a gurgling quality: think Ned Beatty choking to death while squealing like a pig. By the end, my face and body ached as if I'd been beaten senseless. I was soaked in sweat and exhausted, and I felt awesome. Good God! If we all laughed that hard at least once a month, we'd live to a hundred.

There are good actors, great actors, and brilliant actors. Then there are artists who, like Williams, were possessed by genius. Yes, Williams certainly would be on any list of the best comedians of the 20th century, but on the other hand, he'd eclipse everyone else on the list to such an extent that he may as well not even be on it. It would be like putting Hamlet on a list with Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Polonius; yes, they're all human males, and yes, they're all in a play called Hamlet, but beyond that? Nothing. He's light years ahead of them all.

And it hit me this morning, while reading the Scylla and Charybdis segment of Ulysses what it was that Williams did. In a way, he went one better than Joyce, who dared to replicate consciousness using the written word. Williams exhibited consciousness, literally put the thing itself on display, using the full, magnificent range of his voice and body, more fully than it had ever been in comedy. Others could do parts of what he did, but Williams did all of it -- faster, bigger, with greater vocal dexterity and variety. 

I wondered what it might have been like to hear Williams read Ulysses aloud. Certainly, he would have had a unique voice for every character. Obviously he would have brought out the comedy in it, and probably added his own as well. Perhaps his talents would have been more suitable for a performance of Finnegan's Wake, which blows beyond the boundaries of language as vigorously as Williams explored and celebrated new, previously unexplored regions of verbal comedy. Jonathan Winters (his idol) may have been the first on the moon, but for Williams the moon was merely a diving board he used to launch himself into deep space. There was no one like him. 

I don't know if Williams actually read Joyce -- certainly, he was intelligent enough to do so -- but I do not think it too much of a stretch to say Joyces art helped make the artistry of a force of nature like Robin Williams possible. All artists must stand on the shoulders of those who came before them.

Too soon, Robin. Way too soon. Thanks for the laughter.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Who's Talking?

Okay, I may be getting a little carried away, but hear me out. 

Having warily circled Scylla and Charybdis for a few days now, I finally dived in this afternoon armed with my headphones, laptop, the Gabler edition, and four highlighters -- yellow, pink, green and orange, the latter of which is drying up. Oh yes, and a pencil. 

For more than an hour, I crawled through the text in fits and starts, frequently stopping the audio, going back, listening again, checking the text, etc. 

I am highlighting (and underlining) the spoken dialogue. Which is to say, I'm not touching the 1) narration, or 2) interior dialogue. Stephen is yellow. George Russell is pink. Lyster the librarian is orange (fortunately he hasn't talked much so far) and John Englinton is green. I'm underlining dialogue spoken by Mr. Best, the assistant librarian. Buck Mulligan hasn't appeared yet, but I'll need to get another color for him.

I can't figure out what they're saying unless I have a clearer idea -- a visually clearer idea -- of who's saying it. 

It's a mad project, I realize, but then this entire enterprise is: Moby Dick, Clarissa, Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, War & Peace, Middlemarch and Gravity's Rainbow. I suspect that after I finish with the markers (I don't plan to do this in any other chapter) I'll probably find that someone has already pulled out the dialogue and made it available online for free, in the form of a play script. But that's okay; I wouldn't want to read it on a screen anyway. I need to do this. I need to figure it out for myself, and make a physical connection with the text -- me, my marker, the page. 

Yes, I guess I'm a Joycean. 

Onward ...

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Feeling Better about Feeling Intimidated

I didn't "do" Ulysses yesterday -- either the book or any of the voluminous supplementary material I've scraped together. Part of it was exhaustion; I'd just completed the fifth day of solo daddy duty, whilst my wife was on a work trip halfway across the country. Part of it was the heat. And part of it, honestly, was being distracted by a highly unusual and disturbing goings-on in my neck of the woods: A thirty-something woman, wife and mother of two, appears to have vanished off the face of the earth about a week ago now. Jennifer Huston. I really wasn't paying much attention to it until a friend (and fellow parent) told me she'd gone to school with her. And then I read that she and her husband were on the eve of their tenth wedding anniversary, which is true of my own this year as well. According to media reports, she ran some errands, withdrew a "small amount" of money from her bank, got gas and -- it turns out, thanks to the pervasive existence of video cameras in our collective lives - visited a Rite-Aid to buy trail mix, Gatorade and a reportedly "non-lethal" dose of sleeping pills. And then, less than an hour after leaving her home ... she's gone.

It's inexplicable. Where is she?

Is it a crime? Or just a terrifying mystery?

I normally don't follow stuff like this, but this is pretty local, pretty close to home. I can't even imagine what her family is going through. Talk about stream-of-consciousness. Shit like that goes down, and I'd think the dam would break.

It's in that context that a wildly difficult novel -- a Clarissa, a Moby Dick or a Ulysses -- functions as effectively as "escapism" as a book by James Patterson, Jo Nesbo, or George S. Martin. It becomes a retreat, a refuge.

A couple of nights ago, still feeling -- for the first time, really -- intimidated by Ulysses, I sought refuge with Anthony Burgess and his 1965 book ReJoyce, motivated by his "desire to help the average reader who wants to know Joyce's work but has been scared off by the professors." I'd read the forward and the first two chapters but hadn't picked it up since I started reading the novel. I turned to the chapter that corresponds with the one I'm currently parked in (Scylla and Charybdis) and took solace in his concluding paragraph:

This is a difficult, subtle chapter, as befits its central character, its symbol and the art it glorifies. It draws on more literary forms than anything we have met so far -- the lyric, the dramatic (both verse and prose), and an interior monologue that contains (like a whirlpool) concentric layers of reference, touching on the very verge of consciousness. The vocabulary is immense and the Shakespearean scholarship formidable. An apparently simple theme -- the drawing together of the brain and heart and senses in a father-son symbiosis -- is dealt with on various interlocking levels, some of which seem to contradict each other.

Makes you want to just dive right in, doesn't it?

"Formidable" Shakespearean scholarship. Think about it. Burgess knew his Shakespeare well enough to write a biography of the man -- though it is no less speculative than anything that's currently out there. I actually put down Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare about 150 pages in because I grew weary of: "And then he could have ...." "It is highly likely that ...." "He might very well have ...." "Suppose for a moment that he ...." "Consider the possibility that ...." And so on. 

Here's a possibility I love to entertain: That someone discovers a dusty old chest or crate buried in the dark corner of a basement of a London church or museum, and it contains a previously unknown memoir or journal in Shakespeare's own hand that's at least as voluminous as Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle.  Imagine! The literary equivalent of the first moon landing. 

Burgess wrote ReJoyce when he was in his late forties. He'd first discovered Ulysses as a teenager, and had been reading Joyce (and as much as he could find about Joyce) ever since. Anthony Burgess, best-known as the author of A Clockwork Orange ... novelist, critic, composer, poet, playwright, translator, linguist --  he finds this particular neighborhood of Ulysses (which references, by my rough count, 22 of Shakespeare's 38 plays, plus Venus and Adonis) difficult, formidable and contradictory.

That makes me feel a hell of a lot better. I intend to park here in Scylla and Charybdis for another couple days, read it again, pick it apart. So stay tuned, because in my next post we will get into Stephen Dedalus' grand theory of Hamlet.

And, since it's my blog, I also feel obliged to trot out my theory of Hamlet.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Struggling with Shakespeare

Not much to report today. I'm about 400 lines into Scylla and Charybdis, and frankly am struggling with it. Which surprises me, really, because the entire episode comprises a discussion about Shakespeare, a writer whose works I know reasonably well. It is difficult to follow a discussion when it is interrupted, with no indication by the punctuation, by the thoughts of one of the participants -- Stephen Dedalus, in this case. And I have to wonder: Is Joyce even giving us the entire discussion? Or just snippets of it? At times, I've found myself agreeing with virtually everyone who is talking, even though they're arguing. Which leads me to believe that 95 percent of it is beyond me. And yes, it makes me feel stupid. Well, maybe that's too strong a word. Inadequate as a reader. I did read the corresponding section in The New Bloomsday Book, but for the first time, it's not helping a great deal. I still know what is "happening" in Ulysses, I understand the story thus far, but the book itself is sprinting ahead of me. It's frustrating. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Staggering through The Lestrygonians

Honestly, I staggered through The Lestrygonians

I took my time with Telemachus, cruised through Nestor, Calypso, The Lotus-Eaters, Hades and even Aeolus, and I deliberately lingered with Stephen on the beach in Proteus, but the eighth episode of Ulysses slowed me down. I was not in charge. The text was in charge. The longest episode so far, a warm-up, I suppose, for the 150-page marathon that is Circe.

I began July 25th, having already gone carefully through The New Bloomsday Book. I opted to not use the audio, just dived in. And it dawned on me again, the first time since Proteus, that what one generally does in a first ascent of Ulysses is to find islands -- the tangible, easily describable events on which one finds reasonably firm footing before wading back into the sea of Bloom's (or Stephen's) consciousness.

So what "happens" in The Lestrygonians

On page 124, "a sombre Y.M.C.A. young man ... placed a throwaway (a religious pamphlet) in a hand of Mr. Bloom." On the next page, Bloom crumples it up and throws it into the water off the O'Connell bridge, noting that the seagulls are savvy enough to know immediately that it is not food. 

Over on page 128, Bloom runs into a fellow Dubliner, Mrs. Breen. They engage in small talk for more than two pages before parting. It was to the end of this conversation, which took me to the 310th line, that I read aloud. As "Mr. Bloom walked on again easily," I returned to my interior voice, the "normal" way to read. And, of course, Bloom returns to his.

Finally, ten pages after encountering Mrs. Breen, page 138 of the Gabler edition, the central event of The Lestrygonians takes place. He enters the Burton restaurant and is aghast by the overwhelming sensory experience of gluttony -- the smells, the sights, the sounds. Men eating meat. Not a pretty thing. 

Perched on high stools by the bar, hats shoved back, at the tables calling for more bread at no charge, swilling, wolfing gobfuls of sloppy food, their eyes bulging, wiping wetted moustaches. A pallid suetfaced young man polished his tumbler knife fork and spoon with his napkin. New set of microbes. A man with an infant's saucestained napkin tucked round him shovelled gurgling soup down his gullet. A man spitting back on his plage: halfmasticated gristle: gums: no teeth to chewchewchew it. Chump chop from the grill. Bolting to get it over. Sad booser's eyes. Bitten off more than he can chew. Am I like that?

I suppose we are like that. Animals. Even someone with as expansive a consciousness as Hamlet eats, shits and picks his nose -- the latter two events having already been described earlier in the book. "The most obscene novel ever written!" Isn't that what someone said? I can hardly wait to read Kevin Birmingham's The Most Dangerous Book after I've finished this. Or should I start it now? Or would that be too confusing?

Out. I hate dirty eaters. He backed towards the door. Get a light snack in Davy Byrne's ....

A few lines after this, I called it a night. I returned to it the next night, determined to finish, but made it only two pages. Exhausted. The day with Silas (alone, my wife being gone that day on work) had worn me out. I toyed with the idea of starting a movie, settled for thumbing through Harold Bloom's The Western Canon. I like reading Bloom, though I've wondered if anyone has ever subjected his endless comparisons of the world's writers to methodical side-by-side analysis to determine if there are any inconsistencies: "Only Chaucer shares X with Shakespeare, unless we count Milton, who has more Y than either. But recall that Cervantes' ability to Z is on par with Proust, who rivals Shakespeare in his expansive Q. Dante approaches the latter, but not the former, in W, etc." And so on. I might try it sometime, just with one book. I'd do that before reading My Struggle. But I digress.

And so it came to pass that on the third night of The Lestrygonians, I finally picked up my crutch. I'd read a couple pages (and re-read the relevant Bloomsday Book section) but was still having trouble determining what Bloom was thinking about. On page 145, line 940, I found the same spot in the RTE broadcast, and finished it that way. Something about those Irish accents that bring it alive. 

All told, there was actually a lot in this episode that I enjoyed. The description of the scene in Burton restaurant is both funny and nauseating, and there's also a nice bit where Bloom assists a blind man across the street. But there are also his endless ruminations, some of which mercifully settle for half a page or so on a single topic: The pain of childbirth, falling in love with Molly, memories of the first kiss. On the bottom of page 134, Bloom descends briefly into an existential "What's-the-point-of-it-all? rant, although I suppose "rant" is the wrong word, because he doesn't say it. He thinks it:

His smile faded as he walked, a heavy cloud hiding the sun slowly, shadowing Trinity's surely front. Trams passed one another, ingoing, outgoing, changing. Useless words. Things go on the same, day after day: squads of police marching out, back: trams in, out. Those two loonies mooching about. Dignam carted off. Mina Purefoy swollen belly on a bed groaning to have a child tugged out of her. One born every second somewhere. Other dying every second. Since I fed the birds five minutes. Three hundred kicked the bucket.

Concluding with:

No-one is anything.

On to Scylla and Charybdis.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Global Community of 'Ulysses'

For more than four years, I was sequestered with Samuel Richardson's Clarissa Harlowe and Robert Lovelace, and there, in Clarissa, I read alone, in solitude. Actually, that's not quite true. I began with "Moby Dick," completed it in a few weeks, then ventured into "The Tale of Genji," which I threw aside not so much out of disgust but boredom. I wrestled with whether to replace it, finally opting for -- only a couple months ago, Gravity's Rainbow, which I'll read next year.

Few paid attention. Hits on my blog remained abysmally low. Few still commented on Twitter, where I had about 500 followers.

Then this summer, I started Ulysses.

Suddenly, I was no longer alone. I immediately picked up a small but faithful collection of Joyceans, a few of whom regularly leave thoughtful comments and questions. I'm picking up more retweets. As of this moment, I have 713 followers -- no, make that 714. Just picked an author of erotic fiction. There is, I've learned, a global community of dedicated Joyce fans who have had Ulysses in their heads far longer than I have. Even their accounts are Joycean: The James Joyce Gazette, LeopoldBloom, DigitalDubliners, Ulysses, etc. 

They have a holiday! Bloomsday! June 16. I'm already excited about next year. 

If you pick up Ulysses today, whether you are a student or otherwise, you will not be alone. There's help, and support. Aside from the astonishing ease of connecting with other Joyceans (I've actually already been called a "Joycean," although I'm reluctant to wear the hat until I at least finish the book), there is a vast collection of resources online to help.

You can visit the James Joyce Tower and Museum -- the tower where Joyce lived briefly as a young man that inspired the opening scene of the novel. You can read the original review of the novel in The New York Times. You can access any number of scholarly collections of Joyce materials, for free. You can read Ulysses line-by-line with Frank Delaney, who has hundreds of podcasts available free at his web site. Or you can listen to Joyce himself read from it. If you want to read it online, or merely check something, there's this exhaustively researched annotated version. While we're on the topic of audio, one should know that if you're not willing to read Finnegan's Wake, you can at least listen to it. And, of course, you can listen to Ulysses in its entirety, as produced by Irish radio in 1982.

This is just a sampling of the opportunities that await. 

This is remarkable. I did not expect this. 

But I love it.

And now I'm up to 715 followers on Twitter. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Cheating My Way Through 'Ulysses'?

I don't really have a lot to say about the Hades episode. It is what it is. A carriage ride to a funeral of a character we haven't met (unless he appeared in The Dubliners or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). 

I prepared for it by quickly skimming, but not carefully reviewing, the Hades chapter in The New Bloomsbury Book, an indispensable resource for those approaching Ulysses for the first time. I read it while simultaneously listening to the RTE radio broadcast -- knocked off 45 minutes or so in one sitting during the afternoon, and the rest in the evening. I will say it was the first episode of the book to make me laugh out loud -- the gallows humor of it, what with all the references to bodies, decomposition, etc. Although in hindsight, I suppose what I was really laughing at was not the text in and of itself, but the delivery of it by the performers. 

I started Aeolus, but three or four pages in, I was overwhelmed. Too much going on. So I sat down last after Silas went to bed and carefully read the Bloomsbury Book summary, highlighting in green the names of characters as they appeared. In yellow, I highlighted what seemed to me the major plot points, or pieces of action: Someone opening a door into Bloom; Bloom making a telephone call, the arrival of Stephen Dedalus with Deasey's letter (although he doesn't encounter Bloom). Then, even though I really didn't expect to pick it up until today, I stuffed my earphones back in, dialed up the RTE audio of Aeolus, opened the Gabler, and proceeded. I made it 50 minutes before I began grew drowsy. Another milestone: My longest single stretch of Ulysses Immersion. I'll finish Aeolus today.

I am not so determined and heroic as to attempt a reading of Ulysses unassisted, but it hasn't been until now, listening to an audio broadcast of the book with the book in my lap that I've felt like I was ... cheating. Yes, I've embarked on a marathon of reading, but it feels like I'm doing this stretch rolling along in a wheelchair. A motorized wheelchair. Yes, I'm covering the same ground as everyone else, but ... 

There's a lot of irony here. Regular readers may recall that I've said many times that I did not enjoy being read to as a student. Especially in high school, but even in grade school. I'm thinking of the fifth grade, where my teacher (who was a great guy and an awesome math tutor) read The Hobbit to us. I seem to recall him reading it repeatedly. (Because everyone else liked it!) I tuned out. 

Decades of theater experience have made me appreciate the value and artistic merit of the spoken word. These Ulysses episodes with lots of characters, particularly, have come alive for me because I'm hearing it. There are so many voices. There are sound effects. The clop-clop of the horses, the printing press at the newspaper office, a phone ringing. And yes, I really am reading it, even though it sort of feels like I'm not. It works for me.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Into 'Hades' with Knausgaard and Thomas the Tank Engine

I continued my journey into Ulysses yesterday, finally settling down mid-afternoon to read Episode 7, or Hades, as it is known. My method was this: I skimmed just a few pages of the corresponding chapter in The New Bloomsday Book, which was recommended to me by the fabulous Lauren Sapala, a writing coach in San Francisco. I was a little late in coming round to it, but after discovering that my Annotated Ulysses was crammed with too much information (and nothing to summarize the text), I found a used copy. It has been my faithful companion ever since.

My first steps into Hades were hindered by what I have decided to call a Knausgaardian Crisis -- the drudgery of the Real World interfering with lofty artistic and intellectual enterprises (like, for example, reading Ulysses). For those of you who don't understand the reference, I speak of the Norwegian writer Karl Ouv Knausgaard (I've seen it spelled by reputable sites with only one "a" in his last name, but I'm trusting the New Yorker's spelling), who has filled six thick volumes with an autobiography posing as a novel. It's a runaway hit in Norway, and it's now doing brisk business in the U.S. 

I have not read it, and I likely won't. But I've read a lot of reviews, and in fairness, my snotty comments about Knausgaard on my Twitter feed are the fallout of having read and sympathized with a scathing review I read in The Nation, which is easily the funniest essay I've read all year. Knausgaard is, I gather, unique among writers in that he is a frustrated writer (there I go, being snotty again). Frustrated that he does not have time to write. Imagine! So: He has produced a 6-volume notebook dump crammed with (along with an exhaustive backstory) the details of his midlife crisis. It's called My Struggle, and when I hear a title like that, I imagine going into a bookstore and seeing Knausgaard's "struggle" next to books like Night, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Roots, I am the Central Park Jogger, and Trafficked: The Diary of a Sex Slave, and I'm not sure whether to laugh or curse. 

Do I feel justified making fun of Knausgaard without having read his books? Yes. Do I wish I had his readership? Absolutely. Do I hope that when Reading Everest is a book I have similar success? Of course. Do I wish I had his magnificent pile of hair? Yes. Let's move on. 

I began at the kitchen table, opting for something a little different. I decided to listen to the RTE's radio production of Ulysses as I read Hades. The decision stemmed in part from the convenience of certainty about exactly how long this would take: One hour and eight minutes. I stuffed my earphones in. I clicked on the 'play' button. I opened the Gabler edition, and ...

"Daddy, I need to make a funnel for my engine," my 5-year-old boy said. "I need a straw." 

I stopped the recording and retrieved a straw from a cabinet. I began Hades again (I'd only gotten one sentence into it, after all) only to be interrupted by a realization on my part exactly what he wanted to do: He wanted to fit the straw over the existing funnel of one of his wooden Thomas the Tank Engine engines. So I got a pair of scissors and snipped off a 2-inch section for him, and returned to Hades.

"I can't get it to fit," he said. "It won't fit."

The straw had the exact same diameter as the funnel he was trying to squeeze into it. 

"It won't work Silas," I said. "The straw isn't big around enough."

I returned to Hades

"Can I have some tape?"

Feeling Knausgaardian levels of frustration rising (see how that works?) I got up and found some blue painter's tape, ripping off a three-inch strip, and then tearing that strip in half down the middle. 

I handed it to him, and returned to my art.

I should have known he wasn't going to figure that one out. He can assemble Lego models with the tiniest of pieces, but this required a level of hand-eye coordination that he has not yet mastered. So I turned Hades off for a fifth (or sixth?) time and carefully wrapped it around one end of the straw, sealing it carefully against the tiny funnel, which was smaller than the pink stub of an eraser on the end of a pencil. 

His eyes brightened.

"Thank-you," he exclaimed.

No, thank-you, I thought, feeling like I was finally in the clear. I let out a big sigh, reinserted the earplugs, and resumed Hades.

"Can I watch TV? Can I watch The Great Discovery?

I felt a flash of anger, quickly replaced by sweet relief: The Great Discovery, an animated Thomas film, was an hour long -- only eight minutes shy of my time requirements to complete this episode of Ulysses. He hadn't watched any TV earlier in the day, so what the hell? The TV as Babysitter. I plead guilty. So I got the movie started, and then -- because I'd decided sitting at the kitchen table for an hour would be too uncomfortable -- I went into the living room with him, settled into my favorite chair, put the plugs in, turned away from the TV so it wouldn't be within my field of vision, and resumed Hades.

Some of you -- parents -- have lamented that you do not have time to read. You have asked how I find time to read. I should note that we have "only" one child. If we had two, I can tell you right now that I would not be able to do this. I would not have the time or energy to read Ulysses, and I can't imagine having time to write about it. 

But this is how Reading Everest progresses -- in messy fits and starts. If I had the time and financial resources (and no child) I might be making this journey while holed up at the Sylvia Beach Motel, with no phone or Wi-Fi connection, listening to the Pacific Ocean crash against the beach. If I were someone who can stay up until 2 in the morning enjoying the quiet of a home in which everyone else is asleep -- and then have the energy to bound out of bed at 7 in the morning for a 12-hour shift of parental struggle -- I would do that. But I can't. I start thinking about bed at 10:20 p.m., and am almost never capable of staying up to read for more than half an hour or so. 

I just read when I can, and write when I can, because writing is all I know how to do, really. Even when other things occupy my mind. Like right now, because I just got word that the mother of a dear friend passed away about three hours ago, and it's impossible at the moment to think of anyone other than the Great Irene, who had the greatest and most loyal daughter a mother could hope for. 

Think on it: An essay about Hades, interrupted by ... death. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Am I Reading 'Ulysses,' or am I 'Reading' 'Ulysses'?

Years before I finally sat down with Ulysses, I knew at least this much: Joyce hung his story loosely on narrative infrastructure of Homer's Odyssey. I have not read that epic poem in its entirety, but I read retellings of it as a student (Edith Hamilton, for example) and am familiar with the story and the characters. I toyed with the idea of reading The Odyssey first before launching Ulysses, but practical considerations ruled against it. Being a stay-at-home dad with a 5-year-old running around, my reading (and writing) time is limited. 

What I did not know, and was pleasantly surprised at, was that Ulysses also draws liberally from Shakespeare's Hamlet, a play I know reasonably well. I've read it several times and over the years have studied sections very carefully, line-by-line. I've dipped into some of the criticism. More crucially, I've seen it. Two stage productions, most recently at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. A brilliant production, surprisingly affecting. I say "surprisingly" because insofar as the story is concerned, there are no surprises in Hamlet. It's a play that is familiar even to those who haven't seen or read it. I've seen the Olivier film a couple times, the Brannagh version, Mel Gibson, and segments of the Ethan Hawke, David Tennant, Derek Jacobi and Richard Burton versions. I haven't performed it (Claudius would be my pick, but then, after watching Jacobi do it, why even try?) but I'm comfortable with the play. 

So when the ghost of Stephen Dedalus's mother appears (in his thoughts) in the tower, I get it. I don't need Cliff's Notes to tell me about the parallel with Hamlet and the ghost of his father (who is seen on a tower). When Stephen refers (in his thoughts) to Buck Mulligan as an usurper, I can smile knowingly, because I understand -- even though Buck Mulligan is, intellectually and morally, no Claudius.

But Joyce was a voracious reader, a phrase I suppose is a cliche. But I love the word ... "voracious." Yesterday I went back through the The New Bloomsday Book, reviewing those chapters that correspond with the Ulysses episodes I've read (and in some cases, re-read or listened to). And I noted all the literary references -- books, poems, songs, operas, essays -- that Joyce incorporates into the text of Ulysses, whether overtly or subliminally. I am sure this is not an exhaustive list, but this is what I found:

The Odyssey, by Homer
Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
The Bible, by committee
The Triumph of Time, a poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne
Othello, by Shakespeare
Who Goes with Fergus?, a poem by William Butler Yeats
Lycidas, by John Milton 
Of Sense and the Sensible, and On the Soul, by Aristotle
Il Trovatore, an opera by Verdi
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce
The Dubliners, by James Joyce
Queen of the May, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Paradise Lost, by John Milton
The Inferno, by Dante Alighieri

With the exception of Lycidas, the first chapter of Portrait of the Artist, the first two stories of The Dubliners, and parts of Othello (which I've also seen) and The Bible, this is unexplored literary territory for me.  

I've touched on this in an earlier post, but again, I can't help but wonder: For what audience did Joyce write Ulysses? For his own amusement and no one else? For other writers and artists? For the "masses"? Keep in mind: These are only the "obvious" literary references I've listed (from the first five episodes. I haven't even bothered with the Latin, with the theological material bound up with the Catholic Church, and with the deep well of history from which Joyce draws. 

It raises the question, I think, of what it means to "read" a book. And let me here draw from my theatre experience to explain what I mean. 

When an actor dives into a script to memorize lines, you take them one at a time. So when I set out to memorize Edgar from King Lear some years ago, I didn't memorize all 393 lines at once. Actually, it would have been less than that, because some were cut, but you get the idea. So assuming you go in chronological order and memorize only a few lines every day, it follows that I will know "I heard myself proclaimed, and by the happy hollow of a tree, escaped the hunt" (early in the play) "better" than I know the final line, "The weight of this sad time we must obey, speak what we feel, not what we ought to say," which is the beginning of Edgar's (and the play's) final line. The first line has been in my head longer, so don't I know it better? 

This may be a case of creating a problem where none exists, since I've not had any difficulty in retaining my lines once a play's run begins. But in recent years, what I've done as an actor (and advised actors to do as a director) is to LOOK at ALL of their lines every day once they start the memorization process. Even if you're just working on the first five lines, at least look at everything else. Put the words in front of you eyes, even if just for a second or two and don't give it another thought. Because at a subconscious level, you are memorizing them. You are "reading" them, even if you aren't "reading" them.

Which brings me back to Ulysses. If I let my eyes fall upon each word in Ulysses (in the order in which they were written), can it be said that I've "read" it even if I understood only half of it, or a third of it? I can look at the lines in Latin, but have I "read" them? Even if I have zero comprehension of the text? 

Reading, then, is not an all or nothing proposition. Maybe I'm wandering too deeply into the swamp of postmodernism here, but if I sit down and "read" Ulysses cover-to-cover, and Frank Delaney does the same thing, we haven't really done the same thing. Have we? It doesn't necessarily bother me, but there does seem to be a distinction here that we ought to be aware of.

Am I right? Am I wrong? What do you think?

Maybe I should just shut up and read the book. 

Or: "Read" it.

Monday, July 7, 2014

We Interrupt This Novel to Bring You William Shakespeare

James Joyce surely did not intend this, but being a rabid fan of Shakespeare, I'm sure he would understand: I'm going to put Ulysses aside for one week so I can spend some quality time with Richard III and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. A quick trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival looms later this summer, and I just realized I haven't seen or read Richard III in several years, and I've never read or seen The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Although I was lucky enough to perform Shakespeare in high school, I really didn't commit to a serious and permanent relationship with the playwright until I was thirty, when I saw Julie Taymor's Titus (in a theater, fortunately), a film proving that Shakespeare on the silver screen can be not only good, but exhilarating. As a reporter, I chronicled a high school production of that old standby, A Midsummer Night's Dream. I also saw a wonderful documentary, the little-seen Shakespeare's Children, which illustrates that children are never too young to be introduced to the most gifted writer in the English language.

Most significantly, my wife and I began annual trips to Ashland, where the Oregon Shakespeare Festival offers several of the Bard's plays (alongside contemporary productions) in multiple theaters all year long with an extraordinary company of actors and artists.

Seeing the plays performed by professional actors amounted to being bitten by the Bard Bug. Suddenly, I needed more. I started reading the plays prior to seeing them. Because to the untrained ear, Shakespearean language is sufficiently different (note: I didn't say "difficult") from ordinary English that it was not always clear to me what was being said, or worse, what was happening. 

Then, I started reading about each play. And that still wasn't enough.

Today, the scope and depth of my preparation for a trip to Ashland has reached, one might say, Shakespearean proportions: As soon as OSF announces the next season's plays, I prepare an insanely ambitious study plan that (obviously) includes reading the play multiple times, and much more. I bury myself in essays by Harold Bloom, Marjorie Garber, Isaac Asimov, the Arden Shakespeare's lengthy introductions, which include fascinating notes about production history. Although I've not seen Titus Andronicus performed on stage, Arden's notes include the delightful tidbit that when Bryan Cox played the title role back in the 1960s, his response to seeing the heads of his two sons delivered to him was to burst into laughter, which recalls Hannah Arendt's reaction at reading the transcripts of Eichmann's interrogation.

If the play is available on film, I fire up the DVD player and watch as many as I can find. (I have not, however, been able to bring myself to sit through those turgid BBC productions from the 1980s, which for the most part are horribly dated and should never be used to introduce young people to Shakespeare). Readings of the play typically involve several editions to take advantage of as many notes as possible, and the indispensable book by David and Ben Crystal, Shakespeare's Words, is always at arm's length. At some point -- I think it was around the time I played Gonzalo in The Tempest -- I got it into my head that I should actually memorize passages from the plays. Thus, on the eve of a trip, our walls become decorated with scraps of paper displaying the words that I'll later hear from actors playing Lear, Cymbeline, Henry, etc. Prior to seeing Cymbeline, I listened repeatedly to the Arkangel recording, and even went so far as to write out the entire first scene. So yes, I'm out of control, but hey -- I understood every word and nuance, and knew immediately if something had been cut. But I think that's one reason OSF does such a terrific job: They know die-hards like myself are in the audience, people who do know their Shakespeare. They can't phone it in. And they don't. They're awesome.  

Although he is absurdly pompous, I agree with Bloom when he maintains that there is only one appropriate stance toward Shakespeare, and that is one of awe. Which is why I want to spend this week with Richard III and Gentlemen. I've never seen Ian McKellen's Richard, so I'll watch that, and I'd like to see Pacino's Looking for Richard again.

I'll continue to dip into Ulysses daily, even if for only a few minutes, but will confine myself to what I've already read, teasing out -- as Frank Delaney puts it -- the "depth of reference." That way, I'll have another week to resume Ulysses and get some momentum going so that when I bring it to Ashland, it'll feel comfortable. And in the meantime, I'll continue to write here -- on Shakespeare, possibly, or maybe something else.  Stay tuned ...