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 ...

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Is 'Ulysses' a Book about Nothing?

So I've read The Lotus Eaters once, and listened to it once -- although honestly, I think I may have dozed for a few minutes near the end. It was mid-afternoon, hot. The conditions were ripe for a nap. And yes, given that I was reading The Lotus Eaters -- the Lotus being a plant that brings on sleep -- I appreciate the irony.

So I've had a thought, and of course it isn't an original thought. Somebody beat me to it, and somebody probably beat him to it. But it hit me that as I sit down to being a new episode, I've had difficulty recalling what happened in the previous one. I then realize that it wasn't me -- it's the book. It's tough to recall what happens, because there's very little in the way of happenings to recall. In a way, Ulysses can be seen as an epic Seinfeld episode ... the Show About Nothing. 

Buck Mulligan gets up and shaves, makes fun of the Catholic Mass. That's a show! Stephen Dedalus joins him for breakfast and a woman delivers milk. Another show! Mr. Deasy asks Stephen to deliver a letter to the local newspaper. Another one! The scene where Leopold Bloom tries to catch a better look of an attractive woman who, at the moment of truth, is obscured by a passing vehicle, has George Costanza written all over it. But that's another show! The list goes on.

Understand: I'm not trying to diminish the book. Joyce understood that less is more, and in the case of Ulysses, the "less" may be applied (at least so far) to narrative, but there's more of everything else: Imagery, hidden meanings, puns, history, sociological insight, etc. To say nothing of psychology -- reproducing thought on the page. That list goes on, too. It goes on so long and deep, scholars have been trying to unravel it ever since.

Also, for the record: I am not in agreement with everything Paulo Coelho says in the article I link to above. I cite it only because of his comment, "There's nothing there." He's not the first one to say as much. Jung did as well: "It not only begins and ends in nothingness, but it consists of nothing but nothingness." (Regarding the book's "technical artistry," he also said, it is "positively brilliant.") But only moments after I posted this, I received a Tweet from a reader -- riffing off the headline "Is 'Ulysses' a Book about Nothing?" with what is perhaps the most appropriate response: "Maybe it's a book about everything."

We're in for a stretch of heat. Not good reading weather. I need to stuff our single air conditioner into the window tomorrow, which I hope will make for more pleasant evenings. I just haven't felt like reading during the day lately. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

In Art and Literature, Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

Coming of age during the 1980s doesn't properly prepare one for Frederico Fellini, certainly not for grasping the magnificence of his art in that particular moment in American culture. My first viewing of La Dolce Vita was unsatisfying in almost every way. Oh, I'll just say it: I was bored.

I saw it a second time in my mid-20s, under different although equally poor conditions: I watched it alone in my apartment, a cropped VHS tape on an ugly green TV. I recall a blur of black and white that may have reached me at some superficial level, but for the most it left me cold, remaining elusive and dull.

The walls between myself and Fellini's 1960 masterpiece came crashing down in the summer of 2004, while on honeymoon with my wife in Vancouver, B.C. It was a warm Friday night, and the late show we attended was sold out. (Imagine, Fellini being sold out! Just one more reason becoming a resident of Canada is appealing.) We scrambled for a seat in the front row, which would ordinarily raise concerns about neck strain, but in this case, it was fine -- not so close as to be uncomfortable, but definitely close enough to be immersed in Fellini's stunning vision.

By this point in my life, I'd been a working journalist for 15 years -- long enough to finally feel the onset of disillusionment and cynicism embodied by the film's main character, the gossip journalist Marcello Rubini. Significantly, I was now two years older than the character (the actor Marcello Mastroianni was 35 when they made the film in 1959).

From the opening shot of the Jesus statue soaring over Rome to the climactic orgy of nihilism at the beach house, La Dolce Vita finally opened up for me, and I got it. I saw it. Finally, I understood things I'd been incapable of understanding in earlier viewings. I felt things I'd not felt before. The experience was simultaneously unnerving and exhilarating.

That was ten years ago, and I've not watched it all the way through since. But I feel ready, finally. I'm now in awe of it, and maybe even a little afraid of it. I expect that the mirror Fellini held up to postwar Rome will resonate even more today, with its powerful depiction of a society in decay, its aristocracy wallowing like pigs in excess and privilege. How could anyone watch it and not think of America in the twenty-first century? Particularly today, as we celebrate the Fourth of July. I don't intend a political rant here, but to consider the principles of democracy and equality embodied in the founding documents of the United States and then look at the awful state of things today -- grotesque inequality, a ruling class at the top with nothing but contempt for the masses, a Bill of Rights in tatters, etc. -- is enough to render one speechless at the vast disconnect between the ideal and the reality.

But then, one of the functions of great art, produced by serious artists, is to consider such things in a way that enlightens and entertains. And great works of art can be, like it or not, "hard." They probably should be hard. Larry Linville, the actor who played Frank Burns on the TV series MASH, put it this way when I interviewed him in 1987: "The purpose of art is to irritate the hell out of people and make them think." The purpose of art cannot be boiled down to any sound bite, but there is truth in the statement, as far as it goes.

I woke up this morning thinking about this, as it pertains to Ulysses, a book infamous for being "hard."  And it hit me: Why should reading a book be easy? I'm speculating here, but I suspect many Americans, if not most of them, put reading books in the category of simple entertainment, which we expect to provide instant gratification and escapism. Certainly we are all entitled at one time or another to "turn off my brain" with a beach book, but all that amounts to is an intellectual diet of a single food group. And if escapism is the point, one is obliged to ask: Escape from what? If the reality we're escaping from is so dire, shouldn't we spend at least as much time and energy confronting it?

It's a quintessentially American 'tude, if you ask me: We seem to think that if we can read at all, then we should be able to read fast, and comprehend what we read instantly. Instant gratification. To be confronted with books that demand a reader's time and thoughtfulness is be reminded that many Americans regard "slow" reading, and even -- dare I say it? -- literature, with suspicion and even hostility. 

This isn't a new thing. The assault on reason and serious thought did not begin with FOX News. It's part of American culture. And yet it seems so obvious: One does not read (or see) Hamlet or King Lear as a teenager and then cross it off a Things to Do Before I Die list. You've just started. It takes time. It takes a lifetime, and there's nothing wrong with that. I think it was Virginia Woolf who said that if a person were to read Hamlet every few years and write down their thoughts about it, they would have, by the end of their life, written an autobiography. Or at least a hell of a memoir. It's been more than ten years since I played Edgar in King Lear, and only now -- having read it several more times, and having seen two different stage productions -- do I feel I'm beginning to grasp the sheer, terrifying magnitude of it. 

That's why I'm not worried about not understanding a lot of Ulysses this time around -- my first ever reading. It's my first reading. Not my last. I already know that I'll read it again, at which point things will become clear that are fuzzy now. Meanings that are not even yet within my "field of vision," within my ability to even be aware of them, will come in their own time. Actually, if you count the multiple times I've read (or listened to) Telemachus, Proteus and now Calypso, I actually have read most of it several times. My first reading is actually a series of readings. 

This morning I chatted with a friend, a writer, teacher and serious reader. I asked if he'd read Ulysses, and he had. Once. It was a college class, and they did nothing but read Ulysses

"And the professor told us," he said, "to not be afraid of not understanding most of it." 

In terms of volume, James Joyce really didn't write a lot of fiction, if you set him up against someone like Shakespeare, Proust, or Stephen King. So in that context, consider Joyce's comment: "The only demand I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works."

It's a reasonable demand. Certainly, it's not one I object to. I'm happy to oblige. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Random Joyce Musings of the Day

Yesterday was extremely busy -- on the road, parks, the pool, the library, a mini-family reunion, more driving, etc. Very little time to read. I settled for listening to the first twenty minutes of the RTE radio broadcast of the Calypso episode from Ulysses while reading along myself. Better than nothing.

I was actually never much of a fan of listening to stories read, particularly by teachers. I learned to read early, so having a teacher pick up a book to read to the entire class was -- ironically -- reason to tune out. But as I've grown older, seen and performed more plays (especially Shakespeare) and particularly now that I've spent five years reading to Silas, I've developed both an ear and a deep appreciation for the spoken word. Discovering something like the 1982 RTE broadcast or even a remarkable performance of Finnegans Wake online is a real treat, a wonderful illustration of the democratizing effect of technology, making these remarkable works available to a global audience in an unprecedented way.

I was at the library yesterday -- alone, for nearly an hour! Sheer bliss! -- and found a copy of Yes I said Yes I Will Yes, A Celebration of James Joyce's Ulysses and 100 Years of Bloomsday. I opened it up and my eyes fell on a paragraph by Frank McCort in the forward:

There are high school teachers "teaching" Ulysses. I'd like to know -- how and, most of all, why? Before you look at the opening line of the book you ought to have a knowledge of the geography and history of Dublin and Ireland, you ought to know your way around Catholicism and, maybe, some Judaism (out of respect to Leopold Bloom).

With due respect to McCort, whose Angela's Ashes I read and enjoyed, this is a preposterous thing to say. Shall teenagers be prohibited from seeing a rousing live performance of Henry V or Richard III because they haven't absorbed several thick volumes of British history? Can a child appreciate Star Wars without having read Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God and engaging in rigorous study of American Western films? Should The Illiad and The Odyssey be off limits to high school students until they've mastered Greek? Because, after all, you really need to read it in the original Greek to get it.

I understand what he's saying, but this seems a bit extreme to me. In fact, I actually considered a "prep" plan for reading Ulysses, and I did wonder if I shouldn't spend some time studying the history of Ireland before jumping in. But if that's the path one decides to follow, you can follow it forever without ever finding your way back to the reason you started in the first place. I read the first chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and a couple stories from Dubliners. I'll be fine.

I should have more time to read today, and I'm planning to head into The Lotus-Eaters after spending a little more time with Calypso. But today's task is some blog maintenance. I'll get an RSS feed up today, I promise. I have multiple requests, and you shall be satisfied.

Later, that afternoon ...

Okay, you may not be satisfied. I've spent the last 45 minutes trying to figure out how to install an RSS feed, and after signing up for and then quitting a service that I was unaware would charge me $70 just to use their HTML code, I've had it. I suppose I will figure it out eventually, but today is looking like a bust.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Introducing Leopold Bloom

Not a lot of time to write this today, but I'm pledging to make this a daily thing until I finish Ulysses, and I'm just shy of the 60th page. So far, so good.

I took a couple days off to work on some other projects, and when I resumed reading last night, the conditions were not ideal. Yesterday was our first, blasting hot day of the summer -- nearly a hundred degrees F -- and we haven't stuffed our little air conditioner in the window yet, and I certainly wasn't going to do that on a 100-degree day, so last night I sat there sweating as I read Episode 4 -- Calypso!

A short chapter, and relatively straightforward as a narrative. I didn't do any "homework" prior to reading it (i.e., peeking in the Bloomsday Book, which provides a detailed, but succinct summary of each episode), I didn't even pause to circle unfamiliar words. I just dived in and read it, which is all that a book asks, really. Slowly, for the most part. When I finished, my understanding of it was, roughly, this:

Leopold Bloom prepares Molly's breakfast, feeds his cat. A lot of time with the cat, it made me think of the amusing opening sequence of the Robert Altman film The Long Goodbye, where Elliot Gould spends ten minutes trying to satisfy the urgent dietary needs of his cat, who is smarter than he is. He lets her know he's heading out for a minute, she mumbles something, not yet awake. He goes and buys a ... sausage? Standing in line, there's an attractive woman he has his eye on. There's something going on between him and the butcher, although I couldn't figure out what it was. He wants the guy to hurry up so he can catch up with the woman and look at her ass. Heads home, picks up a couple letters -- one for his wife, one for him -- delivers them to Molly. They discuss a word in a book she's reading (metempsychosis) then he realizes his breakfast is burning. Heads to kitchen, eats his breakfast, then takes a crap while reading a newspaper. It occurred to me that this particular passage, in which Leopold Bloom evacuates his bowels, surely must have been one that high school students in the 20th century's first half must have sought out at the library (if a library actually stocked it) to snicker over together.

As always, there's a galaxy of details and "depth of reference" in the text, but I felt good about being more or less correct about the broad outlines of the narrative. It wasn't until I picked up the Bloomsday Book that I came to understand that Molly is having an affair with her boss, whereas as I was reading, all I was able to pick up on was that Bloom was worried that she might be straying. Of course, I will read it again later today, maybe listen to it.

But there's one paragraph I wanted to get in here, because it illustrates part of the difficulty of reading Ulysses.

On the doorstep, he felt in his hip pocket for the latchkey. Not there. In the trousers I left off. Must get it. Potato I have. Creaky wardrobe. No use disturbing her. She turned over sleepily that time. He pulled the hallway door to after him very quietly, more, till the footleaf dropped gently over the threshold, a lip lid. Looked shut. All right till I come back anyhow.

Now, here's the paragraph again, to make it more obvious with underlining:

On the doorstep, he felt in his hip pocket for the latchkey. Not there. In the trousers I left off. Must get it. Potato I have. Creaky wardrobe. No use disturbing her. She turned over sleepily that time. He pulled the hallway door to after him very quietly, more, till the footleaf dropped gently over the threshold, a lip lid. Looked shut. All right till I come back anyhow.

Note the shifting point of view, accomplished without the use of punctuation, paragraph breaks, etc. You just have to stay on top of it. This is called trusting the reader.

All for now, have a busy day ahead. Swim lessons for my 5-year-old. Park time. A library trip. Maybe set the pool up in the backyard for him, although yesterday he really wanted to paint, and there wasn't time or clear space to do it. Won't be able to turn my attention back to Ulysses until tonight, but of course it will be in my thoughts. It's that kind of book. My plan is to finish it no later than the end of July. This isn't going to be another 4-year Clarissa sort of experience, where selfies taken at the beginning and completion of the book reveal that I aged visibly while reading it.  

Oh, also a note to my new followers: Thanks for coming aboard! An RSS feed is coming, as has been requested by some of you. I don't know how to do that, but I'll figure it out. Until tomorrow ...

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Yes, I Do Have Limits

When I conceived the Reading Everest project, I began with a list of roughly 50 titles, books with reputations for being unreadable because of their length (Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, or: The History of a Young Lady) and/or difficulty, like William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, which isn't very long, but it's ... well, if you've ever looked at it, you know what I mean. I whittled the list down to seven titles, and included Clarissa (which I've now read) but excluded Naked Lunch, because I'd already read it. 

But as I look through the list, I find that Finnegan's Wake is absent. In hindsight, I was probably aware of the phrase "Finnegan's Wake" prior to the Everest project, and on a good day when all the neurons up there were firing correctly, might have associated Joyce with it, but I truly knew nothing about it. 

So I picked it up the other day. I was in a bookstore, and having already dived into The Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist  as a Young Man, I'd started to hear things (well, I read them online) about how Finnegan's Wake was THE most difficult of Joyce's books, by far. It took Joyce -- what? Seventeen years to write? Naturally, I was curious. I picked it off the shelf, flipped randomly to a page near the middle, and read.

Schlummmmmpfhratidorausam - AYYYYYYY!!! FUP!

[Note: That's not from the book, although it might as well be. I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles into that single line of  text above that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of ensuring one's immortality.]

I realize one should never say never, but I feel as safe unleashing "never" in this scenario as any I've ever encountered: I will never read Finnegan's Wake. Ever. It will not happen. I won't even try. And I won't feel bad about not trying. Sure, maybe if I'd picked it up when I was in my twenties and read, like, one page a day every day until now, I might be one of the few enlightened souls on the planet who could talk intelligently and maybe even wisely about Finnegan's Wake. But that didn't happen, and it's not going to happen now.  

If you have read it, I salute you. Actually, I'm in awe of you. I mean, look: I could pick up Finnegan's Wake and go through the motions of reading a page every day, and I'd finish it in little over a year. But would I have read it? Does merely dragging one's eyeballs across the letters that constitute "words" in a line of text, even if it looks like this --

... doubledasguesched, gotten orlop in a simplassailormade and shaking ...

-- mean that I've read it? Read it in the sense that we ordinarily mean "reading" a book? I don't think so. I'm more likely to learn Greek and read The Illiad in the original than I am to read Finnegan's Wake

Don't get me wrong. Joyce was a genius -- of that, I'm already convinced just by the first fifty pages of Ulysses --  and he wrote what he had to write, and perhaps his final opus does Mean Something Important, something he actually intended. I'm just going to have to miss out on it. This isn't a case of judging a book by it's cover; it's a case of flipping through a book and seeing that the words inside aren't ... words. At least, a lot of them. They cannot be looked up in any dictionary.  It's code. I'm not even going to try to break it. I need something simple. I like my prose neat and clean. Which is why I'm sticking with Ulysses.

But ...

Yes, there's a "but."

If for any reason the "never" in my declaration above wavers and I feel the need, perhaps as a result of perusing Philip Kitcher's intriguing Joyce's Kaleidoscope: An Invitation to Finnegan's Wake, to experience Joyce's final book, this is what I'll do: I'll listen to it. Yes! Can you imagine? It's been done, and apparently, done very well. Listen to it for just a minute or so. It has an almost hypnotic effect. It's funny. It's ... dare I say it? Entertaining, in a nerd word sort of way.

I unequivocally rule out trying to read Finnegan's Wake, but I can't rule out that maybe one night, if I'm between books and not really up to starting another one, and I'm tired but not necessarily sleepy, maybe then I'll pour myself a glass of Jameson, turn out the lights, settle into my favorite chair in a dark room and listen to this crazy shit, and see where it takes me. 

For now: Back to Ulysses

Saturday, June 28, 2014

'Ulysses': Rolling Around in the Text

Since I hadn't scheduled my climb of Ulysses to officially begin until July 1 (and, because I have other projects that also require attention) I'm not concerned about not having strayed beyond Proteus (Episode 3) at this point. I continue to spend time with the book -- and supplementary texts -- every day. I'll spend ten minutes studying a single page. I'd initially circled 60 unfamiliar words in Telemachus alone, but as I've gone back through this ostensibly "easy" chapter (and really, it's very readable) I continue to find more. There's possibly seventy, even eighty. I'll examine a paragraph, which will send me scurrying to other sources, and upon examination of those sources, I feel the text's gravitational pull once again.

"His old fellow made his tin by selling jalap to Zulus or some bloody swindle or other. God, Kinch, if you and I could only work together we might do something for the island. Hellenise it." 

That's Buck Mulligan talking, or perhaps I should say braying. I'd missed "tin," but it's clear in this context that it refers to money, or fortune. "Jalap" is a plant that acts as a cathartic (it accelerates the evacuation of one's bowels) and of course Zulus refers to the ethnic group in South Africa. And then there's "Hellenise," which I knew refers back to Greece, but it wasn't until I listened to Frank Delaney's podcast that I began to grasp the sheer "depth of reference." Joyce may very well be making a comment on Ireland's subservient relationship with Britain -- i.e., since the Irish are living under the thumb of Empire, we could use a little democracy out here, so let's "Hellenise" the island. But he also could be commenting on what he saw the backwardness of the Irish -- "philistines" is the word Delaney uses, which is to say: Barbarians. Which, by definition, means one who is not Greek. They were, Joyce apparently felt, in need of some Greek-style enlightenment. Or: Hellenise it.

Perhaps so, but if this is how Joyce felt, why have the words coming out of Buck Mulligan? This is a little like people who throw out quotes from Shakespeare perhaps thinking to themselves that they are quoting Shakespeare, the man himself, and that they must therefore sound very wise -- when in fact they may be quoting Shakespeare's Polonius from Hamlet (who is an idiot) or Iago from Othello (who is a sociopath).

And, of course, as I get deeper into the thing, I find myself more and more curious about Joyce himself, above all: From where did his love of language come? What did he read? How did he achieve such an awesome command of language, of using it to convey multiple meanings at any given time?

Anyway, it was between crawling around Telemachus (which I read the other night while listening to the RTE's recording of it), studying the Annotated Ulysses (which only a week ago I felt contained too much information but which at times I'm now frustrated with because it doesn't contain enough) and listening to Delaney that the sheer scope of Ulysses hit me: And I am in awe of it, frankly -- not as in a feeling of being unable to understand it, but in awe of how much there is to understand. And I'm not even to Leopold Bloom, the book's central character, yet!

Note: My next post will be Monday at the earliest, Tuesday at the latest.