The Best of New Writing on the Web

January 14, 2008

I still remember the moment I decided not to read Ulysses

Filed under: Essay,Writing — litlove @ 12:06 pm

By Anne Landsman at Chekhov’s Mistress

I still remember the moment I decided not to read James Joyce’s Ulysses. I was an English major at the University of Cape Town, milling about with other students in a large lecture hall with raked wooden seats. There was some confusion regarding which set of xeroxed pages to pick up from what stack and then I have a clear memory of confronting the opening pages of the novel with dismay, feeling that yes, this could be a fascinating read if I had Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey at my fingertips, if I was Catholic, if I was as clever as the lecturer behind the lectern who was talking about the oxen of the sun. (And where exactly, were those oxen in the text?) Thankfully, he was giving a sort of mini- intro to the novel, which ended with him giving us a choice. We could either read Conrad’s Nostromo or Ulysses. “Yes,” I whispered. “Nostromo!”

The rest is history, South Africa’s and mine. The country was holding tight to its apartheid vision, becoming more and more isolated from the rest of the world. I was approaching adulthood, getting ready to escape from the beautiful but poisoned world I had grown up in, with its soaring mountains, dreamy beaches, and vicious political system.

It wasn’t until much later in life, when I was in my forties, and had lived in New York City for over two decades, that I decided to read Ulysses. I was a novelist by then, a wife and mother of two children. I had just given a reading from an early chapter of what is now The Rowing Lesson. A poet-friend came up to me afterwards, and said, admiringly, “Very Joycean!” Stricken, I thanked her for the compliment, and then desperately tried to change the subject. Later on in the writing of The Rowing Lesson, another writer-friend mentioned Joyce’s influence on my work. There has to be a long German word for this particular kind of shame: the-shame-of-not-earning-the-praise-you-only-dream-of, or perhaps just ‘praise-shame’?

Unlike Pierre Bayard in How to Talk About Books You Don’t Know, I was never going to be comfortable admitting that I had never read Ulysses. I also knew there was no way I was going to be able to read Ulysses the way I read other books, dipping in and out of them on subway rides, between writing projects, after helping with homework, before walking the dog. I would have to set aside time to concentrate, to fully attend. I noticed a listing for Michael Groden’s course on reading Ulysses at the 92nd Street Y. The class met every Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m., for six weeks starting on March 6th, 2005. My husband agreed to be with the children during those hours and I promptly signed up.

It was not only ‘praise-shame’ that was driving me to do this. September 11th had happened four years earlier and I was still in the ‘thousand places/books/desserts/to see/read/taste before I die’ – mode. And, I have to admit, the tiny foray into the first few pages of the book so many years earlier had left me curious. What was so intimidating about Stephen Dedalus’s conversation in the Martello tower with Buck Mulligan and Haines? What had made me turn and run?

Every time I mentioned to someone that I was taking a class on Ulysses, they seem to misunderstand me, thinking that I was teaching the class. “No,” I had to correct them, “I’m going to be a student again.” It made me feel very middle-aged, as if I had just told them I was learning how to arrange flowers, or taking a tour through Europe on an air-conditioned tour bus. What was next – hot flashes, elderhostels, senility, death?

But then I met Leopold Bloom, and my life changed. For, after all, he was middle- aged too, his mind racing with a thousand minutiae, small and large observations, the world around him both intimate and overwhelming, his history interlaced with the history of Ireland, with all of Western civilization, the wildly ambitious strategy of the book suddenly revealed in all its glory. Michael Groden was the perfect tour guide, and over the weeks that I lost myself in Joyce’s re-imagined Dublin, he and Bloom began to merge. During the break, Mike (as he signed his e- mails) would wolf down a bagel with cream cheese, clearly starved by the gargantuan effort of shepherding us through the hundreds of pages of the novel.

What had been intimidating to me at nineteen, was intoxicating now. I reveled in the layers of detail and meaning, the music of Joyce’s language, his references to everything under the sun. I found myself laughing out loud at his virtuosic prose, dazzling syntax, moments of peculiar punctuation. Mike played us recordings of the music hall songs threaded through the text, showed us photos of the Dublin streets Bloom wandered, and leading us through the intricacies of the book with the surety of a native, someone who inhabited its pages so fully that he knew all its inside jokes.

I read Ulysses wherever I could for those six weeks, the Vintage edition Mike recommended falling apart just as he said it would, pages detaching themselves from the spine like falling rose- petals. As challenging as it was to hold the book in your head, so too was it hard to hold the book in your hands. And yes, I did read Ulysses on the subway, learning how to do it without dropping all the pages on the floor, and relishing the parallels between my own travels through New York City, and Bloom’s through Dublin. Here is a tiny selection of some of the highlights of my trip: the quopping of Bloom’s heart on his way to the museum gate, the things he stood for, “the reform of municipal morals and the plain ten commandments. New worlds for old. Union of all, jew, Moslem and gentile…,”, his made-up words, toularoom, toularoom, Agenbite of inwit, the mention of an auk’s egg on page 161, the ever- recurring ashplant, the fingertame parrot on page 586, the lists upon lists upon lists, the science, medicine, history, religion, the mention of the Boer War on page 486, exhibitionististicicity, water’s “infallibity as paradigm and paragon” I could go on and on and on and on. And then there’s Molly, luminous, unrepentant, scented Molly. In the end, I cared less about the classical shadow text than I did about Molly’s careless, carefree ways, her getting her cake and eating it too.

That June, I went to “Bloomsday on Broadway” at Symphony Space to hear actors reading large chunks of the novel all the way past midnight. More than once, I drifted off, overcome by the sheer weight of so many words but when Fionnula Flanagan began Molly’s soliloquy, I was rapt. Like Mike, she seemed to slip inside the text, to lose herself there. When she breathed her final “Yes”, I was crying, aching with Molly’s remembered passion, Bloom’s encounter with the imprint of a male human form in his bed, Stephen’s loss, my nineteen year- old lost self, the divine messiness of the world.



  1. How inspiring and what a lovely essay. There may come a time in my life when I too am brave enough to tackle Ulysses. Maybe there are some books that are better not read at 19. I was convinced I had read Middlemarch while studying English Literature at UCT, but discovered on rereading it in 2006 that I hadn’t. I’m sure I appreciated it far more in my thirties than I would have done had I actually succeeded in reading it in 1989.

    Comment by charlotteotter — January 14, 2008 @ 2:30 pm | Reply

  2. Partially because I grew up in a pseudo-irish place and had enough of what I call ‘that stuff,’ partially because everyone else seemed to be reading it – which meant that, statistically, I was covered – I never have read _Ulysses_. Anyone who did an english degree was expected to read it, which was another reason for me not to, and by now, mid-40s, well, I’m not missing it.

    That doesn’t take away at all from this nicely written essay, which balances historical, personal, and literary matters well.


    Comment by rv2008 — January 16, 2008 @ 2:54 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: