Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Reading Ulysses: Guided or Unguided?

cover of Poets and Writers. Photo by Eve Arnold 1954
           publisher: Abrams Books, Eve Arnold's photos of Marilyn:  website link

Marilyn kept Ulysses in her car
to dip into for ex. while
waiting for Eve Arnold,
her photographer

How will I go about reading Ulysses?

The way that Marilyn Monroe did, perhaps? I think yes, I will. More about her, further on.

Follow-up: I did decide how I will go about it, and wrote a follow-up post to tell you my decisions:
"And So This is How I Read Ulysses"- this time with Madonna!

So, I am about to tackle Ulysses after all these years; I have a friend who thinks it's one of the most enjoyable books ever, but even as a great reader I felt no shame at knowing I never planned to even attempt it. It wasn't until I became a fan of 1000-page books, and filled a bookshelf with them- stacked, not standing- that it ever entered my head to try.

Here I am hard at googling..
or somebody is..

Will I use my usual method of reading things? Above all I am analytical, and like to understand what I read. I research everything. Nothing escapes my academic approach- the arts included- even the scorned teen series Twilight (which I venture to admit reveals an interesting side).

I began by googling casually for names of possible companion volumes to guide me through Ulysses.

David's first Goliath;
my 9th or 10th

I announced on a "meet-up" reader's website that I was doing this, and fellow reader "Leo F" answered me directly, scorning my method, saying that in his experience with "goliaths," the best way to read a book "on a maiden voyage" is to JUST READ IT [caps mine], "sans lifejacket." Without pausing to think, I swiftly typed a reply that I had experience with goliaths too, and I knew the most enjoyable way to read them- and it was not his way.

Just before I hit "send comment" I stopped. What would be Leo F's reaction? Scorn? I looked at his stern avatar. I had better examine his suggestion first, more thoroughly- in my true analytic fashion- before I argued with him.

And so I set off on the investigation that turned into this post.

Handwritten entirely with fountain pen!
Neal Stephenson, the entire 8 books of his Baroque Cycle-
2,300 pages when typewritten
(books highly recommended)

I was so sure that knowing "the real story" behind a book makes it more interesting. Such as what is the real-life story behind the fiction, what is the author's life story, what does everything mean, what was public reaction. Most recently, I was fascinated to learn that Neal Stephenson, author of Cryptonomicon, wrote the eight books of his Baroque Cycle- 2,300 pages typewritten- entirely with a fountain pen- to keep himself from being "long-winded"? [He said it didn't work.] What that tells me about this eccentric man! and maybe about his style. How so much more I appreciate & enjoy the books AND author! (Reference 1, at end of post)

True to my nature I did indeed begin to analyze Ulysses- but not as a text. I was researching HOW to read Ulysses. And I was amazed to discover that google is surprisingly unanimous in announcing- from well-informed readers- that my critic was right and that the "maiden voyage" of Ulysses should avoid research and guides. Should I follow that advice? It went so against my nature!

on beyond google

I research everything, but admittedly I seldom go beyond google. One of the few times I went beyond was to study Alexander the Great, I guess because my imagination was so captured by Mary Renault's trilogy (reference 2). I even have my own Alexander the Great bookshelf.

This long post is the result of investigating whether or not to use guides. I learned a lot! Yet even by now, I realize I know little or nothing about Ulysses, and it is a "field," full of experts. So I should be ashamed to even try! But my goal is not to give you "the facts." I wrote this strictly for myself. I'm a newcomer to an intimidating book and want to figure out how to begin. This is just a blog, after all! A blog allows readers to share the writer's personal exploration of the world, not to be a reference.

So, though I did the research for myself, I worked hard on it, and it feels empty not to share- all that work and time!- at the risk of seeming puffed up. Which I'm not- I'm wary that I might be completely shallow about everything (please tell me). Anyway, here are the initial results of my research into how I might read Ulysses.
Here is an essay about Sylvia Beach, pictured
with Joyce, how she bravely published Ulysses 

while it was still ruled pornographic:

(A)  My Ulysses-loving friend happened to mention that it was interesting, in the 1933 Obscenity trial, to read the judge's decision; I decided it would be the most fun to begin there. It was. Nothing could have better spurred me on my way. (Reference 3)

(B) I stumbled on what seemed a pretty intelligent article, by someone who appears to be a professor. "How To Read James Joyce's Ulysses and Why You Should Avoid How-To Guides Like This One." (Reference 4)

(C) I stumbled on the BBC Ulysses "cheat's guide," of rather pedestrian chapter thumbnails. What distinguishes this article, though, are the some 200 intelligent, good-natured comments (most comment sites contain hostility). (Reference 5)

Stephen Fry's one-minute review of his favorite book


You know right away it's intelligent because the first comment on the page is by- believe it or not- Stephen Fry: "Ulysses will be read when everything you see and touch around you has crumbled into dust."

Since the comments represent a full gamut of opinions, I feel I read enough of them for a great, and encouraging, overview.

What I'd see so far, gave me just about all I wanted to know for awhile.

(D) On the BBC site, the opinions that seemed most intuitively pleasing to me advised me to skip the guidebooks, and simply luxuriate in "ordinary man" Leopold Bloom's "rollicking" roll through "a living, breathing" old Dublin, enjoying the "rhythms and voices," the multitude of colorful characters, places, emotions, sights and sounds, life as lived, the full "human experience," the "nature of humanity" and of consciousness; and "be carried away by the amazing possibilities of language." I like this too: "You can read the chapters in any order, and you never really have to finish it if you don't want to."

So there it was in a nutshell; and I thought, it sounds great, very convincing. But it went against my nature.

After actually beginning to read the book, I sheepishly came up with a few qualifications to this slash-and-burn method. I present those qualifications further on.

Eve Arnold was famous for earning the trust of even her most 
skittish female subjects, thus her photos were remarkably sensitive, 
some of the best we have of many stars, Marilyn in particular.


Marilyn Monroe agreed with this "go-as-you-please" method. Here is how she read Ulysses:
From a letter by Eve Arnold, about the day she took the photos:

“We worked on a beach on Long Island…I asked her what she was reading when I went to pick her up (I was trying to get an idea of how she spent her time). She said she kept Ulysses in her car and had been reading it for a long time.

"She said she loved the sound of it and would read it aloud to herself to try to make sense of it–but she found it hard going. She couldn’t read it consecutively.

"When we stopped at a local playground to photograph she got out the book and started to read while I loaded the film. So, of course, I photographed her.” Folks these are not staged.

Marilyn appears to be dipping into the end of the book, reading Molly it looks like.
They do say Marilyn was pretty intelligent, loved reading and writing, and thought about things. I've always believed actors and comedians have to be pretty smart. Here is a catalog of Marilyn's bookshelf. (Reference 6)

Maiden Voyage: Sink or Swim?
rare Titanic Maiden Voyage
Commemorative Dashboard Plaque


Anyway I returned to the website and typed for my nemesis avatar Leo F.:
"I went ahead today & studied up a little anyway- just enough to learn that you are quite right"
-Hit 'send comment'-

I found the next day that I had opened up a can of worms and people on the site were loudly praising the merits of guidebooks. I responded:

"No, no, I retract, I retract, my question about guidebooks… My studying-up convinced me that indeed Leo (Leo F)'s "maiden voyage" is best done thru fresh eyes... I think Ulysses is a special case, guidebooks interrupt Leo (Leo B)'s roll through Dublin; I'll just use them when I feel like it. There's plenty already to delight me on my "maiden voyage." Well- each as they like; and maybe I'll change my mind. For now, I think I'll use recordings instead (on the side). I found a great one, by RTE Ulysses radio reading by RTE, link (Reference 11). 

No one so far has answered that. Have I silenced them?

Maiden Voyage
by Laine Bachman:


Ok now I had my main questions answered for now. In spite of the fact that I wanted to do Ulysses au naturel,  there were things I learned during my googles that I was glad to learn, that I think will set me on my way with increased confidence.

(E) The variety of editions is the subject of much confusion and "academic cat fights" [Sarah Lyall, NYT]. I believe the most popular in print are these three editions (several different publishers): (1) the original 1922 with errors and omissions; (2) the corrected and most popular, 1961 Bodley Head-Random House edition;

(3) . . and then the 1986 Gabler edition, corrections based on manuscripts; said to be THE definitive one, yet is highly controversial (called "The Joyce Wars"). My sources advised me to choose Gabler anyway, but I took the 1961. (all editions: Reference 7)

(4) There are also reprints with the Annotations within the book; I list two of these later.

Now that Joyce's copyrights have expired, grabbed from an ornery grandson ("a bookish version of the destruction of the Death Star"), there will be more editions and scholarship. But does any of this matter so much to a casual, bumbling reader, I wonder. (Reference 8)

Nabokov's unusual views on literature 
revealed by his hand-drawn map of
Bloom's and Dedalus's journey around Dublin


(F) Author Vladimir Nabokov believed Ulysses the greatest prose masterpiece of the twentieth century. Nabokov was in the "don't-analyze-just-read" camp. He taught his students that when they are first discovering a book, stick to the "sensual details." Don't be too subjective, or theoretical, or analytical: stay in the "enchantment" of the book.

"Caress the details, the divine details," Nabokov would say.

Nabokov taught that what the author omits, a new reader shouldn't bother with either. So when he taught Ulysses, he avoided social commentary, Irish history, psychology, Joyce autobiography, "big ideas" etc. Just "caress the details."

For example, for lecture notes Nabokov used the famous hand-drawn map of Dublin, which he believed the best concrete, sensory way for students to appreciate Bloom's and Dedalus's day and the "life" of the novel. For other books he used such props as height-charts and motel matchbooks (is that for Lolita?). (Reference 9)

In an interview Nabokov said, "I believe in stressing the specific detail; the general ideas can take care of themselves. Ulysses, of course, is a divine work of art and will live on despite the academic nonentities who turn it into a collection of symbols or Greek myths." So much for guidebooks for Mr. Nabokov. When he says the pleasure of literature blends the sensual with the "intellectual," he doesn't mean it in a theoretical sense. (I did not do a complete study of Nabokov's views, so take this with a grain of salt.)

Nabokov certainly had opinions

(G) I agree with Nabokov at least on the map part; just like preparing for any trip, I want a map of Bloom's journey. (I read his route is shaped like a question mark! Yes sometimes a little outside knowledge really does increase enjoyment.) The interactive map in this reference seems the best and most detailed I found so far, but I haven't gotten the hang of using it. (Reference 10)

(H) I will greatly increase my enjoyment with a recording: listen-read; read-listen. Most recommended is the 29-1/2 hour dramatized version, a voice for each character, by an Irish radio performance group for RTE 1982. (Reference 11)

(I) I found a serious, scholarly comic-book Ulysses online- still in progress, alas-, which even includes study guides also in progress; available also as iPad download. It's beautiful, with detailed text, and conveys Joyce's mood and meaning. (Reference 12)

Kate Bush waited 20 years for permission
from the Joyce estate

(J) And for fun: 20 years ago, British singer Kate Bush wanted to write a song using as lyrics Molly Bloom's "Yes" soliloquy. Joyce's ornery grandson of the James Joyce foundation refused to release the text, as they refused most such requests.
So Kate, as humbly as she could, wrote her own lyrics in the spirit of Molly, "but obviously I'm not James Joyce." She called it The Sensual World, 1989.

Finally over 20 years later, in 2011 all Joyce copyrights expired and Kate finally had permission. She changed the lyrics back to Molly's words. She renamed it Flower of the Mountain, with the same melody.

Below are links to these two music videos, one with a clip of Molly in the movie Bloom. lyrics, and an interview in which Kate describes her literary struggle to create her own lyrics in the spirit of Joyce's language. (Reference 13)

Irish-radio performers doing a radio dramatization for RTE


It seems ironic I'm sure, that I have announced I won't analyze but will dive in- and then do what is obviously a lot of research. Research on "how" to read it,  but research nonetheless. Yes, it's funny.

As I said earlier, after I began to actually read, I realized I had some qualifications for this on-my-own method. I want to read chapters on my own, but, I want to do a little research after all; for example:

(K)  I want to at least know the NATURE of the things I'm not going to know. For example, references to Dante- I want to at least know, in an overview way, that there ARE references to Dante.

I happened upon such an Overview that "feels right." I don't know how it compares to other Joyce commentary. (Reference 14)

Buck Mulligan borrows Stephen's noserag. . .
"The snotgreen sea. . ."
 from scholarly Ulysses comic book  ulysses-seen 
 (Reference 12)

(L)  I would like Annotations, guides at my fingertips- to use for emergencies. Just because there's a lifejacket doesn't mean I'll use it all the time.

I am warned that I'll need a guidebook more for certain chapters, like Chapter 3; or, I am advised, I can simply skip to Chapter 4. (This is the attitude I am advised to take.)

Two of the supposedly best guidebooks, Blamires and Gifford, correspond annotations to the page numbers of certain editions such as mine and Gabler.

I found a handy online version from Columbia University, with hyperlink Annotations also from those two guides. Hover your mouse for pop-up annotations: Gifford's point-by-point explanations; and in the margin, Blamires's section-by-section Summaries. It has three color distinctions, between exposition and interior monologues of Bloom and Dedalus. (Reference 15)

It's annoying to wait for the balloon, which makes it easier to only only use it when I really need it. And it's very much a work-in-progress: I'll use the Columbia site as far as it goes (just over halfway), unless/until I buy my own guidebook: which I might do, depending on how I feel as I go.

I discovered that Shmoop, the common online high-school cheat sheet, has not only thorough analysis, but also sets out each chapter INCIDENT BY INCIDENT! Who would have guessed. (Reference 16)

The man who made the intelligent comment #3 on my blog mentions he wrote his own book on Ulysses, so I thought I'd plug it (never saw it). Hey why not. I liked his comment! (Reference 17)

from film 'Bloom,' Stephen Rea, Angeline Ball

Some books with Annotations -conveniently inside- include: (1) Sam Slote's reissued 1939 edition, with research and corrections of Gifford; and (2) Declan Kiberd's 1960/61, based on Gifford, weighing in at close to three pounds. What very limited mention of these I found, counted both as excellent.

(M)  I want a brief factual overview of the religo-politico context Joyce refers to. (I haven't looked yet.)
There were a few more helpful things I found reference to, such as recommended lectures; but that's venturing too far, for now.

So there you have it, someone who knows nothing about Ulysses (well I do know something now)- and certainly nothing about READING Ulysses- with advice on reading Ulysses, as gleaned from google. Keep in mind this is just a blog exploration of my own personal journey of how I can jump into Ulysses.

I will amend this as I go.
Feel free to add, comment, commend, detract, etc.


       These refer to both this post and my follow-up post "And So This is How I've Read Ulysses"

1) Neal Stephenson, The Baroque Cycle: 2300 pages by fountain pen:

3) Judge Woolsey Obscenity Trial Appeals Ruling, transcript (great blog too):
And if you're curious about the Prosecution's Appeals transcript:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead. . .

4) "How to read Ulysses: Avoid Guides Like this One" (my first cheat-sheet!)

5) 200 comments (including, it appears, Stephen Fry), under BBC "Ulysses, Cheat's Guide" (my second cheat-sheet!)

Funny, look what came out just today! NYT, links to all their Joyce news articles back to 1918 (though mostly just first paragraphs), I sorted from oldest:
timestopics/people, james joyce/topoics.nytimes

6)  Mariyln's bookshelf: full list Marilyn's library,

7) In-depth publishing story behind all major, corrected editions (ending at 2004)- with photos of their first editions:

8) Joyce copyrights expired ("Death Star"):
james joyce public domain,

9) Nabokov's Introduction to his "Lectures on Literature":
good-readers-and-good-writers-vladimir-nabokov, the floatinglibary

This article helped me understand why Nabokov drew the map:

10) Interactive Dublin map of Bloom's journey:

11) RTE dramatized recording 1982, Ulysses full text:

12) Ulysses comic book online- greatly detailed and sensitive selection of lines.
Based on scholarly annotation: includes Reader's Guides, in progress, for each chapter.
Unfortunately comic is a work in progress- only two chapters done:
I assume their general newsletter will apprise of further chapters?:

(13) KATE BUSH Music/movie videos, Lyrics & Interview:

      a) "Flower of the Mountain" VIDEO, lyrics are Joyce's Molly Bloom soliloquy;
Finishes with soliloquy scene in MOVIE "Bloom," Angeline Ball as Molly, 2003:
kate bush flower of the mountain & Molly Bloom clip 

      b) Kate's video "The Sensual World," and her own lyrics:

      c) INTERVIEW:
Kate describes her struggle to create her own lyrics in the spirit of Joyce's language (From several interviews):

     d) TEXT from Molly's soliloquy, plus 4 Kate Bush videos for it at bottom:

14) random Joyce site with Introduction to reading Ulysses, with Overview:

15)  Ulysses full text, interactive Annotations from Blamires and Gifford, Columbia Univ, although very much a work in progress:

16)  Common high school cheat sheet site that, in addition to thorough analysis, sets out each chapter INCIDENT BY INCIDENT!

17) Heck why not: book by the man who posted comment #3 on this post. I liked his comment! Ulysses Uncovered by Patrick Moloney 2013.


Write Here! said...

I enjoyed your blog about how you are going about reading Ulysses and am delighted you linked to my blog about Sylvia and her "trials" in publishing Joyce's masterpiece!

Anonymous said...

"Great blog, Eve. It adds to the volumes written about reading Ulysses. As you know I am biased, I adore the book. Still, I recognize that it ain't for everybody, so don't feel pressured to read or complete it.

I'm going to have to agree with your friend: if you want to read the book, just read it. Yes, you can go straight to Chapter 4 just like you can skip chunks of Moby Dick or The Inferno or Don Quixote. But why? To use a lame simile, it's like looking at the figure of the Mona Lisa while blocking out the background. It's still pretty but it's incomplete.

I recommend the Gifford/Seidman if you're going with an annotated guide. And James Joyce's Dublin: A Topographical Guide to the Dublin of Ulysses by Gunn and Hart is a nice visual companion to the places mentioned in the book (with photos and maps). Happy reading!" Rocco

Patrick Moloney said...

Reading Ulysses presents many difficulties. Chief of these are the following two:

i) It is cumbersome to extract the story of the book simply because Joyce includes lots of extraneous material, and
ii) the number of characters in the book is huge. Worse, many of the characters express views about other characters that are inaccurate. Sometimes the statements of the characters contradict what Joyce writes about them!

Because of this the first-time reader actually needs a companion book that gives a comprehensive summary, an informative commentary and not a little analysis.
There are lots of helps out there (and your blog is wonderful in this regard) and new ones come on stream all the time.
My own effort is just published and is getting good reviews.
But whatever aids you use - persist and you will eventually find the experience of reading Ulysses so very satisfying.
Patrick Moloney