READING ULYSSES: AN AMATEUR’S GUIDE TO JOYCE
I know very little about how to study English literature. The highest level of interpreting texts I every reached was a forced study of whatever was on the Leaving Cert curriculum the year I sat it. I can claim no expertise in any classics, I’ve spent the past few years opting for novels or law books and no literature protein in between. But at the grand old age of 21, I figured that if I didn’t get my act together and start trying to understand the works of brilliant authors such as Joyce, Hemingway, Wilde and Woolf now, I’d regret it.
Joyce spent most of his life writing about his hometown Dublin, despite the fact that he permanently moved away from the place in his early 20s. He only came back a handful of times and even then, each experience was loaded with negativity. With this in mind, I’ve recently decided to become an expert in all things Joycean and so I’ve set myself the goal of finishing Ulysses by the end of my term here in Paris.
My decision to study Joyce was an easy one – I’ll never again be so close to understanding him as an author than this year, after my move from Sandymount, Dublin (near the famous Martello Tower of the Strand) to the Right Bank of Paris, literally ten minutes away from the house that Joyce finished writing Ulysses in. I’ve drank hot chocolate in his local cafe, bought books in Shakespeare and Co (or at least the modern day version) and I’ve taken late night strolls along the Seine in a way that the man himself must’ve once done. I’m well aware how rare an opportunity it is to say that I can experience first-hand the life that inspired Joyce, so I’d be an absolute fool not to make the most of it… or at least try.
That said, I know starting with Ulysses is baptism by fire into the modernist world of Joyce. I’m not a complete fool.. well… at least.. not initially. I had started with Dubliners, but then my friend Isobel and I found the loveliest little Joyce reading group which meets on a Sunday morning in La Cafétheque a short walk from our house. The group started as a meeting ground for lovers of Joyce but has since transformed into a Ulysses support group and so we figured we’d start at the top and work our way backwards to Stephen Hero, A Portrait of An Artist and Dubliners. I really doubt I’ll ever make it as far as Finnegan’s Wake (you know Joyce included a mix of over 40 languages in the thing??) but at least I’m starting out with great intentions!
So I’ve spent my week doing a lot of background reading on Joyce. I mean A LOT. And I’ll probably try and fill out my blog with Joyce references since it’s going to take up a significant amount of time over the next few months. Anyway, I’ll start here with the broadest outline of what I’ve discovered this week about Joyce!
Here’s the basic profile that I’ve formed about the man and his life:
He was elusive and esoteric. He was an alcoholic and had a love of extravagance. This also meant that he was used to manipulating people into providing for him financially, ultimately leading Joyce to live off his parents, his brother and wealthy sponsors until his dying day. He essentially squandered his earnings and expected others to provide for him because of his pending greatness.
Joyce was also sex-obsessed. He lost his virginity to a prostitute, he spent his college years visiting the brothels of Dublin (which led to him catching an STI once or twice), he wrote incredibly pornographic letters to his wife Nora and fell in love with several significantly younger women throughout his life despite being married with children. The sad news for Joyce was that he wasn’t as big a player as he wanted to be – his love went unrequited and the only questionable affair was with Martha Fleischmann who ended up ratting out Joyce and his vividly detailed letters to her husband.
Joyce had this distorted view of loyalty to his wife and even though she moved half across the world (Trieste, Zurich, Paris and back) for him, he didn’t marry Nora until they’d been together for over twenty years. Had he been given the opportunity, he’d have felt no remorse in heading off with other women (for the sake of his art apparently) and he even had the cheek to encourage Nora to go off with other men, solely so he would get a story out of it.