READING ULYSSES: AN AMATEUR’S GUIDE TO JOYCE

 In My Blogroll

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.

Taken at our James Joyce reading group 
in La Cafétheque by Isobel Darcy!

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:

Joyce was the favourite son, and his parents always made him believe that he was destined for greatness. This belief was embedded in Joyce to such an extent that he has a superiority complex and placed himself in his own little elitist bubble, often shrugging off others he deemed as inferior-minded.

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.

If someone was in any way associated with Joyce, the chances are he based a character in his books on them. Whether they were loved, hated or seemingly insignificant, all got placed in his semi-autobiographical books. It didn’t help that Joyce was such a hard character to get along with either… that meant that he ended up turning on a lot of old friends and portraying them in a rather unkind light in his books. Harsh really.
Ulysses acts like a Joycean version of Wikipedia for all things Dublin related. Streets, shops, cafes and general areas of the city are all placed in the book almost as a point of future reference for Joyce. His memory of the place, despite the lapse in time between living there and writing the book, is flawless. Needless to say I couldn’t name half the shops on Grafton St if I tried, so I’m suitably impressed.
Joyce had two children, Giorgio and Lucia. Lucia suffered from schizophrenia and was placed in a home due to the rapid deterioration of her mental health when she was in her 30s. Joyce was convinced that she had inherited his “genius” and fought against accepting her mental health issues for as long as possible. He tried to argue that her schizophrenia was merely a formation of new language, much like his own, echoed in Finnegans Wake.  He genuinely believed he knew more than any psychoanalyst and attempted to cure Lucia by buying her furs and lavish gifts. I don’t think it takes an expert to realise that Joyce was merely a parent in denial.
Joyce spent a significant part of his life trying to get published. Ulysses was deemed to be so pornographic that nobody would touch the book and so Sylvia Beach, owner of the original Shakespeare and Co in Paris, beggered herself so that her shop could publish the book for him. It was banned in America and England and the struggles of getting the book an audience was very much an underground scene until at least ten years after the first copies had been produced. Joyce owed so much to Sylvia Beach and yet, in typical Joyce fashion, he never repaid her for her kindness and ultimately parted ways with the bookshop owner despite everything she had done to pave way for his success.
*****
I think I’ll leave the Joycean facts at that. I’ve a good deal more that I could say about his life here in Paris and indeed his books, but I think this post is getting too long and anyone who had reached this far is probably a tad bored of my ramblings. I’ll fill the blog with more Joycean facts and posts as I go along my discovery of his works, but til then I’ll keep to the basics.
Also, can I get a brief moment of recognition for attending the 11am reading group despite only getting four hours of sleep from being out the night before?
Now I don’t want to boast dedication to the cause, but if my acts imply as much, then who am I to say otherwise…… 😛
Sorcha x
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