Since I began my study of English at UCC many moons ago, Joyce’s Ulysses, often described as the greatest novel of the 20th century, has been on my radar. As an undergraduate, I made my first attempt at reading it, but fresh from a Leaving Certificate course which featured no fiction more recent than Jane Austen’s Emma, and with The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock my only experience of modernism, I couldn’t get beyond the first episode.
Later, I returned to UCC to complete an MA in English with the focus on the theories and traditions of Irish writing, and still I couldn’t find a way into Ulysses. I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which didn’t exactly leave me gagging for more, and it wasn’t until some years later that I heard an extract from The Dead on radio and was prompted to read more. The haunting beauty of Joyce’s most famous short story could not fail to have an impact on any reader, and left me thinking that maybe this man’s work was actually worth reading, as so many critics seemed to think!
I was beginning to develop a slight inferiority complex as a result of my failure to tackle this great behemoth of modern fiction, and having to admit to students in my English class that I had never read Ulysses was causing me some discomfort, when finally, I heard some excerpts from the novel on radio (thank you RTE!) and began to see that, contrary to my earlier impressions, there was some structure to the narrative, if such it can be called… I also got some sense of the author’s beautiful word craft, something which always appeals to me, and resolved to make one more assault on Joyce’s masterpiece.
The struggle (and it was a struggle) took months, with some episodes so difficult that, normally a voracious reader, I could only manage a page at a time. However, whereas in the past, I had found myself unable to continue, now I found myself unable to give up, despite abandoning the task altogether for some weeks during a particularly busy period in my life. The book was always there, on my bedside locker or on my mind if not in my hand, and bit by bit I worked through it, fascinated by the bizarre narrative structure and the rich, complex vocabulary, the wonderful invented words and the character of Bloom. The icing on the cake for me was the final chapter – I had always considered the novel to be a very masculine one, but the last words (many of them!) were left to Molly Bloom, and it could be said that the whole novel actually revolves around her, though I’m sure I will be contradicted on this. And certainly, in my college years, if I’d been aware of the nature of much of the material, I think my earlier attempts to read it might have been more successful!
This is a mere reflection on having finally finished the novel, an achievement which gives me great personal satisfaction, but now I’m curious to know more, to understand more about this wonderful literary creation with which Joyce intended to baffle us all. “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant,” he is reported to have written, and my next assignment is to explore these enigmas and puzzles a little further… To quote Molly Bloom, “Yes I said yes I will Yes.”
Now did someone mention Finnegan’s Wake?