Thursday, October 16, 2008


So I finally finished Ulysses.  It took about two years, although I put the book down and let it gather dust for half of that.

I've never had a reading experience quite like this one.  When I'd pick up Ulysses, I'd be immediately engaged by the text.  On one occasion, I missed my subway stop - and traveled a fair way into Queens, where I had no desire to be - because I was too busy reading to keep track of where I was.  But, at the same time, after I put the book down I never wanted to pick it up again.  I felt no desire to find out what would happen next.  

I fell in love with Joyce's language, but I detested him at the same time.  It's the first book I've ever read where if I didn't seek out reading guides - chapter synopses just to know what had happened; explanations of the references and style shifts to appreciate the bells and whistles - I'd be completely lost.  Who reads this, without help, and finds it satisfying?  Anyone?  There must be some people, of course, but I don't think I've ever met one.  The people I've met who loved Ulysses all read as part of a college course, with a professor to guide them through.

And, you know, that's pathetic.  It's loathsome.  I love it when a book rewards study and deep attention, but it should be able to stand on its own during a first read-through as well.  It's the literary equivalent of being a chair with three legs - if it topples without props, it's a flawed structure.

But the language is incredible.  I thought it just crackled with vitality, like a live wire.  Words feel solid and heavy, sort of sticking in my mouth and forming shapes on my tongue even when I read silently.  There's so much humor, so much music, so much pure curiosity.  As angry and resentful as I could be while reading, I couldn't for one second deny that it was magnificent - because individual sentences or paragraphs or pages would just be staggeringly beautiful.

But in a way, this wasn't fair at all.  I started reading Ulysses knowing that I wasn't a Joyce person.  I was ready to have my mind changed, but it's kind of lame to start any project with a sneer on your lips.  And I did.  What I gained from reading Ulysses, as much as anything, is the right to not like James Joyce, and to say so without having some convert immediately tell me: "Oh, you'd change your mind if you just read Ulysses."  Well, no, as it turns out, I wouldn't.  

I'd been thinking of starting Middlemarch but I think I need a slightly longer break before embarking on another project book.  

No comments: