It feels strangely heroic tackling the world’s most difficult novel: something akin to running an ironman triathlon or perhaps venturing into unexplored jungle. Your stupidity is laid bare – your lack of cultural fitness is wide open for all to see. The poison darts of unknown references, indecipherable Latin and Greek quotations are ready to sting you at any moment.
Of course there is considerably more help for the modern reader; when I was a student, you would either rely on the marginalia of the student who owned the book before you (always unreliable) your lecture notes (not always up to date or taken at all) or the secondary text (usually written and recommended by the lecturer hoping to flog copies to his students). The now the infinite resource of the Internet provides instant translations and ready (if still suspect) answers to some of Joyce’s riddles.
Wise or not, I am attempting to fly solo with my reading, avoiding online interpretations, wanting to discover the novel for myself as its first baffled readers would have found it; to enjoy its poetry, rather than decipher it. This will no doubt, result in some embarrassing wrong turns.
I take a lunchtime sprint through the second episode: Dedalus concludes his payday discussions with the pompous headmaster, who provides some Polonius like advice to the young teacher. Despite the older man’s council to heed the maxim: ‘I paid my way’ Stephen finds this impossible with a list of creditors and only a handful of change to satisfy them all. There is a particularly fine comic moment when Stephen runs through a mental list of everything he owes: ‘Mulligan: nine pounds, three pairs of socks, one pair brogues, ties. . .’
The next moment, he is being treated like an errand boy than a classical scholar – being asked to deliver the Mr Deasy’s letters on Foot and Mouth problem to the newspapers for publication. Joyce uses their meeting to open a discussion on Irish history and ‘I saw three generations since O’Connell’s time. I remember the famine.’ The shadow of Ireland’s history falls across everything – particularly the skism between the rebel blood and ‘old England’s winding sheet.’ Nationalists find themselves descended from the British. This section is also home to one of the Ulysses greatest hits: ‘History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to wake.’ Perhaps we should ring a bell every time we step across one of these?
After leaving the office Stephen falls into a dreamlike reflection – a classicl Joycian stream of consciousness, about his religion, his friends, his dreams and regrets; densely written with only occasional nods to narrative sense. He is still haunted by the death of his mother and pursued by his conscience: ‘The aunt think you killed your mother.’ The text becomes feverish and fragmented: ‘The flood is following me. . . these heavy sands are language tides.’ At times like these, you find yourself hanging onto Joyce’s coattails, simply hoping not to fall off. An earlier reference to jews as ‘wanderers of the earth’ sparks an evocative sketch of Paris: ‘crude sunlight on her lemon streets. Mosit pith of farls of bread.’ When there is a narrative signpost such as ‘I mustn’t forget his letter for the press. And after? The Ship’ (to meet Mulligan) you accept it gratefully.
Above all it is the fragments of poetry you find yourself enjoying most: ‘They are coming, waves. The whitemaned seahorses, champing, brightwindbridled, the steeds of Mananaan.’ Coining new phrases, sensual and uninhibited, Joyce is flying here. Taken as a verse novel, a collection of poems alone, it is a magnificent achievement.
Pages 36 – 52