You want to read James Joyce's Ulysses but are too scared to tackle it. You've picked it up once or twice. You might have even read a chapter or two. But then you've abandoned the book — and felt like a failure.
Many of us have been there. I tried to read the novel in my early 20s. I got about a third of the way into it, then put it down and never picked it up again. A year or two later, too ashamed to keep the book in my personal library, I sold it to a second-hand store just to be rid of the damn thing.
But then last month I set upon a mission to read it in three weeks — to have it finished by Bloomsday — and found myself thoroughly enjoying it. The key is not to get too concerned with understanding every single reference, but just go with the flow, and if all else fails, read bits of it out loud and buy yourself a guide to help you along.
Or you could try a different route — and learn to read it while in Dublin.
Dr Eibhlín Evans, an academic and writer, set up The Flying Book Club to do just that — and a lot more besides. The organisation, based in a gorgeous Georgian building not far from St Stephen's Green, runs all kinds of literary programmes for visitors to Dublin who want to learn more about the city's literary history and Irish literature in general. (You can find out about their programmes for book-lovers via the official website — now if only I could convince my book group to sign up for a three-day trip!)
When I visited Dublin last month I attended a three-hour session on "Feel the Fear and Read it Anyway!" which provided tips on reading Ulysses for those who have always been too scared to tackle it.
Even though I had recently finished reading the book — just two days earlier, in fact — it was an inspiring session. If only I'd attended it before I had read the book, the challenge would have been far less daunting.
During the session, held on a damp rainy Friday afternoon, Dr Evans put the book into context and gave us some background to Joyce's troubled life. Dr Mark Quinn also gave us some tips on reading the book, and then we were treated to a lively and animated reading by a Dubliner, who really got into the spirit of it and brought Joyce's work to life. In fact, he had us all roaring with laughter. (It was the bit in Barney Kiernan's pub that ends with the anti-semitic "citizen" hurling a biscuit tin at Bloom's head while his dog gives chase.)
I took some notes, and what follows is a mix of tips I picked up from those who were there, including the dozen or so people in the audience:
- Ulysses has a difficult reputation — and not without reason. It has a structure, a narrative and a voice that you probably have never come across before
- It is a "novel of ideas"
- It was written at a time when the world was going through a period of radical uncertainty — psychology was a new science, religion was being challenged by Darwinism, gender issues were coming to the fore with the suffragette movement and history was no longer viewed as a reliable narrative
- It was written at a time when Nationalism was on the rise in Ireland. And what better way to analyse a country than by having your central character — Leopold Bloom, the Irish-born Jew — as an outsider, with an outsider's keen eye and dispassionate way of looking at things
- The main character is an anti-hero — he is an ordinary man with ordinary problems trying to get by like everyone else
- The book depicts the inner reality of its characters, rather than an outer reality. This is achieved chiefly through stream-of-consciousness and inner dialogue
- It is helpful to look at the book as if it was a newspaper, with each chapter like a different section
- Note that each chapter is written in a different literary style and is often themed around a particular subject or idea
- It is not necessary to understand every reference in the book. If you don't understand something, don't get hung up on it — just keep reading!
- If you get really stuck, try reading some of it out loud — or listen to an audio version to get to grips with the Dublin vernacular
I would add that the more widely you read — everything from historical drama to post-modern fiction — the easier you will find Ulysses to tackle, because the book is essentially a history of English literary styles condensed into one volume. In many ways, when I tackled it, I felt like I'd been in training for it my whole life.
If you're still too scared, take The Flying Book Club's advice and feel the fear but read it anyway!
I travelled to Dublin and attended this event as a guest of Tourism Ireland. Many thanks to Dr Eibhlín Evans and The Flying Book Club for the warm Irish welcome, delicious afternoon tea and wonderful discussion — it was the highlight of my trip.