Some works are not written; they are lived. The authors write not with ink, but with breaths. Every breath that finds its way in, sucks in a piece of the world and releases it into the author’s being, letting it permeate, gauge, prod, absorb and contemplate, and packages it like a farewell gift onto the back of the breath being puffed out. And since the saga of this breath-taking game continues for a few years till the red starts blinking, we get a work that resembles distilled crystals, found at the end of a purification process of worldly chemicals.
Fuelled by my love for Stephen , when I instinctively picked up Ulysses to read last year, I knew I was entering a labyrinth of diverse and encrypted observations, thanks to its inescapably cult reputation. I was aware I won’t understand half of it. And I felt okay to be in that space.
Ulysses, in simple terms, is an account of events of a single day in the lives of two Irish men, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, in Dublin. They go out of their respective homes, go to work, meet a couple of friends and acquaintances, have normal and heated conversations over food and drinks, run into each other at a library, discuss some more ideas and opinions, bond and disengage, and say goodnight before going back to their respective dens.
That’s pretty much the story, yes. But it’s Ulysses, right? And so it comes with its huge Andromeda of caveats. Within its seven words, it held seven worlds and I was, unintentionally I assure, captured into its throes for seven months. This intimidating text often tames the ambition of a reader I had heard, sometimes right in the beginning, and occasionally, mid-way, of reading it in full. And the trepidation wasn’t without reason.
Do we ever wonder about the answer we must truthfully give should someone ask the question, ‘What are you doing now?’ We are asked this atleast a dozen times in a day and mostly, we zero in on one activity, at the most, two and sometimes, none. But incidentally, the mind registers much more than one thing at a time. I am writing this review but I also heard the beep that my phone, kept next to my keyboard, made a second back. Oh, and I am also recording the movement of the person who is loitering by the door through the corner of my eye. A certain subdued chatter, emanating from the adjacent wing is also not going uncaught and so is the phone ring that is singing its soft bellow outside the corridor, in some random cabin. You see, my mind is going back and forth among all these activities and I am thinking of all of them at once, perhaps with a millisecond’s gap: who is messaging me (and what does he/she want), who is loitering around (and who is he waiting for, and what color is that shirt), what agenda is the group chattering about (and does that concern me in any way), where is that phone ringing (and why is no one answering). Mostly, the questions are inconsequential to me but not to my observations. The latter feeds on this scattered field of food and hungrily gobbles them up to keep its health in pink. These uncertainties in answers are, after all, the gaps within which, new meanings are born, every minute.
The beauty of this work lies in this very premise: intricately overlapping thoughts that run within the minds of these two men over a canvas as vast as your imagination. Joyce must have been an avid reader and an even keener learner for the references one stumbles upon, stretch geographical boundaries, political systems, societal norms and religious beliefs. While the literature flavors swell into nostrils with Blake, Milton, Shakespeare, Swift, Dante, Aristotle and Poe concocting a rich broth, the linguistic sprinkling of Latin, French, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Greek and Italian jewels encrust the prudent mayhem. Algebra is summoned in a conversation and dispatched to an opera; sandwich is anointed as the hero of an Irish mythological meal. Coffee finds intense scrutiny over a discarded table top but adultery walks away like a dignified head of state. Since thoughts defy chains, words do too and all the structural nomenclature and conventional meanings are shown the door. So, no good becomes n.g and bartender is rechristened aproned curator.
This voluminous work is made light by the collective effort of literary levers as all of them sashay in a bedazzling appearance beneath the core film: conversations, vignettes, reflections, satire, parody, lyricism, hallucinations, catechism, theatrical enactment, humor, allusions and aphorisms make hay while the sun shines and night whistles. The only mainstream narrative style I didn’t find was the epistolary route.
Reading this was like undertaking water-skiing. The balance was slippery and the grasp, minimal. But one glimpse of the blue sea and all fears folded in its hues. And that occasional zenith one suddenly finds herself at, courtesy a huge, giant leap of cognition, is worth all the chugging along through choppy waters. I felt those incredible apogees at Oxen of the Sun (Chapter 14) and Ithaca (Chapter 17). But is there a way to read it? I am not very sure. But if my experience helps in any way, I am happy to share it as a footnote 🙂
Ulysses, on the surface, appears to have been written in an urgency. Upon reading it though, slowly, sipping a mug of coffee at every 20th page, I realized the urgency was a façade; all Joyce wished to do was talk. Talk because he was compelled to; compelled by the stunning sprouts of life and death around him, compelled by the inundating significance of routine and triviality engulfing him. Even while I suffered a string of failures in grasping the entirety of his revelations dripping from each page of this epic, I reveled in the overwhelming gusts of illuminating thoughts that shielded me from the maelstroms of ignorance.
Reading Ulysses: When I started, I had two versions of Ulysses with me; a kindle version and a paperback. I wasn’t quite sure which one I should rather read. So, I did just a little bit of support-text research. There are loads of stuff offline and online and I am mentioning here only those that I sort of feel would be useful: Ulysses Annotated is a rich book for those looking for annotations to help understand certain contexts of political, commercial and religious heat of that time. Also, the deployment of multiple languages means multiple references to translating websites/ apps, where again, this book comes handy. But it is expensive (in fact, more expensive than Ulysses!) and may be unavailable in libraries. In such a scenario, there is a free alternative which is fairly good, if not that good as the book. Put together by some lovely soul from Columbia University, this neat website has annotations for most of the chapters and these annotations have their source back in Ulysses Annotated. If podcasts or audio is your thing, you could check Frank Delany’s blog for some assistance. And now with all these resources, we are back to same question – how does one read Ulysses? Well, there is no answer, really. I ended up reading both my kindle and paperback; one after another. I didn’t refer to the annotations beyond Chapter 3 and went free bird thereon. There was a certain rhythm that had seeped into my reading and I begun viewing the incessant reference as an impediment in the overall experience. I do intend to read this again someday with all the annotations in place. That should be, then, an experience of another kind! Oh another element in this: does one need to read Odyssey before venturing into Ulysses as most of us know the former to be the structural bed of the latter? I have only one answer; if you have read Odyssey, great! and if you haven’t, fantastic! Either way, you are bound to have a trip of your life 🙂
[Image courtesy ictevangelist.com ]