I am about to brag: I recently finished Ulysses. The whole thing, I read every page. I understood probably about 25% of them (and I’m being generous). It took me nine months. I took a class at the Newberry, taught by an amazing woman who seemed to be almost in love with the novel. Her enthusiasm inspired me to try to get past my anger at James Joyce. Why can’t he just say what he means? Just tell me the story. It’s not that I’m against poetic language and symbolic story telling. I can even respect the nonlinear narrative, but so many of the stylistic choices just feel like Joyce showing off how smart he is, and how dumb he thinks his readers must be. Without that class I know I would have given up on this book, and I am glad I pushed through. Molly’s last chapter is a masterpiece of psychological writing. And I really did feel compassion for poor hapless Bloom by the end.
A couple of weeks ago, coincidently the day I finished the book, that professor sent out an e-mail to her former students that a new documentary In Bed with Ulysses would be showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center in the loop. The movie, directed by Kate Taverna and Alan Adelson, traces Adelson’s love of the book and the staged reading of the entire story that he staged for a Bloom’s day. The actors from the reading do a wonderful job and the film has wonderful historical trivia. I especially loved the portrait it painted of Nora Barnacle Joyce, James’ long suffering wife and the interview with Bennett Cerf’s son about how they finally got the book published in America. The movie suffers though from Adelson’s narration, I know this might be a harsh thing to say, but the tone of his voice was so grating that it took me out of even the beauty of Ireland and Paris.
I think if you’re going to read Ulysses you have to decide that for yourself and give yourself time and let yourself take long breaks (my longest was 2 months long without even thinking about reading it.) This movie, or my blog, isn’t going to make you but I can suggest that if you’re in Chicago and want to give it a try (or a second try, or a fifth) you should give the Newberry seminar a look, it’s worth taking.