Saturday, 17 May 2014

Hard Joyce or: Why I have Never Read Ulysses



Last Wednesday was Dylan Thomas Day on BBC Radio 3, which reminded me of the time, not so long ago, when the same BBC in its infinite wisdom, renamed a specific Saturday 'Bloomsday', and we were treated to a whole day of Ulysses readings/performances/commentaries. James Joyce's Ulysses belongs to the: 'books I have never read, never intend to read, but pretend I have' list. Also on the list with Joyce are Proust, Dostoevsky (can't even spell him), Trollope, and A.S.Byatt.

As far as the two former writers are concerned, I think my appreciation was soured at secondary school by having to translate Joyce into French, and Proust into English (why,why?). No doubt if the current Secretary of State for Education gets their way, students will be reading and translating them at primary level. Then sales will really drop off.

The ability to talk fluently about something of which one knows nothing is an integral part of being a writer. Actually, it is what sets writers apart from the rest of humanity (pace politicians). Joyce got it down to a fine art by scribing pages and pages of stream of consciousness stuff that actually nobody understands, but hey, Ulysses is a great big long book so it must be a classic, therefore let's all nod wisely and say how wonderful it is. Emperor's New Clothes comes to mind.

If you disagree, feel free to take me on. I'd love to know why James Joyce is considered such a great author and why the BBC spent the whole of Saturday inflicting this book upon us. Where's the plot, where are the twists and turns? Where's the mystery, the pace and the suspense. Okay, there's an awful lot of language, but even so ... given the exacting requirements of today's publishers, it would never get past a first reading today. Hell, it hasn't even got a vampire! Clearly, it's one rule for dead people, another for the rest of us.

 As none of my books are as long as Ulysses and I am not dead (yet), I doubt there will ever be a Hedges Day on BBC. You are probably relieved to hear it.

A final gripe, not entirely unconnected to Bloomsday: why is there also so much sport on TV? I don't understand football or cricket, or racing around in a dusty track in a car, nor do I understand why everything interesting has to be bumped off the various channels to make way for it. Is there an equivalence between watching sport and reading Ulysses? Discuss. Not too heatedly.





31 comments:

  1. I also did French and English lit at uni,so know that feeling, but I managed to avoid Joyce then, and I still haven't read it. I never got past the first chapter. Much to my amazement now, though, I read all of Henry James, and loved them at the time. Maybe because my tutor (who I thought was wonderful) enthused about HJ to the skies. Now, I almost feel he drowns in his own tedium.I'm looking forward to your sequel and for my part, you can make it as long as you like. Loved reading D&D!

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    1. thanks Val ..I don't seem to have the knack of writing long books... get too bored!!

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  2. I didn't hear the Ulysses day - but it sounds a bit like the week devoted to readings from the King James Bible. I'm not religious, but the poetry was wonderful - I didn't have to believe a word to hear that. I've no idea if Ulysses was linguistically wonderful?

    As for Proust - I read it in English, so no struggling with the French, and then took a run at it - so no reading very word, unpicking his sentences, but getting the gist and then really enjoyed it. There's a new translation of a Norwegian book that is causing something of a storm over there (A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard) that needs a similar approach. I'm expecting to have to take the same path with Murakami.

    And, before you dismiss Joyce completely - have you read his short stories? The Dubliners is a collection of short stories and all of them are succinct and wonderful.

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    1. Yes, I know Dubliners well - taught it for A level and some of the stories are excellent... it's the equation of length with worth that I find tedious. Bit like Hilarious Mantelpiece - another writer I've tried but can't get on with.

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  3. Ah well...one man's great read is another man's door wedge. The trouble is some people insist on keeping that door firmly closed whilst secretly yearning for the refreshing draught the wedge would provide. Why do we continue to overly praise certain work that's terminally underwhelming? Many reasons I suppose, the list no doubt including peer pressure, sycophancy and our pathetic need to impress!...
    I haven't read Ulysses...however I'm now curious enough to have a peek....but I did fall madly in love with Joyce's 'Dubliners', back in the day, particularly 'Eveline', the echo of which to this very day, still manages to bring a tear to my eye...*sniff*...
    As for Shakespeare...( which I feel the need to mention at this point )...I feel he should be introduced to kids in their teens and not before as, I think, you need a certain amount of life experience before you should even attempt to taste his stuff!...
    As for football....it could be said, in some cases, the playing of it is an alternative for those amongst us who wouldn't know a book if they were bashed in the face with one several times!...
    Great post as usual...which is why I always find it so difficult to shut up!...

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    1. I like Dubliners...but Ulysses just didn't connect with me at all

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  4. I've read and enjoyed Ulysses but I draw the line at Finnegan's Wake which was the point for me where Joyce really jumped the shark and progressed from challenging to virtually unreadable. Interestingly, the reason he was able to turn out work with so little regard for pleasing the reader was that he was one of the last writers to rely on patronage from wealthy sponsors for his income rather than book sales. I do think we should bring that back if anyone would like to write me a large cheque.

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    1. Ooh I agree .. patronage would be nice..and a change from publishers (or agents) who try to enforce their taste upon you. Unless the patron did that..of course.

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  5. Get out of my head please...
    I want as an epitaph on my gravestone,"She never read Ulysses" I did like The Dubliners and Portrait of an Artist as a Great Man. Joyce died in Zurich in 1942 which means Switzerland has been James Joyce free since then.

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  6. PBS does that sort of thing on this side of the pond as well... seemingly days on end of underwhelming prose selected to impress by its very pomposity! And sounding a lot like the previous sentence. :) Enjoyed the blog, as usual. Love ya, hon!

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    1. Hahaha. pompous? You? Never! Thanks Hap!

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  7. An enjoyable post, Carol. I did read 'Ulysses' once upon a time but no memory of the experience remains, and without a bit of fang action where's the attraction now I'm an adult? But I do like reading the classics (alternating with speculative fiction to keep me sane) and enjoyed Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment - although I kept wondering why I was spending time inside the head of a demented axe murderer! And I just bought The Brothers Karamazov for my kindle reading on the bus - I expect it to take me about 10 years to finish!

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    1. Some books can appeal.... I love War and Peace..tho can't get to grips with Hilary Mantell at all. I think I just lose the drift in long books..

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  8. I don't understand why we ate so stuck in the past in our education system with books. The reading list at secondary school made my son hate reading. I read the books he was given and then told him about them,my mum did the same for me. School put me off reading too. Luckily I got over it and now feel no need to read classic books there are too many good authors about today and plenty other books to read including yours Carol. I love what Lynn said,"One man's read is another man's door wedge" brilliant! I agree about football , spoils my night for me.

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    1. Quite! and thanks so much for the endorsement!

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  9. I've never read Ulysses but I read Moby Dick a couple of years ago and that felt like I was reading a whaling manual for half of the book. Got to the end in the end but not something I could recommend, unless you like fish that is, oh, sorry, no they're mammals aren't they!!!!

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  10. James Joyce the man with a telling way in naked print.

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  11. Great post Carol, I totally agree with you on Ulysses and it won't be joining my 'books to read' pile anytime soon. There are a few mind-body-spirit books that have the same effect on me, people rave about them but I'm totally lost by the end of paragraph one! Puts my hippie status in jeopardy. I do have to disagree with the football though, as I have two footy mad sons at home, I have to adopt the whole, 'If you can't beat them, join them' attitude - it can be fun! Honest! :-)

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    1. The football is a bit of a red herring: BH and DD watch avidly... but hey...it made for a neat ending.

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  12. It will possibly come as no surprise to you to learn that I have not read Ulysses either. Fortunately I was not forced to read it at school, unlike C. S. Forrester's The Gun which was our O Level book. It is such a bloody book that I had trouble getting through it, never mind learning and analysing it.

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    1. Sad that students can get so put off a writer by school!!

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  13. I'm a simple creature Carol and I don't like to have to work hard. Ulysses will not be top of my pile but, each to their own!

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    1. Exactly. Reading is meant to be a pleasure....why should we have to struggle with a book just because it is ''meant'' to be good.

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  14. It is worth persevering with Ulysses -- it's a seminal book. It's not an easy read -- try Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man -- and ease yourself into Ulysses -- Joyce is worth it...

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    1. I have taught Dubliners for A kevel and enjoyed it immensely. I am now at the age (64) where I feel that if I don't enjoy a book, I won't go on with it. Tried ''Love & Fate '' which everyone was raving about last year. Gave up. Same with Mantell. Think it's a headspace thing: too many characters or convolutions of plot and lexis and I'm baffled.

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  15. I find the same with the Fantasy genre -- far too many different species to have to learn and remember. I did it for Lord of the Rings, which I love -- I gave up on Terry Pratchett (much as I love and respect him) and others writing on that theme.

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    1. The ''early'' Pratchett is rather sci/fi -- however some of the more 'pastiche' ones like The Truth/Maskerade where he is satirizing a genre or making a political point are fantastic. Unfortunately his last two had too much of his assistant and not enough (bless) of the man himself. I admit to being a Pratchett fan, and am in mourning for the slow demise of a great writer.

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    2. Thanks Carol..I'll certainly investigate The Truth/Maskerade...Absolutely bless the man..my mum had Alzheimers & it's a terrible thing to see. I think the worst part was when I was driving mum to the swimming baths one Sunday. We were just chatting and Mum said "we don't talk anymore" "But we do!" I said. "No..we don't talk like we used to...and she was right..we could always talk about anything. Politics, art, literature. Financially, she was extremely bright and researched all the various savings schemes...she didn't make millions but she knew how to keep her family secure. When mum's mind started to go, well what can I say...it was Nancy Regan, I think, who described it as the long goodbye. I remember one summer taking Mum to Fawsley Park. It was a beautiful day and we just sat by the lake and watched the swans and the moor hens. It got to time to leave and Mum couldn't remember how to get up. I started to help her, but she couldn't get the coordination right and we were wobbling about and I started to giggle because I had a vision of us tumbling into the lake. But poor Terry Pratchett. I hope he gets to leave in the way that he desires...whether it's Dignitas or something else. He's a Star in my book.

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    3. A bittersweet story.. I become more aware of my mortality as the big 70 approaches. A constant counting backwards in 8's It is amazing how many writers continued to produce work tho' in terminal decline.

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    4. Although your post is older. But you revived it on FB. So here are my '2 Pfenning' worth of who cares. Haven't read Ulysses either but it's on my 50 classics list, so I'll have to. There's worse on it. Baudelaire, Daudet and Pagnol in French. Daudet and Pagnol will be good, Baudelaire, I fear not so. But it's a Classic. And why there is so much football on TV? Because 'real Gladiator games' (yup, with the thumb thing) are kind of against the law. Spoiled kids who earn much, too much money for NOTHING. And my excuses to Marc Knopfler for using Money for Nothing with football players.

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