Thursday, June 16, 2011

Reading Ulysses - Yobbo or Wanker?

"You're a yob, or you're wanker, make your fuckin' choice
So who is your favourite genius: James Hird or James Joyce?"

- 'What Are Ya?', TISM'

This song was my first exposure to the giant name of literature that is James Joyce. I am a lifelong Essendon fan so clearly my favourite genius was James Hird. Making me a yobbo. But, really I always thought I fit better in the wanker category (only if choosing between the two!).

I'd probably heard of Ulysses, but I knew little about it - or Joyce - until a few months ago. This was my blessing (naivety) and my curse (as someone who studied Literature briefly in University, somewhat of a blight on my cred).

Having decided to read a lot more this year than last, when I read a LOT more than 2009, I've been keeping an eye out for good reads, and in my 'research', stumbled on this blog post from Grog's Gamut. I subsequently added a few to my list, and for some reason thought it a good idea to start with Ulysses.

Firstly, do not borrow this book from a library unless you have a stack of free days, being about 1000 pages long. It's a tough read - the last chapter, with four sentences in its 80 pages, almost suffocated me as I stood in front of the mirror reciting it aloud. I renewed it once, returned it late and was under constant pressure to keep to deadline. That had positive and negative affects.

Most importantly, it meant I actually kept at it - I was determined to finish, but could have easily given it a miss a couple of times and ended up never coming back. It also affected the way I read. Historically I have read very carefully, slowly and methodically. This stems from my OCD when I re-read sentences over and over to be sure of the content, and I'm trying to shake the remnants of these habits.

Reading a massive book like Ulysses forced me to keep moving at a steady pace and not stop too much to assure myself of any sentences or situations that I didn't feel I explicitly understood, because frankly, I didn't understand much of what was going on and I would have probably wasted time mulling over the things that I was able to figure out and probably already had subconsciously.

If I had have read at a pace where I made sure I understood everything that was going on I think it would have taken me 6 months, instead of 6 weeks, to read. That said, with a little more time I could have contemplated things a bit more as I went in a constructive way, when, in actual fact, I feel like I rushed it, especially towards the exhausting end.

Ulysses is 1000 pages of dense, sophisticated writing. There's no doubt Joyce is a clever, highly talented writer. But most of it went over my head. I'd need to have studied it at Uni in a class setting to have fully appreciated it. And I did read chapter notes on Wikipedia as I went, in order to keep up - two or three sentences that neatly summed up 80 or so pages.

At about page 900 I thought 'Hey, I'm following this! I know what's going on! I both get it and enjoy it!' Then, about 20 pages later, I lost it.

Is its complexity and potential pretentiousness what makes it great? That it is difficult to comprehend? That it can elevate those who understand and appreciate it (and those who pretend to) to a cultural elitism? (I should note, I'm not putting all Joyce lovers in the derogatory 'elite' category, especially not my dear friend who is studying Joyce for her thesis :o) )

Do you judge something on its complexity or its ability to connect with the audience, its timelessness and its strength of content? Simple writing can achieve these criteria just as well, but I'll admit that something layered and complex, when comprehended, can have more impact when you have the 'lightbulb moment' and you feel that you 'created' the message in a way through your achieved understanding. Or it can have less. I'm not sure it matters, use the simplicity/complexity tool as appropriate. If Joyce achieved the work he wanted then no, he shouldn't dumb it down to broaden its appeal. Formulaic and mass-produced is the enemy of art, not simplicity.

What does that mean for its stature? Not much really. All those questions do not intend to be as critical as they seem - of the book or those who love it. Given I didn't really understand the book, they are the kinds of questions I was left with, and I don't know the absolute answer to them. But that's what this - writing - is all about right?!
I can't say outright it's not the greatest novel ever written, but I've read many, and will no doubt read many more, that have had a greater impact on me. From a personal level that's really all that matters. And overall ranking of novels, as much as music, is a subjective, pointless exercise.

Maybe someday I'll read it again - when I'm feeling more capable.

Until then, I guess if my choice is Hird or Joyce, I'm a yobbo. But if we're discussing music, I'm probably, and proudly, a wanker. Most TISM fans probably are!

I trust the genius of Joyce is accessible to those with the right imagination, perception and energy ... and someday, when I've increased my verbal intelligence, have a little more time and patience, and James Hird has long-since been sacked (not before winning a couple of premierships for Essendon), I'll sit down and reconsider.

Happy Bloomsday :o)

PS. still taking book recommendations - mainly fiction, I can find my own non-fiction more easily.


  1. A good book for me is one that makes me feel something. Pretty much. One where I get a little lost in it. The writing, I guess, if I am enjoying it, is irrelevant. I've tried to read a lot of books that "I should" and get lost and bored.

    Here's my blog post where I asked for suggestions. Might be something there for you :)

  2. Cheers! Updating the list :o)

    Just started On the Road again. I got halfway through 4 years ago but it didn't grab me even though I was about to head to America myself.

    Admittedly a shameful case of "I 'should' read this so-called classic" just like Ulysses, but this time I'm truly loving it! Right book, right time - right on!