Lately, I have been reading James Joyce.
I don’t know why I’ve brought this upon myself, but it seems nigh time that I tackle the greatest novel written in English in the twentieth century, namely, ULYSSES. For years, many years, I’ve been afraid of Joyce. Not without good reason, mind you, as I picked up A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN back when I was, myself, a young literary man in training — at the age of 19 as a freshman at Vanderbilt University — and I must confess that I found it one of the most difficult books I’d ever read. Our resident Joyce scholar, also, was a hyper-intellectual Yale guy, who intimidated me, and by extension I became intimidated by the works of Joyce. Plus, there’s his picture: those wee beady eyes!
This past spring, nearing the completion of my time in the Columbia MFA program, I got this email from a writer whom I greatly admire, whose most recent book, his second, was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize last year, but whose name I’ll withhold for the sake of privacy. I asked him for advice on how to best approach the beast, and in response he wrote me these encouraging, if challenging words:
Ulysses is the most important novel ever written. Take it down carefully and rapturously, like an expensive whiskey that you’re getting slowly but surely drunk on. I strongly suggest reading it alongside Blamires’ ‘The Bloomsday Book’ – a chapter-by-chapter guide. It’s like when you first read The Waste Land: you need a guide.
That was almost four months ago. Since then, I’ve read DUBLINERS, which is inarguably a masterpiece of the form. By “form” I mean the not quite linked short story collection. The commonality of the stories is their setting: Dublin pre-twentieth century. The characters are all similar in their station in life, but they’re each individually rendered and created, so that the book works as a portrait of the city and its inhabitants — a study for ULYSSES, really — rather than a disparate, distinct collection of puzzle pieces that one might find in something like DROWN by Junot Diaz. DUBLINERS is excellent, and it encouraged me to keep going.
I’m now halfway through A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, and, though it’s become much easier to read this second time around, it’s still dense, difficult, and problematic in many ways. I’ll reserve judgment till the end, but it’s interesting to see Joyce move from the achievement of DUBLINERS to this next text, in which he was so clearly working out the technique and artistic gestures that would become (presumably) more fully realized in ULYSSES.