Ulysses Read-Along: First Impressions

For last week, Emily suggested as a discussion topic first impressions, and I want to talk about how I felt about Ulysses the first time I picked it up and how that changed.

To be honest, the first time I tried reading Ulysses, in high school, I did not like it at all, and I only made it as far as Aeolus through sheer stubbornness. I think my dislike was due to the fact that I never got immersed. I have one of those heavily-annotated editions, where the notes double the thickness of the volume. I figured the notes are there because they are important, because you cannot get everything out of the book without them. And I did want to get everything out of it. So I thought I should read all the notes; not as I encountered them, but to have a master check-up at least every few pages. Of course, then I would need to re-read the text with the notes in mind. Except I wouldn't remember half the explanations (many of which didn't mean anything without an even more detailed context of 1904 Dublin), and I would have to do this a couple of times more. I could appreciate how smart some of the connections were, or how elegantly Joyce could reference in a phrase a story that took a page of explanations in the notes, but re-reading something you've just read isn't very fun. So my first impression of Ulysses was that it's a clever book, but also i) very boring, and ii) pointless to read since I will never get all of it. 

I was about to make the same mistake when I started again, but then a birdcage hung in the sunny window of her house when she was a girl... happened and it was so beautiful and I just wanted to read on and know the story. I didn't stop again until Proteus, where I found it fascinating, rather than frustrating, to read up on Aristotle in order to be able to follow Stephen's thoughts. Now I make notes of things that I don't get but make me curious, and I try to keep the balance between looking up details and staying with the book. And of course I will not get everything out of it, but that's ok.

This time around, I actually have impressions about characters and situations and language, and not only about the book. I find Stephen adorably obnoxious, I think Buck Mulligan is funny but I empathize with Stephen's cringing around him, and I like Bloom a lot. I also have a very long, very fast-growing, list of phrases and sentences that I love. 

1 comment:

  1. Glad you wrote this. I thought it might be an idea to get myself an annotated copy, but as you say there's a danger in getting lost in detail and losing the book. When I come to re-reading I'm going to do what you've done - just jot down the odd note and look it up.

    Such a hard book. Twice I've read it and I always return to it a newbie. :)