Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sailing Home

With a long weekend ahead of me, I set myself the goal of finishing Ulysses, but in all honesty I must say it was with more resignation than anticipation. Except for Thoreau's Walden, I can't think of any books I've started but failed to finish, and I'm not sure why Walden has repeatedly worn me down. Lack of maturity, perhaps? I feel another attempt coming on soon.

Anyway, despite my general conviction that life is too short to spend it reading books you don't like, I wanted to finish Ulysses. So I resorted to skimming. That's pretty easy with this book, which does not lend itself to the middle way. Either you read it word by word, trying to follow all the allusions and references, many of which are obscure Irish jokes and puns, or you simply let the art flow over you and turn the pages as quickly as possible. As an English major and former law student, I have much more practice at painstakingly close reading than at skimming, but still managed to keep up my speed.

My snapshots of Ulysses are these:

1. Judge Woolsey got it right when he determined the book isn't obscene. Even though it contains some sexual events and references and a smattering of bathroom functions, it doesn't have what His Honor called "dirt for dirt's sake." Certainly it pales in comparison with much that has been written since. Heck, thanks to Joyce's style, a lot of the time you can hardly tell what's happening, risque or otherwise.

2. The section in which Bloom and Stephen go to Bloom's house ("Ithaca," per the critics) is rendered completely charming by the question and answer format in which it is relayed. I found it much more successful than the other literary forms Joyce used. As an old-fashioned reader, perhaps I was merely taken in by the structure and the droll, humorous tone. Whatever the reason, I liked it immensely.

3. The section that follows ("Penelope") is practically its polar opposite, consisting of many pages entirely devoid of punctuation or paragraphs of any kind. But I found Molly a fascinating character and Joyce's rendering of her interior world entirely believable and very beautiful. This part was too interesting to skim.

All in all, I'm glad I read it and without devoting my life to running down all the clues, I have probably gotten as much as I'm going to get from it. I'll stick with the original tale of Ulysses from now on. And I have an idea how Ulysses felt at the end. Even with skimming, after 783 pages, I feel like it took me ten years to get home from windy Troy, too.

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