There’s a story about my maternal grandmother, Mom-Mom, and it goes something like this.
My grandmother was always an avid reader. Despite dropping out of school at an early age (10 or so) because reasons, she was a life-long and voracious reader. Like, reading is how I remember her. Often with a Penguin Classics edition of some novel or other in her hands. When she had time for herself at all, that’s how she spent it. Reading.
At some point, I heard a story that in her late 60s (or maybe later), she took a college-level English class for fun. As one does.
She’s definitely my grandmother, isn’t she?
In this class, they read Ulysses (or maybe just excerpts from Ulysses, college lit classes being what they are). And during the discussion of what is considered by many to be the hardest book in the English language to read, Mom-mom held her own among those college students—with all their fancy educations. Well, actually, the story goes that she did more than hold her own. She held court, providing significant insights into Joyce that those students didn’t have.
At this point, I don’t even know if this story is true. I am not sure it matters if it’s true because it feels true. The truth of historical memory, whether for a family or community, is quite ethereal, a potent solution of fact and fiction that solves little to nothing. Too often, we struggle to separate the historical reality of a person from the way in which they still live in our memories. In my memory.
Are my memories of my grandmother any less real even if this story turns out to not be true?
Why am I even recollecting this memory now? Just as we collect so many others throughout our lives.
Because it’s BLOOMSDAY!
or rather it was Bloomsday.
That day every year that falls on June 16th, that day when James Joyce met his beloved Nora for the first time, that day depicted in his most famous and most difficult of books:
Ulysses: like the Homeric poem the Odyssey, but set in Dublin in 1904, and with way more drinking and sex. #LitFic #Romance #Play #Fiction #EroticaJames Joyce, trying to pitch Ulysses on Twitter during PitMad, probably.
Ulysses is one book people are literally scared to read—and scarred. But mostly just scared. And yes I said literally. Not in its figurative sense, although there are those too. People will literally look at that book and run in the other direction.
They become physically revolted by its size and intimidated by its language.
Not reading Ulysses is such a personality trait for some people that McSweeney’s even parodied these readers who do not read Ulysses. #cruelysses indeed.
I once counted myself among you.
I like short books and I can not lie You other readers can't deny And when a writer walks in with an itty bitty book and a tight plot in your face, you get sprung
I came to Joyce as so many other readers do, with great trepidation and dread. I’ve actually owned the book for a while. I bought it during one of my many visits to the Rosenbach. Although I don’t think the edition I own is the one used during the class they offer every year—now virtual too!
I finally read Ulysses on audiobook. Yes, I said read on audiobook.
AUDIOBOOKS ARE REAL BOOKS!!!
And tbh, if you struggle to read long books as I do, then, I strongly, with all the strength my five-foot frame has,
encourage you to try audiobooks.
For Ulysses, the audiobook format presents certain advantages, as I outlined in my reel on the 3 reasons why you should read Ulysses on audiobook:
My experience at Bloomsday at the Rosenbach reinforced how helpful HEARING Joyce, not just READING Joyce, can be to understanding him. After all, how does this last part of the Ithaca part make any sense otherwise?
I salute those of you who have taken the hard road to reading Ulysses.
A Bloomsday blessing
May the road rise up to meet you May the wind always be at your back And may you finish reading Ulysses before we meet again
Part 19: The language of Ulysses
On Bloomsday, I attended the 18 Reasons to Read Ulysses: A Centennial Celebration tour. The curators closed the tour by asking us what we think the 19th reason should be. They had already listed so many reasons:
- The body
- Food and drink
Music (number 11) is among my favorite reasons. Joyce made many musical allusions in his text, and the music of Ulysses is beautiful.
But so too is Journeys (number 10).
It is after all in the title of this blog.
Too often, in all my moves (20+ now) and travels (do you need me to number the countries and reduce them to dots on a map?), I feel too much like Odysseus and Bloom. Floating along in some ocean (real or imagined) of people, touching land, longing for connection, only to find the stay too short and fleeting, as though fleeing some homeland that no longer feels like home, before I journey to the next port, or island, or city, or metaverse techtopian hell that not even Hades himself imagined.
25 or 6 to 4
Sittin’ cross leg on the floor, I search for my 19th reason.
And then it comes to me, so obvious, yet not on their list! Languages!
Readers of James Joyce’s Ulysses know that it is a cosmopolitan (multilingual) novel, but most do not know just how many foreign words Joyce used, altered, and inserted throughout the writing process, nor do they know the final tally in the 1922 Shakespeare & Co. edition.Krueger, Alyssa. (2021). The Map of it All: Quantitative Mapping of Foreign Language in James Joyce’s
Ulysses. CGU Theses & Dissertations, 216. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgu_etd/216.
Yes, Ulysses is a multilingual novel. Yes, it’s perhaps no surprise that American readers, notorious for their monolingualism, are turned off by a book that is decidedly not that.
Like Joyce, I have studied many languages other than English. French. Italian. Latin. Spanish. Hindi. Korean.
And secretly think sometimes that I should learn Punjabi.
To read Ulysses, it really helps and certainly does not hurt, if you have some knowledge of Latin (the Catholic Church being the church of course), French, Italian (like Joyce I lived in Italy), and maybe even a little Gaelic. Although there is not as much of that as you might expect. At last count, Joyce used 25 languages in Ulysses. It’s unfortunate that Ulysses suffers from this inaccessibility of language in a book where the writer uses language so beautifully.
Readers often complain about Joyce’s style. His free-wheeling total disregard for punctuation and other conventions in the book. But, isn’t that exactly his point? That we are confined by those conventions? That a modernist approach to language frees us from them? Allows us to push boundaries?
All I can say to that is: you can’t see punctuation in audiobooks.
Joyce’s language is confounding and frustrating and unapologetically brilliant and beautiful in equal measure. The rhythm of its lines, its cadence, the way in which it leaves me amazed—altered even.
Just read the damn book
After all, if I can read Ulysses, you can too.