First time is always hard. Always. Whenever Joyce fans meet they invariably get around to discussing how they made it through the book that first time. We try to get a few of these stories in every Bloomsday, I’m sorry to get this one out to you so late on a very busy June 16th, but Bloomsday has become a very worldwide event this year and, even here in Philadelphia, we’re running on Dublin time. This is from Rob Maher, a new friend to ULYSSES “SEEN”, and can be found in full on his blog “The Eponymist”.
Like most things in life, I came to ‘Ulysses’ late. I was twenty five, in the second year of an astrophysics degree (I’d also come to university late), but having serious doubts about what I was doing. Astronomy was something I’d had a passion for since I was young. I’d spectacularly failed to apply myself at school, but having done a foundation year in physics and maths at night school, working my backside off in the process, I talked my way onto my preferred course at Cardiff University. Once I got there, I didn’t really a have a clue about what to do next.
So, after an indifferent first semester, in which I just scraped through exams, I did even less work during the second and flunked almost every subject. Taking re-sits over the summer, I did a single night’s revision for most subjects, managing to pass everything but the Theoretical Physics module and had to wait a year before I could sit the exam for a third time. I shouldn’t have gone back, but once I did, you’d have thought I’d have learned my lesson and applied myself. But no. I was spectacularly failing all over again. And these were the conditions under which I first read ‘Ulysses’.
It took three weeks that first time. I should have been studying Schrodinger’s wave equations and logic circuits, but instead I was playing ‘Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time’ on the N64 and reading ‘Ulysses’. My reward for finishing a dungeon on Zelda was that I got to read a chapter of ‘Ulysses’. An odd way ‘round to do things, I know. I probably didn’t understand one fifth of what I was reading (I missed the Blazes Boylan subplot entirely), but I knew that what I was reading was a revelation. Countless times people had told me that such-and-such a novel or play was a masterpiece and I had read them and always felt let down. It wasn’t that they weren’t great works, but appreciation is a matter of expectation and if you expect genius and find merely brilliance, there’s an sense of underwhelming disappointment. ‘Ulysses’ was the first book I read that exceeded those expectations.
In many ways, it is an experience from which I have yet to truly recover. I dropped out of university soon after. Astronomy may have been my first love, but another obsession had been creeping up on me those last few years. What I really wanted was to be a writer. It was something for which I seemed to have a talent. I think I thought it would make a good career. I’d had no artistic pretentions, the life of a hack would suit me just fine.
Reading ‘Ulysses’, all I could think was, “You mean you’re allowed to do this? Why did no one tell me?” My literary third eye had, to paraphrase Bill Hicks, been squeegeed clean. A whole new world had opened as to what literature could achieve. You weren’t limited to telling a story at the surface level, the syntax and associations of the words you chose to employ could tell another story entirely.
I worked for a year, then went backpacking around Europe (another late first), taking ‘Ulysses’ with me and reading it again. I read Joyce’s other masterpieces. When Jim Norton’s unabridged reading of ‘Ulysses’ was released, I listened to that and got a handle on the few chapters that were still troubling me. And all the time I was teaching myself the skills that I thought would make me a better writer. I knew that I would never be as good as Joyce, but that was fine. Joyce was (and is) my high water mark. Joyce is an unscalable peak, always ahead of me, reminding me to never stop climbing.
It is therefore no coincidence that in making one of my first attempts to write a short story, I turned to both Joyce and Greek legend for inspiration. In ‘Eden Stir Her Laceless Veil’, I borrowed Joyce’s switching between the passive and active voice in ‘Eveline’ (from ‘Dubliners’) and appropriated the myths relating to Jason and Medea, performing the same Viconian transformation that Joyce had made on the legend of Odysseus when writing ‘Ulysses’.
Giambattista Vico was a 17th/18th century Italian political philosopher who theorised that all of human history moves through three cycles, The Age of Gods, The Age of Heroes and The Age of Man, before the Ricorso, the time of chaos before everything resets itself and begins the whole cycle again. In ‘Ulysses’, Joyce transforms Odysseus into Leopold Bloom. Whereas Homer’s hero is a brutal hothead, Joyce’s ‘Poldy’ is a thoughtful pacifist. God’s and nymphs are replaced by the ordinary men and women of Dublin and great signifiers of power and virility become objects of the commonplace.
In writing ‘Eden Stir Her Laceless Veil’, I studied the legends connected to Jason and Medea in great detail and sought mundane modern equivalents to their key events. Ultimately, I don’t want to write like Joyce. As brilliant as he is, his later works are so opaque and obscure that they put most people off. Few people read the classics as it is and I’d rather find a happy medium between art and popularism. I want to be read. That said, I wanted to write a short piece where virtually every word had meaning: where, like Joyce, no other word would do than the one I had chosen. For a first effort, it’s not bad, although I’ve written better since (you can read it here: http://bit.ly/mk2Ypz along with some companion pieces).
‘Ulysses’ remains not only my favourite novel, but my favourite work of art, period. With each successive reading, I discover subplots that I hadn’t noticed before and new nuances to the text. It is the book that just keeps on giving. ‘Ulysses’ had a profound effect upon me on that first reading and I am still reeling from the effects over a decade later. I may spend the rest of my life as an enthusiastic amateur, eeking out a living from writing reports, but it’s a life affirming path with some breathtaking views. And there’s always the next reading of ‘Ulysses’ to look forward to. I envy anyone reading Joyce for the first time.
Thanks, Rob! He also has some very nice things to say about the comic. I’m too shy to record them here, but too flattered (and wise enough in self-promotion) not to send you again to the link.