Some Notes Are Better Than Others: Reading Ulysses

In my ongoing attempt to be as pretentious as possible at work I last week began listening to Jim Norton & Marcella Riordan’s reading of Ulysses. Theirs is the only audiobook of the novel I’ve ever heard, and I’ve liked it well enough thus far that theirs may be the associated recorded voices I have for all his books. That’s the way it goes for me and audiobooks. I listen to them very rarely, but if I do, as was the case with William Gass’ The Tunnel and any number of old Bill Bryson books, the voice I heard, coincidentally in those cases it was that of the author reading but that needn’t be the case, becomes authoritative. That is to say, it becomes unthinkable to associate more than one audiobook reader per author, no matter how many of their works have been recorded. It would be like reading a book on my own and not hearing my own voice inside my head. Do other people, I wonder, construct and then “hear” character’s voices? If so, do they do the same for poetry? For, philosophy? Oh shit . . . for theology?!

At any rate, the Norton & Riordan version has been very good. I’ve enjoyed it greatly, and not simply because it gets me through the long afternoon slog of a job not-done. The different voices & brogues trotted out by Norton are especially helpful, what for Joyce’s notorious character shifts. I’m told that somebody does something similar with William Gaddis’ JR. If done well this could prove to be a boon for a good many reader.

I’d not so much as picked up Ulysses since 2002. This was the wonderful summer where I believed my doctoral studies would no longer be funded. I could return my books and set aside my notes. A friend of mine had left Scotland for the summer and had given me the use of his studio. Days on end, ten twelve hours at a time, reading whatever I wanted. Ulysses, Under the Volcano, Gravity’s Rainbow, A Frolic of his Own, a massive collection of Yeats. I plowed through a lot of the heavyhitters that summer & autumn. The literature courses when I was an undergrad had no great regard for modernity, I have to say, so I was intent on making up for it the way I always have: the self-indulgent, probably woefully inadequate way of the autodidact. I’ve retold this countless times here, I’m sure, but it was a fine time. A great time, even. The best of my young life, I dare say. So, yes, nearly ten years later, it was time to return to Ulysses.

I’m very glad that I did. I know it is easy to get pissy and/or overly obsessed with the over-abundance of allusions in the novel. In fact, in preparation for the reading, even I tracked down a copy of Don Gifford’s massive Ulysses Annotated (nearly as big as my edition of the novel, this). I have made some use of it, to be sure–esp. with the Irish history bits, which I know nothing at all of, save for a mashed bit about potatoes and independence, as well as with the random lines of Italian–but it is very easy to see a reference work such as this doing more harm than it does good in the hands of some. My rule-of-thumb is this: when it doubt about whether an allusion is worth tracking down, look at who says it. If it is Stephen, in all likelihood you can probably skip it. An exception: if you suspect the allusion is to Blake, as is sometimes the case, and reading Blake is always its own reward. Beyond that, you really flirt very closely with becoming bogged down and frustrated by the details along the way. If you get the allusions, applaud yourself and move on; if you don’t, make a mental note if it seems interesting. In any event, most of the time, move on. Again, this is especially the case with Stephen: appreciate the wording and his ideas, such as they are, but more importantly recognize that Stephen spends most of the novel showing off–he’s trying to fool you, others, himself–and that for the most part not even the people he is talking to in the novel–including himself–understand him. Don’t fall for it!

By far my favorite parts of Ulysses remain the flurry of adjectives Joyce creates out of thin air & harnesses in delightful ways that do not require a reference book for one to understand. Turning to a random page just now I find “softcreakfooted” and “baldpink”; or a few pageturns later, “Head, redconecapped, buffeted, brineblinded.” Some of these adjectives are no doubt allusive to some degree, but I’m not at all convinced getting worked up about pinpointing them actually adds that much to their overall effect. (Take, for instance, Joyce’s use of the phrase “ringroundabout him.” Pretty plain what that means, no? Does one even need context? If you’re unsure, Gifford jumps to your aid by adding,  “Echoes the nursery rhyme: “Ring-a-round-a-roses, / a pocket full of poses / etc. etc. etc.” Yes, quite. Thanks.)

Having said that, I recognize that I can be a peculiar reader, inasmuch as for me, a poor Kantian on even my best days, there are no conceptual limits around “understanding.” Where there are limits they are mostly contextually and/or conversationally derived–why are you reading, for/with whom, etc.? There is a level of understanding, though, no deeper or higher than Giffords, indeed I’m fine being told it is deficient, that believes you understand Ulysses quite fine if you find yourself supping at its feast of sight & sound, and occasionally even smell & taste. (Arguably, Molly’s famous climactic soliloquy embodies all four senses at once, and caps them off with touch.)

Okay . . . Back to the Sirens.

4 thoughts on “Some Notes Are Better Than Others: Reading Ulysses

  1. True pretension would be now to listen to Donal Donnelly and Miriam Healy-Louie version and write a long comparison of the two.

  2. Well, apparently Donnelly’s reading is authorized by Joyce estate. Did you ever try Finnegan’s Wake as an audiobook? I think Norton/Riordan is the only version. I have it but every time I attempted it, I failed miserably. Perhaps a listen with a book in a confined space (like a plane or a car) would do the trick? No escape…

    Have you ever come across this version?

  3. Oh, the Joyce estate always looking for a dime & dollar whenever they can.

    I’d not seen the RTE version. I may hunt it down at some point.

    I have the FW audiobook, but I’ve not yet listened. I suspect I might also fail. It might be fun, I suppose, to read it while listening.

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