When I started reading Ulysses, I didn’t think it was going to be such a big deal. I devour books like popcorn, sometimes reading several at the same time, sometimes skimming, sometimes outlining, sometimes (usually) deeply immersed in the narrative to the point of blocking out my immediate surroundings. But Ulysses defies all of my reading habits.
Reading the first page alone while waiting for my car that was in the shop, I ran into all sorts of confusing words and phrases and started writing them down, intending to google them later when I got home. Ungirdled? Introibo ad altare Dei? Equine in its length? (like a horse?) Body and soul and blood and ouns? Chrysostomos? (I think the latter are white or transparent gemstones–wasn’t it one of the nine stones in the ephod?)
My literary Spirit Guide, Uncle Noetica, who loves playing with Ulysses themes, recommended sending off for Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated. But I just happened to be near a used bookstore last weekend, which enabled me to leaf through some other Joyce writings and some commentaries too. Yes, I am one of those people who will shamelessly stand in a bookstore and read a book right there–and no one has ever tried to stop me. If I can do that, the book isn’t worth buying. I had already determined that I was not going to be able to look up every single thing and still read Ulysses with any kind of flow, and the first reading should be just to read it straight through and get what I could out of it. But some of the commentaries made the same observation, which made me feel better about what I was doing. Then they recommended Hamlet, as had Noetica, and also A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, with special attention to the Stephen Dedalus character. Rummaging through the shelves I found Joyce’s Stephen Hero, a collection of notes that had been used to write Portrait. It seemed written in a more accessible style and is somewhat autobiographical. So my haul from Powell’s Bookstore was the 1988 edition of the Gifford commentary, Stephen Hero, and Ancient Sisterhood, which I couldn’t resist and I hope will explain something about the biblical Sarah, who is recognized in some circles as some sort of priestess.
So here is my pilgrim’s progress to date:
Ulysses: 30 pages
Gifford: on hand
Stephen Hero: 34 pages and quite engrossed in the narrative so far
Hamlet: an unannotated copy is in a box here somewhere
I have already come across a number of interesting things in Stephen Hero that may help with Ulysses (or not) , but that is for another time.