My relationship with James Joyce has never been simple. I tried to read Ulysses in high school, knowing (though not really why; I don’t remember anyone ever actually introducing me to the book) that it was something great, something that as a lover of books I would have to come to terms with eventually. I found a much-abused copy at my local literacy centre, where they had a shelf of books that you could either use as a lending library, or just buy outright. I bought Ulysses, and that night sat down to read about stately, plump Buck Mulligan.
Ulysses kicked my ass. I don’t think I made it more than ten pages in on that first attempt, nor on the five or six others I made in the two years before leaving for university (it was not one of the volumes to make the trek to Waterloo). In my first year I read Dubliners as part of a survey class, and I hated it. In fact, I hated all the Modernists at first, and had the hubris (me? hubris? noooooo.) to suggest that maybe it was a just a bad book, and wasn’t really worth my time. It shocks me a little to think that I held such an opinion, and held it so earnestly, especially since a) as a writer I believe that innovation and artistic achievement only happen in the crucible created by a strong tradition, and b) by the end of my university career I came to revere the Modernists as some of the finest artists to ever put pen to paper. (I re-read Dubliners in grad school, and loved it, leading me to believe that I just wasn’t ready for it the first time around.)
I took another shot at Ulysses in my fourth year as an undergrad as part of a Modern British Literature course taught by Danine Farquharson, who is now part of the faculty at Memorial. We used the annotated student edition (pictured above), and took the book one chapter at a time. It was one of the most remarkable experiences I’ve had with a book, and ties with my year-and-a-half-long study of A.S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale for best academic experience with a book. Danine’s approach to Ulysses was open and expansive and full of humour (much like the novel itself), and I think the class owes her a great debt for showing us just how accessible Joyce’s doorstop really is, and letting us know we didn’t have to be intimidated by it.
After dropping out of grad school I finally went back and read A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man and found it a dour, sickly thing, mostly valuable as a stepping stone between Joyce’s two great spurts of genius, though I suppose it also gave us Stephen Dedalus.
I lost my much-loved copy of Ulysses when my apartment flooded, almost three years ago to the day, alongside nearly a thousand dollars worth of other property, mostly books. Ulysses was the first thing I replaced, and there it sits, waiting.