It All Comes Back to Me
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve started and stopped Ulysses a number of times. The first was maybe a decade ago, when I checked it out from the library, read a few pages, and decided it wasn’t for me. Several years ago, I decided to buy my own copy of the book, and I’ve tried to start a couple of times since. I think I once got maybe 100 pages in before deciding it wasn’t for me. The experience is similar to my experience with Gravity’s Rainbow, another one I started who knows how many times before finishing. I think I once got some 300 pages into that one before being distracted by a shiny object and putting it down. I did finish GR at last a few years ago, and I was left feeling like it was a great book but not so terribly enjoyable a book on the whole. It was a bit like taking medicine.
Having started (and restarted, and restarted) Ulysses again, I begin to feel history repeating itself. I’ve read the first ten pages three or four times in the last few days. I’ve gotten only so far partially because it’s a busy time for me and I can’t ever seem to find more than a few minutes to read. And even then, I’m reading a page (or a part of a page) at a time before being interrupted. So I can’t place all blame on the text for my slow start so far.
But I think I am going to blame the text some. Or I am going to blame Modernism, which I now remember, not having read much from that camp in the last decade, I fucking hate. Before it occurred to me to affix that dread label to Ulysses this morning, I found myself trying to enumerate the reasons I was having difficulty slipping into the book. The best I could come up with was that it is obnoxiously allusive and meandering. Some meandering I’m ok with. I suppose I like meandering that is entertaining. But in the opening of Ulysses, I find little so far that entertains (or engages) me. There are words I don’t know and references that apparently even the scholars can’t agree upon the referents for. There are still others that I simply can’t make sense of (a gardener masked with Matthew Arnold’s face?). There are phrases in at least two foreign languages I don’t understand. And there’s stagnation. So far, a fop and a wet blanket are standing on a tower shaving and talking briefly but ornately about things as varied as death and money and clothes and dreams. There’s nothing so far to really hold my interest. I’m not dazzled by the prose, and I’m actually a bit put off by the allusiveness and meandering.
These seem to be the hallmarks of Modernism, at least as I understand it. Take “The Wasteland.” Take Pound. (Please!) One of the problems I have with this sort of literature is that it often seems like a big in-joke. Modernists seem to be intentionally obscure and to wink at and nudge one another about their smartness. It’s not an inviting sort of literature. It makes me feel not only like I’m not one of the cool kids but also like I’m not even one of the smart kids.
I don’t expect (or want) a book to be easy. Most of the books I read, I read because they have reputations as hard, worthwhile books. I enjoy working to grok a book. Sometimes, I even enjoy working hard to grok how to grok a book (I’m thinking in particular of Gaddis’s JR). But boy am I worried about my ability to hang on for this one. I will. I will, even if I just stare at every word on every page without really getting what Joyce is saying. But if the opening — which I must have read a dozen times in my life by now — is any indication, this is going to be a slog and a half.