You may not know this – or care – but one of the things the irritates the fudge out of me is the fact that I’ve been unable to read James Joyce’s Ulysses, despite four serious attempts, a Cliff’s Notes supplement, and several guide books. I am a writer, I was an English Lit. major, I “got” Hemingway, Faulkner, Dostoyevsky. It irks me beyond belief that I have not been able to get through Ulysses. Last year I discovered Frank Delaney’s daily Ulysses podcasts, and they helped me enormously (also, I now have a crush on Frank) but the thing is, I’m a busy, all-over-the-place mom who has ADHD – if I were to have the discipline to listen to just one of those podcasts every day for the rest of my life, I don’t even think I would get to page 71.
Dare I say it? I think the book is too literary for me.
And that hurts.
I want to crack it. I want to at least read it through to the end, but I really don’t have the discipline, fortitude, and apparently, the ability to understand it. My husband-who-is-from-Ireland and who has a lovely reading voice tried for a while to read it aloud to me nightly, but we got too busy to continue that. He laughs at my desire to want to crack Ulysses, he says: “Why would a sane person try to understand it? It’s a load of bollocks written by a drunken Irishman who was just trying to take the piss out of generations of Americans! His goal was to make it totally cryptic so people, mainly Americans, would think he’s a genius! And you all fell for it!”
The thing about Irish people is they like to kick their own kind in the shins – take ‘em down a few pegs. For example, they all think Bono is a gobshite. Too big for his britches. But we all know that Bono is a God. An actual God. Right? I was in a pub in Dublin once and He was sitting up at the bar having a pint with the lead singer of the Corrs! I nearly fell on the floor in a seizure of joy: there He was, Bono! Just feet away from us! I nudged my co-workers, “There He is! It’s Him! At the bar!” I said. One or two of them looked over, they shrugged, one of them mumbled, “He’s a big fat gobber,” and they returned to their drinks. Not a single person in that pub bothered about him.
And, apparently, a lot of Irish people think Joyce was just on a drunken ranting binge when he wrote Ulysses. So in my opinion, you have to take what an Irishman-you-happened-to-be-married-to says about Joyce with a grain of salt.
So why am I boring you with a blog post about what many people consider to be the world’s most boring and pompous book ever? Well, I have several copies of it lying around (laying around? I can never get that verb right and this is probably one of the reasons I can’t understand Joyce…) and Fiona, my 11-year-old, said to me yesterday:
Fi: “You know that book you haven’t been able to finish even though you’ve tried to read it 100 times?”
Fi: “I have an idea for you.”
Me: “I’m all ears. In fact – I’m desperate.”
Fi: “Why don’t you just let yourself read it one time without having to understand any of it?”
Me: “.” (It’s brilliant! Why didn’t I think of that?)
Fi: “So why don’t you try it?”
Me: “You wouldn’t understand! Each sentence is packed with so much meaning and symbolism, I can barely get through the first paragraph without great effort. It is the most difficult book in the world.”
I grabbed the book and handed it to her. “Just read the first page.”
She read the first paragraph-and-a-bit, aloud:
Stateley, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning are. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:
- Introibo ad altare Dei.
Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called out coarsley:
- Come up, Kinch! Come up, you fearful jesuit!
Solemnly, he came forward and mounted the round gunrest. He faced about and blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding land and the awaking mountains. Then, catching sight of Stephen Dedalus, he bent towards him and made rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in his throat and shaking his head.
She stopped there.
Me: “You see what I mean? Seriously, what on Earth is that all about? Give me ONE PERSON who could understand that!”
Fi: “It’s about church, mom.”
<insert huge, comical pause here, and a BADABOOM! sound>
Holy hobknockers! The “it’s about church” part took me years to grasp, and besides, someone had to tell me – I didn’t figure it out for myself!
Me: “How. do. you. know. that? Have you been listening to Frank Delaney’s podcasts??”
Fi: “No, I figured it out myself. See, he’s wearing a yellow robe and we learned in kid’s church that yellow is the color of a priest’s robe. He’s holding things in the air like the priest does at communion in church. And there are a lot of crosses. His razor is crossed, too.”
I just – I’m as.ton.ished, either at my own dullwittedness (if there is such a word) or my 11-year-old’s insight. After just one page of Ulysses, both are pretty staggering. I’m also thinking that wow, maybe it doesn’t matter so much that as a Montessori child she doesn’t know how to spell Arkansas, thoughtful, or audio-visual - maybe this Montessori education really is all it’s cracked up to be, and she has somehow learned how to understand symbology in literature??
And maybe when I’m an old granny she’ll come visit me and read it to me and explain it, because by God, I’m going to get through it one day.