|Reading Ulysses is like plunging from a cliff into deep water|
I have not read War and Peace. Nor Crime and Punishment. I failed to finish both Midnight’s Children and A Suitable Boy. My Proust box-set of A La Recherche... is still pristine, waiting until I am old enough to enjoy it rather than lose patience with the protagonist halfway through book one.
So it might seem odd that I am spending considerable time this year poring over James Joyce’s Ulysses for the second time in my life. I’m sure I only finished it the first time thanks to circumstances.
Ten years ago, in Zipolite on the West coast of Mexico, I stood in the traveller’s book swap stall surrounded by discarded Grishams and ranked copies of The Alchemist, my hear sinking. I was an even worse literary snob then than I am now. I had tried both Grisham and Coelho and found them even harder to digest than the endless cheese quesadillas I was shovelling down my throat. The only ‘proper’ book I could see on the tipsy shelves was Ulysses, so I snapped it up.
I lugged it like a weighty prize all the way to a finca in Guatemala, where, struck down by a kind of intense lethargy (probably brought on by an excess of melted cheese) I lay in a hammock for a week, surrounded by dying fireflies that flickered on the ground around me like Christmas tree lights in a thunderstorm. While my brother traipsed off to leap through pitch black cave networks and poke at tarantulas with sticks, I turned pages, not stopping to check notes, letting the whole cacophony of Ulysses wash over me. By the end of each day I felt barely capable of coherent conversation, my head filled with the beautiful and often incomprehensible voices of that other world as I shuffled pieces around backgammon boards with my companions.
We devised more and more complex versions of backgammon, to keep ourselves interested, as Joyce seemed to devise more and more mischievous ways to melt my brain. I left that finca with only vague impressions of my surroundings (there was definitely an enormous cage full of monkeys, another of macaws, what else?), and an even vaguer one of what exactly happened to Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom on 16th June 1904.
It’s a bit different this time. I read and re-read, check for references I did not even know were there, read up on the responses to the novel of TS Eliot, Woolf, Pound. Then along with a group of equally nervous readers, I stand sticky-handed at a microphone and try to say something useful about Ulysses. We’re going to do this every month, producing podcasts to chivvy along other reluctant readers of Joyce’s literary challenge. When the first podcast gets out there I will have a quick cringe at the sound of my voice and then tell you more.
The plan at www.bigreads.co.uk is to tackle an intimidating novel a year, so by 2015 I might be able to look someone in the eye when they ask me, “You know that bit in War and Peace when…?” If you too harbour guilty gaps in your reading history, take a look.