I’m pretty sure I was a jerk in college. I leaned a lot on the modernists, though I only read them for class. This year I decided to try their books again to see if my critical apparatus has shifted. Not that I’m not a jerk now. I just try to be more subtle about it and not say things like critical apparatus.
I started with Ulysses, which had been my “favorite book” for almost a decade. It might actually be best served by a classroom’s steady rhythm. The individuality of each chapter inhibits flow and memory either way. But without the contextual academic drive, I had the space to learn that Ulysses is really funny.
I first tried to read Ulysses when I was 18, in Turkey, and trying to get over a crush. I remember working through the first two chapters with pride. I read it on the beach while my shirtless friend jet-skied with a girl who wasn’t his girlfriend, and then on a long bus ride from Bodrum to Istanbul, in the course of which I ate a strange, soporific yogurt that knocked me out halfway through “Proteus.” When I woke up I surrendered and read like 15 John Grishams instead, shedding them across two continents as I went.
In college I claimed to like Dedalus’s chapters best, but this time I felt relieved whenever Bloom appeared.
I was dumped during my senior year oral exams, and, through what I assume was a blood-brain barrier mix-up, got bronchitis. In my modernism final, I ranted that Bloom’s disastrous throwaway floats with authentic speed through Dublin. I spoke with authority, though I know nothing of the city’s municipal water system. The examiner nodded excitedly.
I’ve had to buy three copies of the Random House edition. You know the one: the big U, the shitty binding. I was in office hours with my professor once and the spine ruptured. Two hundred pages fell all over his office floor. I was horrified. He laughed and flipped over his identical copy. Every page came pouring out.
When I was in college, I was too self-important to use a reading guide. This time Blamires’s New Bloomsday Book saved me. I wish I could tell my younger self that ignorance of the nuances of Ireland’s 19th-century political symbolism is not a sign of weakness.
For Bloomsday this year, I posted an excerpt from the horrifying restaurant scene in “Lestrygonians” on Facebook, a passage I think of every time I see a bearded man eating chips. As of press time, it has received 15 likes, though one is from my mother.
A few months ago, a conference for lit PhDs came to New York and I went out with some soon-to-be professors. They ordered a lot of wine—modernists love red wine—and eventually one of them started talking about the ratio of vowel usage in Ulysses, the subject of his dissertation. In college, I would have been impressed. Now, I can’t quite imagine Joyce planning that out. What I was most interested in was the evidence of rewriting—there are so many beautifully rounded subplots that could only have come in a later draft. Incidentally, none of the future teachers had heard of Lorrie Moore, George Saunders, or Alice Munro.
After Joyce, I read Proust, which made me feel awkward in public, so I deflected by pronouncing him Prowst. Prowst’s is a fantastic document of such pronounced mental illness that I’m retroactively concerned by my college self’s identification with it. More recently, I read Mrs. Dalloway. It’s the best.
What I loved most about Ulysses this time was the sound of it. I read out loud in bed. My roommate’s name is Kevin. Kevin was probably disturbed.
My novel was going to be patterned on Ulysses. Everyone talked me out of it for all sorts of fine reasons, but there are still little allusionary ghosts. Like in that “Lestrygonians” scene I posted on FB, Bloom thinks, “men, all men.” That line is in my book too, in a gay bar—I had no idea.
My college thesis was on the “Nausicaa” chapter. I reread it for this piece, which was a grave error. Never reread your old academic essays. I used the word ebullient twice.
This time through, I even read “Oxen of the Sun,” which we skipped in college. The chapter fueled my concern that Ulysses might be all bait and no hook, that Joyce was trying to provoke criticism. Maybe he was aware that there is a longstanding gap between best-sellerdom and high canon, that immortality comes courtesy of a drunk graduate student bringing up your vowel usage ratios and no one calling him out on it. Mainly, I thought “Oxen of the Sun” was bad. It’s the one chapter I didn’t like.
Ed: You don’t feel like writing a reflection on Ulysses’s role in your reading life, do you? Like in the framework of what you mentioned that some of the harder books you always thought of yourself as loving, you find on revisiting aren’t actually so great, and that perhaps some of that was posturing, but not so with Ulysses?
Adam: I might do 18 quick thoughts on it that vaguely correspond to the chapters in the book.
Adam: Would that be terrible?
Throughout my reading, there was a sense of homecoming—past affection lurking in my subconscious. But this time, reading Ulysses
from the perspective of a fellow human was a huge improvement. There’s an urge in academia to ascribe higher motives to works of art. That’s what’s so weird about being a pretentious student—what you really are doing is elevating other people way above you.
My favorite chapter of the book? Still “Ithaca.” My favorite line? “The futility of triumph or protest or vindication: the inanity of extolled virtue: the lethargy of nescient matter: the apathy of the stars.” And, after all of this, is Ulysses still my favorite book?
You know how this one goes.