February 2, 2013
The joy of reading Joyce
Or: How I learned to drown in words
Today are the anniversaries of two important dates in Joyce-history: James Joyce‘s 121st birthday and the 91st anniversary of the publication of his most famous work, Ulysses. An important day for all lovers of Joyce – and those who don’t love him that much, who are, as it seems, legion. And I was one of them. In the beginning.
My first encounter with James Joyce happened to be when I was in my late teens. A friend of mine, a young priest, gave me his copy of Ulysses. He told me he loved it and I would, too. Now, James Joyce’s Ulysses is hardcore for an 18-year-old. And I hated this almost-1000-pages giant, printed on uncomfortably thin paper, at first sight. But I liked and respected my friend, and, what was more, I wanted him to respect me, too. So I took the challenge. I started to read the book. And I have to confess – I hated it at second sight as well! What on earth was this about – there were no sentences – there was no story, nothing was like I had been used to when reading novels. It felt as if somebody had abandoned me on a strange, hostile island. So I put the book in a far corner of my shelf. From time to time I started a weak-hearted attempt to read on, but never managed more than a few pages. But of course I wouldn’t admit that. When my friend asked me how far I had come and if I liked it – of course I smiled and told him that I loved it and it was very intriguing, that it was just a lot to read and would take me some more time. So it went on for almost a year – till my friend asked me to give his copy back – and invited me to an evening of discussing the book. How should I possibly do that, having not read it? There was only one solution – I had to read it – and I had to do it quickly.
“Does nobody understand?”
Last words of James Joyce on his deathbed, 1941
Well, everyone who ever tried to read Joyce knows there is no way to read him quickly. And I learned that, too. 1000 pages of twisted thoughts and twisted language – that is just insane. My usual coping strategies – speed reading, skimming the text or simply looking up the content in “Kindlers Literaturlexikon”, a famous German encyclopedia for literature, failed. Big time. So I sighed and began to read. But I couldn’t keep my thoughts on the text. I just couldn’t concentrate on it. My thoughts kept strolling around, playing with the words I read, going on a roller coaster trip.
And then I got it: You actually can’t read James Joyce. If you try it, with your analytical book critic’s mind, you will fail. James Joyce’s novels are not made for reading. They are made for drowning. Once I stopped analyzing what I read and began to just savour it, it suddenly began to make sense. The originality of approach to a topic, the interior monologues, allowing you to slip into another – even fictional – person’s mind and merging with them, the beauty of a strange grammar, strange new words – unfolded before my mind like a wonderful painting. A painting that you couldn’t cherish before, because you stood too close in front of it – but you see its geniality once you step back and casually let your eyes wander about it. That was when I began to love Joyce. The feeling of fascination and my admiration for his unusual writing skills deepened when I came across “Finnegans Wake”, my first Joyce-book I read in English without having read a German translation before. It is wonderful. The words sweep you from your feet. Puns, poetry, neologisms, entwined with rags of foreign languages – a challenge and a reward at the same time.
Reading Joyce is like jumping head over heels into a cool pool: At first the water is cold and makes you shiver, but give yourself a few minutes, and you will feel wonderful. Pure bliss. Sheer joy.
“There’ll be bluebells blowing in salty sepulchres the night she signs her final tear. Zee End. But that’s a world of ways away.”
(James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake)
There’s plenty of material about James Joyce and his works out there. Here are a few links to start with:
Watch a snippet of a footage showing the “real” James Joyce in Paris on Youtube:
Read or download “Ulysses” from Project Gutenberg, “Finnegans Wake” here, and read other works online from the Literature Network. Find a very different approach to “Ulysses” – through maps: “Mapping Bloomsday“. The Guardian provides some interesting original reviews of “Ulysses” from the archives. And there is even an animated cartoon version of this famous book. Listen to James Joyce’s own voice reading an excerpt of “Ulysses” here. Or watch a few passages from the film “Finnegans Wake”, along with additional links and a comment by my friend Matthias Rascher, on Open Culture’s website.
In 1922, the famous playwright and avantgardist Djuna Barnes conducted an interview with James Joyce for Vanity Fair. It can be found here.
The New Yorker published an insightful article on Joyce’s special use of language: “Silence, exile, punning”.
You can also download a free podcast about Joyce’s Dublin on ITunes Open University. Or, if you happen to come to Dublin, take “A walk around James Joyce’s Dublin” and visit all the important places of his life and novels.
And if you are still not satisfied: These sites will provide plenty of additional information and links: The Modern Word, Keep on bloomin’ and The James Joyce Society and, last but not least, a wonderful collection of high-quality-articles on James Joyce from the University of Dublin.