why i am spending a year with james joyce

James Joyce
I read Ulysses, first time, after finishing A-Levels and waiting to find out if I'd achieved the results to take me to University to study for a degree in English Literary Studies. The Summer off: loose ends and late nights. I'd started the book out of curiosity but also as a statement of commitment to literature: if the results didn't come I was already in for the long-haul of the language arts.

It would have been easier, at the time, to make a list of other things that I hadn't read being an almighty seventeen and slim on experience that might have prepared me better for university:

The Inferno
Paradise Lost
The Canterbury Tales
King Lear
The poems of Geoffrey Hill
Bleak House
Waiting for Godot

The time spent reading Ulysses that summer might have been better plugging some holes; filling gaps: the kind of holes that are known to cause havoc in the roofing of students lodgings.

There are, in fact, two of the texts above that I've still not read; but, damn it O Kinch I was reading Ulysses and that was that. This didn't feel like ticking a title off the list: it felt like a gathering of real experience. I was standing drunk one night with my friend Potts, not far from our old school the building redundant under the firing stars who'd also been reading the book. He said, wiping the sticky residue of cider from around his mouth with the conscious drama reserved for these late-night declarations : "nothing I've ever read before feels like this, it doesn't even feel like reading". That was it : Ulysses is a book to feel with, to live inside.

Ulysses was the first book I'd read which really made me think about language in relation to reality. In Liverpool, that Summer, I felt there were all kinds of affinities between the city I was living in and Joyce's Dublin. I spent downtime from reading in pubs with friends (one of whom was about to go to study in Ireland: "sing all the right songs in all the right pubs" a teacher had advised him one night in the pub). I tried to follow the narrative of Dedalus' and Bloom's massively eventful day in Dublin (the argument that 'nothing happens in Ulysses' is nonsense: whole life cycles begin and end and emotional catastrophes take place every few pages) and couldn't unpick how the world of Dublin 16 June 1904 was any different from being inside the world of the book. And the world of that book was having a massive influence on how I was viewing the real world around me and the world of literature. Words and worlds punningly collide and replace each other in Ulysses, as I was finding out in real time.

The idea for this course came from reading The Adventures in Form anthology (Penned in the Margins) edited by Tom Chivers. For each form included in the book I could find a precedent in Joyce's masterpiece. What an experience it would be to try and get inside the book, from Joyce's position as the writer, and see what could be learned, as a poet, from his decisions and experiments.

That's why I'm spending a year teaching this course: to learn more from my favourite writer, to go a gradation deeper into the book that has influenced me more than any other. Anyone wishing to take the journey an Odyssey around the skull of the genius who wrote it is very welcome. The first term beginning on the 19th September will be a 10 week online reading course in which we'll look in some detail at what Joyce is doing, as a writer, section-by-section. The second term, starting in January, will be in class and will be based around writing new work influenced by the changing styles and forms of the book. The final term will shape student's writing towards a performance on Bloomsday 2014. Places can be booked here.

I'll be using my battered copy of the text bought in that Summer of 1995; I hope it survives the glut of attention and phrenologist-like attention to detail it's going to get over the next year. If it doesn't, the text from its foxed and fading pages has received a full assimilation into the bloodstream: a bound world shaping the parameters of a world-view. Buying a new second copy will be the best, and most grateful, tribute I can pay this wonderful book.

My copy of Ulysses


oliver dixon said…
Hoopsa boyaboy hoopsa! Great to read this, Chris, as I'm a long-term Ulysses and Joyce fanatic myself and had a similar revelatory discovery of him - and in turn all of literature - as a teenager.
I remember reading Ulysses for the first time in baffled wonder, thinking my edition must be riddled with printers' errors as it was so far removed from what I assumed a novel should be. That edition has literally fallen apart from repeated re-readings; you're absolutely right to draw out the poetry of the novel as in terms of linguistic inventiveness and phonetic richness it's unparalleled. It's also more like a book of poems in that each engagement yields new and unexpected nuances and slantings, particularly as you grow older. Last time I read the whole thing, for example, I was intrigued to find that my perspective had shifted from that of the Stephen Dedalus I had empathised with as a young, self-absorbed poet to that of the Leopold Bloom I now resemble more as a father and working-man. How's that for a 'commodious vicus of recirculation'?
Anything that gives me an incentive to return to Ulysses once again is excellent so I'm going to sign up for your course this week.

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