Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Myriads of tiny bullets

We're reading Ulysses!

By "we" I mean myself, my husband L., my daughter R., my friend W., and anyone else we can convince to join us. Right now we're taking it at a 25-page per week pace, which means we've just finished reading the Telemachus.

Anyone interested in reading along with us?

I doubt I blog very often about this on-going project--although I most definitely will if we fail--but I did want to mark the occasion of our beginning. And I thought I would mark it with Virginia Woolf's reactions--I've been reading Woolf lately--as a way of giving myself courage when the going gets rough.


Aug. 16, 1922
I should be reading Ulysses, and fabricating my case for and against. I have read 200 pages so far--not a third; and have been amused, stimulated, charmed, interested, by the first 2 or 3 chapters--to the end of the cemetery scene; and then puzzled, bored, irritated and disillusioned by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples. And Tom, great Tom, thinks this on a par with War and Peace! An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me; the book of a self taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating. When one can have the cooked flesh, why have the raw? But I think if you are anaemic, as Tom is, there is a glory in blood. Being fairly normal myself I am soon ready for the classics again. I may revise this later. I do not compromise my critical sagacity. I plant a stick in the ground to mark page 200.

Sept. 6, 1922
I finished Ulysses and think it a mis-fire. Genius it has, I think; but of the inferior water. The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense. A first rate writer, I mean, respects writing too much to be tricky; startling; doing stunts. I'm reminded all the time of some callow board school boy, full of wits and powers, but so self-conscious and egotistical that he loses his head, becomes extravagant, mannered, uproarious, ill at ease, makes kindly people feel sorry for him and stern ones merely annoyed; and one hopes he'll grow out of it; but as Joyce is 40 this scarcely seems likely. I have not read it carefully; and only once; and it is very obscure; so no doubt I have scamped the virtue of it more than is fair. I feel that myriads of tiny bullets pepper one and spatter one; but one does not get one deadly wound straight in the face--as from Tolstoy, for instance; but it is entirely absurd to compare him with Tolstoy.

Sept 7, 1922
Having written this, L. put into my hands a very intelligent review of Ulysses, in the American Nation; which, for the first time, analyses the meaning; and certainly makes it very much more impressive than I judged. Still I think there is virtue and some lasting truth in first impressions; so I don't cancel mine. I must read some of the chapters again. Probably the final beauty of writing is never felt by contemporaries; but they ought, I think, to be bowled over; and this I was not. Then again, I had my back up on purpose; then again I was over stimulated by Tom's praises.

Sept. 26, 1922
. . . . There was a good deal of talk about Ulysses. Tom said, "He is a purely literary writer. He is founded upon Walter Pater with a dash of Newman." I said he was virile--a he-goat; but didn't expect Tom to agree. Tom did though; and said he left out many things that were important. The book would be a landmark, because it destroyed the whole of the nineteenth century. It left Joyce himself with nothing to write another book on. It showed up the futility of the English styles. He thought some of the writing beautiful. But there was no "great conception"; that was not Joyce's intention. He thought that Joyce did completely what he meant to do. But he did not think that he gave a new insight into human nature--said nothing new like Tolstoy. Bloom told one nothing. Indeed, he said, this new method of giving the psychology proves to my mind that it doesn't work. It doesn't tell as much as some casual glance from outside often tells. I said I had found Pendennis more illuminating in this way. (The horses are now cropping near my window; the little owl calling, and so I write nonsense.). . . .

--Virginia Woolf, A Writer's Diary


  1. This is a challenge I have yet to take on. I'm a bit scared of it really but I know I shouldn't be. I look forward to your postings on the novel!

  2. Anonymous9:57 PM

    Ouch! She didn't hold any punches, did she?

    I might join you, as I was planning on reading this for another read-along that didn't happen. So I have a copy just sitting here.

  3. Join us, please! I attempted it once before and quit after three chapters. I don't feel as intimidated this time around; I'm going to have no qualms about relying on study guides and annotations when I need 'em and no worries about missing references if I find I'm caught up in the flow of the story and don't want to bother with all of that.

    And 25 pages a week leaves you with plenty of time to read other books as well. :)

  4. I wish I could join you but alas, it is not to be. When I am done with library school this is on my list of big books to tackle.

  5. I read this one in college with the help of a guide that compared each chapter to the corresponding episode in The Odyssey. Ultimately, I enjoyed it. But I don't want to read it again.

  6. Anonymous6:09 PM

    I have finally reached a point of really enjoying Ulysses, but only after my second-and-a-half reading-and-listening. On my first reading, I must admit, I was more in agreement with Woolf. It VERY much rewards re-reading, though, like Woolf's novels.

    I don't know if I ever plan to tackle Finnegan's Wake.

  7. Is "Tom" T.S. Eliot?

  8. Ha after finally tackling Woolf this year I think my classics bravery is exhausted (although that turned out very well). Good luck!

  9. Not ready to revisit Joyce, but delving into Woolf's notebooks...

    Maybe it's time for that.

  10. Anonymous6:14 AM

    Have read it thrice--twice with annotations, the final time without even looking at them--and have to say, this is one for re-reading, not first readings! Good luck! Don't let agenbite of inwit get to you if you skip a reference or two but do not hesitate to open Gifford eleventy million times per chapter.


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