• A Book Club of Two: The Time I Started a James Joyce Reading Group in College

    Kristopher Jansma on the Special Magic of Reading “Ulysses”

    I’d bought my copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses at a Barnes and Noble in Manhattan in 1999, the summer before I left for college, along with a stack of other novels that I was convinced my much-smarter classmates would have already read. How I even decided which novels those were, I am still not sure, but I carried that bronze Modern Library copy of Ulysses to college in Baltimore, and then it moved with me from dorm to dorm. In three years, I never opened it once.

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    Then one summer I packed it in a steamer trunk and brought it all the way to Oxford, where I had enrolled in a summer course focused on the works of Joyce… but even then, I failed to read it.

    Over four weeks in that class, I’d enjoyed Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist and managed to keep up with our Irish professor’s lectures on secular epiphanies and Irish nationalism and unattached third person points of view—and then we turned to the mammoth, 768-page Ulysses. We attempted the opening section together, which he called “the Telemachiad,” but with each chapter I became more lost than before. Who was Buck Mulligan? Who was Kinch? What the hell were they talking about? Every line seemed like a cypher, or in some foreign language—sometimes they quite literally were.

    Our professor seemed unsurprised that we weren’t getting into it, even after he gave us a schema that explained the themes and explained that Joyce’s contemporaries had been similarly puzzled, until he’d given them this guide. We settled in with these charts that paralleled the chapters back to Homer’s Odyssey, and perused the maps with the paths of the characters throughout Dublin on the day—June 16th—now known as “Bloomsday” in honor of this wonderful novel. He brought out a big green Gifford annotation and had us read it alongside the original text so that we could see all that was wrapped up inside.

    But I couldn’t get into it. An international holiday was nice, I conceded, but what the hell is the point of a 768-page book that even the author’s closest friends needed to read with a cheat key?

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    Truly, the best way to experience Ulysses, our professor told us, was to hear it read out loud. We ought to go to Dublin next summer and hear it performed on Bloomsday, by genuine Irishmen like him—and then he treated us to a little taste.

    He was right. As he read, “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed,” the words were lifted by his lilting brogue. There was a rhythm, a music in it that I couldn’t see on the page. It had to be heard.

    What the hell is the point of a 768-page book that even the author’s closest friends needed to read with a cheat key?

    The following summer, in 2003, I did not go to Dublin, but returned to Manhattan to attend the MFA program at Columbia University. I was 21 years old and quickly discovering that most of my new classmates were much older than me, and I found it difficult to make many new friends there that first fall.

    Then, in the winter, the administrator sent out an email to all of us writers, saying that they had some extra funding available to provide food and drinks to anyone who wanted to start a club of some kind. I thought back to my Joyce class at Oxford, and I wrote back, half-kidding, to ask if they’d pay for some Guinness and Jameson whiskey if I started a James Joyce Reading Group.

    An hour later I had a signed letter granting me permission to use the department’s charge account at the Morton Williams grocery store across from the campus. They’d reserved me the biggest room on our floor in Dodge Hall and emailed the students to tell them to show up to read Ulysses out loud with me that Wednesday night.

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    A few days later, I walked into the room with my Modern Library copy and the Gifford annotation I’d picked up at Labyrinth Books that afternoon. In my bag was a six-pack of Guinness. Thank goodness I also had a big bottle of Jameson because there were nearly thirty classmates waiting for me.

    We passed around the libations and I thanked everyone for coming. Suddenly I realized they expected me to lead this thing. How many times had I read Ulysses before, someone asked?

    I explained that, oh no, I’d never even read it once. Just that I was very excited to dig in together.

    I did my best to explain how we’d go about the project, at least as far as I’d managed to think it out… We’d go around the room and each person would read two pages of Ulysses out loud. Someone else would skim along as we went through the Gifford annotation and flag anything that sounded noteworthy.

    When the two pages had been read, the other person would share the footnotes with us, and then we’d discuss a little and pass the books along to start in on the next two.

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    As you can imagine, it was slow going. But over the course of an hour, the group managed to get the old novel up and living. Together, we found the music in there again, albeit without the Irish accents.

    The following week, we’d lost about half the original crowd. A week after that we had six people.

    We talked about the symbolism of Buck Mulligan’s bowl and the crossed mirror and razor. There was ample Irish slang to decode, and hidden references to catch everywhere: allusions to Irish history, to Christian dogma, to Greek myth, to Shakespeare. The book was tying together Xenophon, Hamlet, George William Russell, the prophet Malachai, the poetry of Yeats… it was all there, woven expertly into this tapestry of language.

    At the end of the first night, we’d gotten through less than ten pages. Most people hadn’t yet gotten to read. But there was so much more ahead. We broke for the week and went home, a little tipsy, and I was happy.

    I wanted to write like this, I thought. To dedicate long years to a huge novel filled with arcane secrets, deep knowledge. Something to be studied; something to be sung.

    The following week, we’d lost about half the original crowd. A week after that we had six people. And then, by the fourth meeting, when I arrived with the booze and the books, it was just one guy waiting for me. His name was Michael.

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    Michael was a bit older than me, like everyone else, and I knew from class that he was a quiet guy, whose opinions came out rarely, but when they did, they came out with surprising passion. I liked him, a lot. And it seemed that he, alone, hadn’t given up on our project.

    Disappointed, I asked Michael if he thought we should consider postponing, probably just cancelling it altogether. It seemed like the whole thing had been a kind of embarrassing failure after all. Initially, I had not expected very many people to be interested, but they had been. And then somehow, I’d blown it.

    But Michael didn’t care. He shrugged and took a Guinness and the Gifford annotation and got ready. I opened Ulysses to where we’d left off and, just the two of us, we got to the end of the first section that night.

    And we kept on going, meeting every week that we could for an hour, and sometimes longer. At some point I think we moved to a smaller room. Occasionally my other classmates would hear we were still going and say they were eager to dive back in again—but nobody ever actually came.

    It remained a two-man reading group for the next 18 months. Michael and I filled our books with notes and scribblings and together we reached page 515 in our final meeting, about halfway through the “Circe” section.

    I drew a little mark where we stopped, after a line delivered by Leopold Bloom, who is the central character of the novel:

    Rosemary also did I understand you to say or willpower over parasitic tissues. Then nay no I have an inkling. The touch of a deadhand cures. Mnemo?

    Like a lot of the novel, I have no idea what this means. Gifford’s annotation, as often is the case, explains very little:

    • The idea that the “touch of a deadhand cures” was a common superstition at the time in Ireland for a way to get rid of warts by pressing them against a cadaver’s hand.

    • Rosemary, according to Gifford, “symbolizes remembrance in the language of herbs.”

    Who is Mnemo? What does that have to do with Rosemary? What is going on? The guide tells me that the Circe section is taking place in a brothel and represents, in a stage-play format for some reason, “a kaleidoscopic blend of real and imaginary happenings.” At 150 pages, it is the longest single section of the whole book, and probably one of the most narratively unclear.

    I can imagine many better uses of Wednesday nights than sitting around reading a book that makes very little sense, very slowly.

    Why? Why read an enormous, difficult book that refuses to make any sense? It was the same question I’d asked myself back in Oxford. I’m sure it was on the minds of my fleeing classmates, no fault to them—I can imagine many better uses of Wednesday nights than sitting around reading a book that makes very little sense, very slowly, while someone else offers footnotes that don’t generally make it much more readable.

    Why keep on reading something you aren’t really understanding?

    The James Joyce Reading Group helped me find a few answers, at least, to that question.

    Because: you can find something beautiful even when you don’t understand it. Maybe especially when you don’t.

    Because: Even when I didn’t understand Ulysses, since I’d started reading it, I’d noticed a little more music in my own writing.

    Because: Rosemary symbolizes remembrance in the language of herbs. Because there’s a language of herbs. Because I knew a hundred new little things like that at the end of each night.

    Because: During our reading sessions I scribbled down every little phrase that struck me as remarkable.

    Dr. Eustace’s Private Asylum for Demented Gentlemen
    Every Friday buries a Thursday
    Begin to be forgotten for old sake’s sake
    Inquintessential triviality
    Lancinating lightnings
    Bells with bells with bells acquiring
    the absentminded war
    the name that we are told is ours
    it was blue o’clock the morning after the night before
    the secondbest bed
    Two multiplied by two divided by half is twice one
    Love laughs at locksmiths
    They floated, fell: they faded.

    These, I copied onto the bookmarks I’d been using to keep my place in both the Ulysses and the annotation: a pair of postcards I’d bought in Oxford and never sent to anyone.

    Reading them still makes me want to immediately run to the keyboard and begin typing.

    Are they opening lines? Images? Are they titles? I’ve used one or two that way over the years.

    But really, they’re poems.

    Really, they’re reminders what any of us could do with just three or four or five words. Each one of them is worth the whole hunt, for me.

    Besides all that, the James Joyce Book Club was a way to spend some time with a friend.

    Michael and I didn’t talk about a whole lot outside of Joyce, but we didn’t really need to. Joyce gave us more than enough to talk about. Michael had a long-term boyfriend, I knew. Michael was a reader at the New Yorker, whose job was to pull through its unending slush pile looking for quality work. Of course, I asked him if he ever found any.

    He told me that he’d read a few dozen submissions a day, and in the years that he’d been doing it he’d found maybe five stories worth passing up the chain. None of those had ever been published.

    But he liked it. He was patient. He took his time with his own work and he took his time with other people’s. I’d never seen before what a truly rare thing that was—and in the many years since then I have hardly ever met another soul who could match it. It’s something I still aspire to.

    Michael came to a reading I gave, many years later, of my first novel—which was about a pair of somewhat unreliable writers, mucking about with words like these, a pair of self-serious fools. It wasn’t 768 pages long, but I liked to think it had some music in it. In one scene, a character drinks in an Irish pub in an African village beneath a framed picture of James Joyce from his “rocking the eyepatch” era—my little nod to the picture from the cover of my Modern Library edition.

    At the reading, I met Michael’s partner, at long last, and he met my wife. And we reminisced about our nights with Joyce. Neither of us had ever read past the spot where we’d stopped, way back then.

    Just 253 pages left to go, I joked. We talked about trying to pick it back up again, but life had gotten busy—I wasn’t 21 anymore. My son had just been born, and it would be a while before I’d spend Wednesday nights doing much besides changing diapers. The last time I’d had a Guinness I had to sleep an hour afterwards.

    But I keep Ulysses on the shelf in my office just beside the annotation, both postcards right where I left them, eighteen years ago now. I still look over those phrases I pulled out, when I’m craving some inspiration. It almost always lends a little. And one day, I’ll get to the rest.

    Bloom’s journey through Dublin took him all of a day, but Odysseus was sailing around for twenty years, I reason.

    Penelope waits.

    They don’t call it a timeless work for nothing.

    Kristopher Jansma
    Kristopher Jansma
    Kristopher Jansma is the author of the forthcoming novel Our Narrow Hiding Places (Ecco, 8/13) as well as the nonfiction book Revisionaries: What We Can Learn from the Lost, Unfinished, and Just Plain Bad Work of Great Writers  (Quirk Books, 10/15). His previous novels are Why We Came to the City and The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. He is the winner of the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award and a Pushcart Prize, as well as the recipient of an honorable mention for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Kristopher is an associate professor of English and the director of the creative writing program at SUNY New Paltz.

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