Saturday, March 23, 2013

No. 439 – The Sensual World

Performer: Kate Bush
Songwriter: Kate Bush
Original Release: The Sensual World
Year: 1989
Definitive Version: none

When the 1900s wound down, everyone put out lists of one type or another, not just me. One was the top novels of the 20th Century by Modern Library. As an English major, I took notice. Its No. 1 novel was Ulysses by James Joyce.

At Wabash, Matt read Ulysses, at least part of it, for one of his English classes our senior year. I never encountered it. When it was named the No. 1 novel of the 20th Century, I decided that I would make Ulysses the last book I read in the 20th Century. I found a hard-bound copy at Half-Price Books but then later bought a softcover version that touted that it had the correct and reset text, which was done in 1961.

To be honest, I’d had no experience with Joyce other than I had heard of him. I’m sure I read something—a short story most likely—at Wabash, but it didn’t stick with me. I knew nothing of the controversy that surrounded Ulysses. I certainly had no idea what a slog it would be.

I started reading it in November 1999, and it didn’t take me long to realize that if I were to finish it by the end of the year, I had my work cut out for me. If you’re familiar with Ulysses, you know what I’m talking about. If not, I can understand a mindset like Laurie’s. Twice she has started it and twice she hasn’t finished it—stopping at about the same place each time.

Well, I wasn’t about to be denied, so I plowed through it, often spending entire days before work in the papasan in the guest room of my house reading—often without comprehension as to what the heck was going on. I wished I were back at Wabash. Having a classroom discussion of what I was reading would have been helpful. In time, I came to conclude that—more than anything—Ulysses is a novel about the English language.

It wasn’t all bad. The first two chapters were interesting and somewhat easy to read. Later, there’s a genius chapter where Joyce whipsaws through a portrait of about three dozen characters. It has no connection until the very end when the Earl of Dudley rides through town past everyone Joyce had just mentioned. But most of the middle part of the book is brutally dense and obtuse.

A turning point was, for those of you who know, the scene of Bloom at the beach with Gerty MacDowell. It was in that chapter when I realized I wasn’t meant to read the book for plot but for thought. Ulysses is said to be stream-of-consciousness, and that seems to apply to the characters, too. OK, I get it now.

Good thing, too, because I was into December with only a few weeks to go. The next few chapters were back to the slog—very slow reading—but I was getting it more, or at least I wasn’t letting it bother me as much as it had.

Then all of a sudden the absinthe or whatever the heck Joyce was on when he wrote Ulysses kicked in. The narrative turns into a surreal 200-page drama, followed by a chapter written entirely in question-and-answer form. All of a sudden, it was very entertaining and not at all a slog.

Then I reached the final chapter, the Molly chapter, the chapter that Kate Bush obviously cribbed when she wrote this song. All I can say is if you ever decide to read Ulysses, do what you have to to make it to the end. It’s a reward for slogging through the previous 740 pages, and when I read the final line, I closed the book Dec. 21 with my goal accomplished and a smile on my face the same way as when I finished 1984: Woah, that was perfect.

Interestingly, Ulysses of all things ended up being discussion material with a female on first … well, not really a date but first meeting and hanging out. The first time was in Las Vegas in 2001 (story to come); the second time was in Los Angeles in 2004 (story also to come). The way I saw it, if a woman was able and willing to talk about Ulysses, that wasn’t a bad thing.

I started reading it again awhile ago. When we first began to date, Laurie and I would read books together apart—me in Columbus and her in Chicago. I thought this would help me to read more but also stoke the conversation flames. We did this until 2007, and Ulysses was the breaking point.

Labor Day 2007 at Ludington was when we started Ulysses, but Laurie soon got involved with a play and gave up. It was too much for her. I kept going … slowly. Ulysses isn’t as much fun to read alone. In fact, it’s better appreciated if read aloud to capture the language—particularly that final chapter. I’ve been reading in small chunks and mostly typically only at Ludington. It’s become my thing to do when we go to the beach there.

I don’t plan to make Ulysses the final book I read before I turn 50—I’m leaving that one for my third and final attempt at Moby Dick—so I need to wrap it up, and this coming Labor Day might be the time. I’ve reached the midpoint of the drama chapter, so it’s fairly easy going from here on out, although it’s 260 more pages. I will finish yes I will Yes.

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