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Give Ulysses a go — it’s well worth the effort, even if you make a few false starts like I did

Jim O'Brien


To anyone thinking of taking on Joyce’s challenging masterpiece, I would say two things: hold tough, and help is available.

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A literary treat: Allow the richness of James Joyce’s language to draw you in

A literary treat: Allow the richness of James Joyce’s language to draw you in

Actor Helen Gregg presents a synopsis of Ulysses with the aid of a pop-up book in the Branar Theatre video, 'You'll-See'.

Actor Helen Gregg presents a synopsis of Ulysses with the aid of a pop-up book in the Branar Theatre video, 'You'll-See'.

Actor Helen Gregg presents a synopsis of Ulysses with the aid of a pop-up book in the Branar Theatre video, 'You'll-See'.

Actor Helen Gregg presents a synopsis of Ulysses with the aid of a pop-up book in the Branar Theatre video, 'You'll-See'.

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A literary treat: Allow the richness of James Joyce’s language to draw you in

When writing Ulysses it surely didn’t strike James Joyce that reading his defining tome would one day become an item on people’s bucket list.

It is up there with climbing Everest, walking the Camino and sailing single-handed around the globe.

I am on my third and, hopefully, final effort. My first attempt was made a few years ago when I decided the only way to approach the mammoth task was to do it at one sitting.

It was the only book I took with me on holidays, but I failed to make any headway. A combination of my slow pace as a reader, the need to keep three young children occupied and the challenge of driving a cumbersome campervan through France resulted in my hardly cracking the spine of the book.

Buck Mulligan had just about time to whip the soap into a shaving lather in the opening pages when my attempt fizzled out.

The next big opportunity presented itself during the lockdown of 2020, and I managed to get past the 200-page mark.

Unlike most people, the lock-down made little difference to my working conditions. Aside from the cancellation of night meetings and travel, the change brought about by the pandemic didn’t create enough space to read Ulysses. That’s my excuse.

With all the hullabaloo about the 100th anniversary, I decided to try again. I’m fairly predictable like that — I tend to have my finger on the populist pulse. To my credit, each time I make an attempt I start from scratch again, so I am more than familiar with the opening chapter.

So why should anyone read Ulysses? I suppose, aside from being one of the most important works of Irish literature, it is the ultimate ‘day in the life’ of a city seen through the eyes and experiences of ordinary individuals.

Leopold Bloom is a newspaper ad salesman married to small-time opera singer Molly. She is unfaithful to him, and he is not exactly a pillar of fidelity; his more carnal appetites and carnality in general are never far from the surface. The loss of an infant son is also never far from his mind.

The fact that he is Jewish gives him the capacity to stay somewhat aloof from what is happening around him, being something of an outsider in a society heavily influenced by Christianity, particularly the Catholic Church.

Stephen Dedalus is a young impecunious teacher, ponderous and thirsty and likely to spend his money on his equally thirsty friends while ignoring the straitened circumstances of his siblings.

The action follows the progress of Bloom and Dedalus, individually in the main, through an ordinary day spent eating, drinking, attending a funeral, carousing, working, breaking wind, emptying their bowels, fantasising and playing out their fantasies.

It follows them and other characters on their inner and their outer journeys, their progress shadowing the legendary odyssey of Ulysses. The work is peppered with classical allusions.

The cultural and political context is woven into the story. The intermittent appearance of the Viceroy’s carriage signifies the British presence in power, while the Gaelic revival, the death of Parnell, Sinn Féin and the rise of nationalism are brought to life in snippets of dialogue, observations and in the sketched outlines of characters that flit in and out of the action.

Reflecting on what I have read so far, I would compare the book to a thick slice of an exceedingly rich fruitcake — some bits are delightful and tasty, others are chewy and rich, more are dense and almost indigestible, while certain morsels are rank and grimace-inducing.

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To anyone thinking of taking on Ulysses I would say two things; hold tough, and help is available.

If you start, stay with it, and don’t try to understand every word and every sentence. Allow the richness of the language and the poetry to draw you in but be prepared for the hard slog when you will feel like you are wading through treacle.

Help is available in the shape of numerous commentaries and recordings. The entire book was recorded by RTÉ in 1982 using 33 actors playing 400 parts, with subtle sound effects creating an evocative ambience.

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Actor Helen Gregg presents a synopsis of Ulysses with the aid of a pop-up book in the Branar Theatre video, 'You'll-See'.

Actor Helen Gregg presents a synopsis of Ulysses with the aid of a pop-up book in the Branar Theatre video, 'You'll-See'.

Actor Helen Gregg presents a synopsis of Ulysses with the aid of a pop-up book in the Branar Theatre video, 'You'll-See'.

I found it really helpful to listen to this while reading the text, but I’m not sure listening on its own suffices in terms of the full experience. The recording on www.rte.ie/culture is presented chapter by chapter and, if you want, an accompanying podcast has a useful introduction to each one.

For a lovely overview of the book my friends at Branar, the Galway-based children’s theatre company, as part of a specially commissioned Ulysses project have produced a gorgeous video telling the story using a specially made pop-up book.

Entitled You’ll See, this is about 30 minutes long and is well worth a look at www.branar.ie/en/shows/youll-see. It’s online until July 8.

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Actor Helen Gregg presents a synopsis of Ulysses with the aid of a pop-up book in the Branar Theatre video, 'You'll-See'.

Actor Helen Gregg presents a synopsis of Ulysses with the aid of a pop-up book in the Branar Theatre video, 'You'll-See'.

Actor Helen Gregg presents a synopsis of Ulysses with the aid of a pop-up book in the Branar Theatre video, 'You'll-See'.

Have a go. I’m 75pc of the way there, it’s well worth it.


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