Much to its credit, RTÉ has come good in the last week or so as Ireland’s national broadcaster. By freely offering their 1982 Ulysses recordings, they have made Ireland’s most famous cultural asset accessible and yes, even enjoyable, to attempt. There’s never been a better time to take on one of literature’s notorious ‘beasts’ without feeling inadequate, exhausted or confused.
James Joyce’s Ulysses is a book that needs to be heard, rather than just read. Like any city, Dublin in 1904 was alive with sounds and Joyce was keen to ensure that he captured the soundscape in his book. With RTÉ’s 30+ hours of audio of the full unexpurgated book available, now is the time to both listen and read it simultaneously with pleasure. With some planning and a weekly timetable, anyone who has tried, but failed to get through it, can do so with relative ease this time.
You’ll need the following tools to get through Ulysses with ease: –
* RTÉ’s audio version for your preferred podcast outlet via RTÉ Radio One, Apple Podcasts or Spotify
* Ulysses, Annotated Student Edition (with a great Declan Kiberd introduction)
* Cliff Notes on Ulysses – sharp and insightful episode summaries
* 18-22 free evenings once a week, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint, so as and when you want
Optional extras for the mission are: –
* A bit like diving protocol, have a Ulysses ‘buddy’ for the task – always handy for another ‘take’ on the book’s meaning
* Alternate locations weekly with that buddy and prepare a mini feast each week thus banishing any lingering dread in this task
* Once listened to, move on to this music of Ulysses Spotify playlist and polish off the remaining food and drink on offer
Before beginning, you may wish to watch a video on five books to be aware of before trying Ulysses as well as this helpful video on how to read it – fear not; the presenter, Tom Nicholas, is affable and not pretentious! RTÉ also has some background podcasts on the book that are worth listening to before starting on the ‘main show’. There are some background books, documentaries and podcasts that help bring the book to life too that I list throughout or at the end of this Blog.
There are 18 chapters, known as episodes in the book – taking a leisurely episode a week and allowing yourself to read the Cliff notes (or indeed Spark notes) in advance of your weekly listen will greatly enhance the pleasure. Scribble some observations when reading the Cliff notes – chances are you will need to read up a bit more on Greek mythology or philosophy etc. Be aware that each episode has certain tropes and motifs and represents a comparable chapter in Homer’s The Odyssey. Knowing each episode is based on a certain part of the human body helps one’s understanding too – Joyce himself gave Stuart Gilbert a schema for all episodes (which is also on page xxiii of the Student Edition’s Introduction).
With book in hand, mobile phone on silent, you are ready to hit the ‘Play’ button. Length of episodes range from 23 minutes early on to a whopping 289 minutes for Episode 15, Circe. At just shy of 5 hours, good old Circe deserves to be savoured over several weeks. Anyone who watched The Irishman will know that even good work needs to be broken up! Best to break every 30 minutes for any long episode.
The ultimate podcast
That Joyce was a genius is a given. He threw in so many different devices, techniques and allusions into this dense book that anyone, no matter how brilliant, would struggle to complete it without help. The audio recordings, combined with the Cliff notes and book reading are all now freely available to help that cause. In an age where podcasts are rapidly becoming the norm, the epic exercise of completing Ulysses is merely the Daddy of all podcast challenges – it just needs a bit more preparation. Once started, it should become a weekly aural feast to enjoy with some good Burgundy and a Gorgonzola sandwich or whatever you’re having yourself.
Up until now, I’d have been recommending Jim Norton’s excellent audio narration of Ulysses (and still do) as a way of really getting through the book. An audio version of Ulysses allows you to enjoy its many aural pleasures – the cat miaows, the singing of local tunes and the weird and wonderful mish-mash of onomatopoeia, stream-of-consciousness internal monologues and polysyllables. RTÉ’s radio players version allows the listener to differentiate the various different voices involved – we can easily move from Stephen’s internal monologue to narrator to character and back by hearing it spoken out loud.
Say 'yes' to the best
This great tome has for too long been covered in ivy and largely left for the poor readers to get through on their own. To add to the chore, there has been a gang of luvvies and a difficult executor involved with Ulysses. Acquired tastes such as David Norris and D4 types in Edwardian clobber have put a lot of folk off the book by making it into an annual highbrow circus. Joyce’d have approved of the original motley crew enjoying the first Bloomsday in 1954, but not what it had become – until now.
With Joyce’s work now out of copyright and no more killjoy literary estate breathing down anyone’s neck, we can look forward to more experimental interpretations of the book to come. A handy new free app on locations of Joyce’s Dublin being one such example. If they can do very complex videos games where endless zombies are slain, surely a 3D walkthrough of 1904 Dublin via Bloom or Dedalus is possible? However, the current tools above and some imagination will do for now in making a previous source of dread into a pleasurable experience.
From stately plump Buck Mulligan’s morning shave to Molly’s famous earthy monologue, you are in for a treat from start to finish by deciding to say ‘yes’ to reading and hearing Ulysses. Digestion and yes, completion of the finest heretofore most inaccessible book in the English language are within your reach. We hope that you finally get to enjoy it in a manner the great man would have approved of.
Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece by Declan Kiberd
Ulysses Annotated by Stuart Gilbert
Re Joyce by Anthony Burgess
Frank Delaney’s Ulysses podcasts
Richard Ellman’s masterful biography on James Joyce
James Joyce’s Dublin: a topographical guide to the Dublin of Ulysses by Ian Gunn, Clive Hart and Harald Beck