more ulysses (part three)

Two more points on Ulysses by James Joyce (plus one added later).

1) I did go to see the exhibition “One Hundred Years of James Joyce’s Ulysses” at the Morgan Library and Museum.

It was really good. It was all in one large room (the walls were painted with the blue and white of the Greek flag — the colors on the first edition of Ulysses itself). There were exhibits on the walls all around the room, but there was also a central structure, with other displays on its exterior and interior walls. The result was that the entire exhibition appeared to be organized chronologically, but the time scheme seemed to be going in several directions at once, on several levels — very appropriate for Joyce and this novel.

Some parts of it were more interesting than others (to me). Photographs of Joyce and members of his family were okay, but I think that was mostly for newbies. There were some interesting artifacts, such as the order J.P. Morgan’s nephew (I think that’s who it was — I didn’t take notes) mailed in to purchase his copy of the first edition.

But the best parts for me were 1) several wonderful displays showing Joyce’s influence on the visual arts, and 2) actual manuscript pages, and heavily edited and rewritten galley proofs. It was something to see the handwritten originals of the beginning and end of the novel. And, yes, the first and last letter of the book are the same (“s”), which is almost certainly not an accident (hey, his next book began and ended with fragments of the same sentence).

I also had a further thought about the different editions of Ulysses that I talked about before. I think another reason I’m not all that concerned about all the typos in the original edition is because I’m not aware of any evidence that Joyce cared very much about them. He was certainly aware of them, but he didn’t pursue any sort of project to get them fixed (unlike Henry James, for example, who, late in his life, revised much of his body of work for the 24-volume New York Edition).

As far as I know, Joyce wrote Ulysses, he managed, with some difficulty, to get it published (on his 40th birthday, as he’d wanted), and then he moved on.

I have great sympathy for this approach. As I wrote once about Robert Altman:

Once, years ago, he was asked how he felt about that the fact that, at that time, many of his best movies weren’t available on video. He said, “What can I do? I make another movie.”

2) I’ve thought periodically, over the decades, that I need to really study Ulysses and understand it better than I do now.

One thing that’s always held me back is that I haven’t read enough and I don’t know enough. Professor Owens, for example, who I referred to in my last post, said that, in order to write about Joyce, he made sure that he’d read everything Joyce had read before writing Ulysses, including newspapers, and books in several languages (Joyce was fluent in five or six languages).

But, to be honest, the biggest obstacle has been that I’m always being distracted by my own writing projects. Writing is more fun than studying Ulysses (although not always more fun than reading Ulysses, I admit).

3) I’ve been watching videos about Joyce and Ulysses, and I just saw one which clarified why I’m always drawn to Ulysses rather than to Joyce’s earlier works, even though they’re a lot easier to read.

Ulysses is funny, sometimes wildly funny. Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are not funny.

I think it’s that simple.

I’ve been listening to readings of Ulysses, and there are points, in the “Cyclops” episode in particular, when I’ve laughed out loud. I never laughed out loud at Dubliners or Portrait — and I imagine that I’m in the majority.

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