February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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I am going to break one of my own rules here. I spent much of the month of May listening to Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables as my audiobook. 60 hours – that’s a lot of workouts! I was (no surprise here) dazzled by it. So much so that my blog on the book remains unfinished. (I should have blogged as I went … oh well.) So I will depart from sequence and leave Les Miserables as Bookshelf 28 and instead do an absurdly brief entry on another masterpiece, but one I like far less well: James Joyce’s Ulysses .

When I finished Les Miserables, I realized I was only a couple of weeks away from my 25th college reunion. I decided in honor of the occasion to devote myself to Ulysses as my next audiobook project, for the rather embarrassing reason that Ulysses was the one book on which I’d written a paper in my undergraduate years without, er, actually finishing it.

That’s pretty reprehensible academic behavior, even for an undergraduate, and the only excuse I can offer is that I had fiercely hated the book. On the other hand, that excuse only made things worse. My beloved bookish grandmother adored Joyce and Ulysses above all. And both Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist had made huge impressions on me when I read them (respectively) in my senior year in high school and freshman college. Not necessarily an impression for the good: If I were going to be really candid here, which on second thought I won’t, I could detail actually the many bad psychological effects that these two books had on my younger self. Still I did love them and revere their author. And they both more than lived up to youthful memory when I listened to them again on audiobook last year.

But as for his acknowledged masterpiece: I just couldn’t finish it. I recognized the book’s fabulous artistry, Joyce’s ability not only to reproduce multiple voices but also radically different individual trains of thought, and the sophistication and subtlety of the book’s construction. And yet … to what end? Ulysses struck me then as a book interested – not in the world (as Dubliners was), not in the development of the individual mind (Portrait), but as a book interested only in itself, style for the sake of style. I do appreciate literary innovation, I really do. I cherish many of the modernists (even if they do not always make the best companions on the elliptical machine or the cross-country bike): Remembrance of Things Past would be my choice for my desert island book.

Guilty for failing to meet my grandmother’s standards, I launched myself at Ulysses again and again. Once I took it with my as my only book on a three-week trip to South America. (Normally, I’m so terrified of not having something to read that I pack a satchel of books for any trip longer than two hours.) Another incompletion.

For my grandmother’s 90th birthday in 2003, her friends organized an evening of readings and performance at the Ignatieff Theater at the Univerity of Toronto, with selections from all her favorite books and plays. Of course the evening featured a long extract from Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy at the end of Ulysses. That was wonderful – and also (I thought) maybe the answer! I’ll listen to Ulysses as an audiobook.

When I launched myself on my iPod-powered extreme fitness program in 2005, I marked Ulysses as one of the books to which I must, must listen. Never quite got around to it, until this looming reunion applied the necessary kick. One more try – and one more fizzle.

I got as far as Leopold Bloom’s bowel movement, skipped ahead, skipped again, got to the Molly Bloom soliloquy – realized with horror that the actors at my grandmother’s party had omitted 80% of it (it’s 2 hours and 20 minutes read in full!) – listened at intervals, was jolted to attention by Joyce’s lascivious enthusiasm for analingus, hurriedly skipped to the end … yes she will, yes I know … and gave up.

Ah well: not for me. Frankly, I don’t think it’s been a good thing for the literature of the 20th century either. It pushed too many writers in wrong directions: too deeply into wordplay and puzzles, too inward, too bitter toward the external world. (That epigram of Stephen Dedalus’s in the Portrait about the artist’s need for “silence, exile, cunning” may have been sadly apt for the many persecuted writers of continental Europe – but it has encouraged too many English-speaking writers in a childish oppositionism that cut them off from accurately observing and rendering with any delight the societies into which they had the good fortune to be born.)

They say reunions are a time to come to terms with your limits. Well, here’s one among many of mine: I won’t be trying Ulysses again this side of the grave.

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