A noteworthy return to Joyce's masterpiece
FICTION: Ulysses, By James Joyce, with annotations by Sam Slote, Alma Classics, 878pp, £9.99
‘Five lines of text and ten pages of notes about the folk and the fishgods of Dundrum.” So Mulligan mockingly suggests at the start of Ulysses. Increasingly, that proportion is looking about right for the annotations to Ulysses itself, an expanding universe of commentary and cryptography that explores every highway and byway of the text and keeps on discovering fresh material as it does so.
It is a great pity that the publication of volumes such as Sam Slote’s newly annotated Ulysses so often has to be justified, both in the media and academically, by the shibboleth of the book’s “difficulty”. Is there any possibility that this boring media mantra could be retired? Is it remotely possible that annotations and companions to Ulysses might be valued, not because they are engaged in illuminating such impenetrably dark matter, but simply because they are interesting, because they add something worth knowing to the hints and allusions that Ulysses so readily lets fall? We live in hope.
Slote’s annotated Ulysses is unusual in that its whole stress is on annotations and almost nothing else. With commendable modesty, the volume merely proclaims that its text comes “with annotations by Sam Slote, Trinity College Dublin” (Slote is associate professor at the department of English). Thus, Slote is not claiming that this is a new “edition” of the work (several volumes published during the copyright window in the early 1990s made the misleading claim that they were “editions”) or even that he is introducing Ulysses, merely that he has annotated it (no small feat, of course).
In fact, there is an introduction, which is full of good sense and sound criticism as far as it goes but is probably too brief to be very helpful. Moreover, its dismissal of the book’s Homeric underpinning is rather cavalier (in this context, it seems to make little sense to give the Homeric titles of the various episodes, as Slote does in a somewhat peculiar “contents” page, when you haven’t explained what any of these means). Nor do the individual episodes receive any but the most cursory introduction in the notes themselves.
The text that Slote reproduces is the last of the Odyssey Press printings of Ulysses, issued in 1939. This is the most accurate of the Odyssey Press printings, but it is not the most accurate text available – that remains the edition of Hans Walter Gabler (Bodley Head, 1986). So, again, this volume would not be the first choice for its text, any more than for its introduction (the best introduction by far, both in general and to particular episodes, remains that of Jeri Johnson, Oxford World Classics, 1993).
Thus this book stands or falls by its annotations; to an exceptional degree, Slote has put all his eggs in that one basket. A tacit acknowledgment that the notes are indeed stand-alone is indicated by the fact that they are keyed to the episode and line numbers of Gabler’s edition as well as to the text Slote is using.
It may seem like a penitential task to wade through more than 300 pages of double-columned, closely printed annotations. In fact, it was a fascinating exercise, reminding one how much of an encyclopaedia Ulysses really is (Joyce explicitly referred to it as such). If not all human life, then certainly much of human knowledge is here. And of course there is enormous diversity of sources and allusions, a challenge to the most polymath of annotators.