A noteworthy return to Joyce's masterpiece

Sat, Jan 5, 2013, 00:00

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.

Anyone who undertakes to annotate Ulysses faces a thankless task: a stream of vituperation is likely to fall on his or her hapless head, as outraged experts assemble to denounce the lapses.

Understandable lapses

Slote’s annotations do have their lapses; it would be strange, not to say incredible, if they did not. Some are just mistakes: Maud Gonne was neither Irish in origin nor an aristocrat; Lady Gregory’s Poets and Dreamers is not a play; it is now known that Joyce did not write the editorial in the Freeman’s Journal on foot-and-mouth disease which had been attributed to him, and so on.Sometimes, though rarely, the annotator succumbs to the occupational hazard of overreading: an instance might be the identification of a man with the common Dublin surname of Pidgeon with the Holy Ghost; it is also unfortunate that the very first note in the Leopold Bloom part of the book, with its invocation of Pythagoras, should be by some distance the oddest in the entire volume (Bloom is merely counting the number of slices of bread and butter on his wife’s plate).

Some things that may be self-evident to an Irish reader can be misunderstood from another perspective: the “fine old custom” mentioned by Mr Power at the start of the funeral procession refers not to the cortege passing through the city centre, but, as the next sentence makes clear, to the lifting of hats and caps by passers-by.

These, as I said, are lapses: what matters is whether they attain such a critical mass, in terms of sheer error or loaded interpretation, that they undermine confidence in the overall project. In this case they do not. Slote’s annotations are by far the most systematic, the most thorough, the most scholarly, of any single-volume Ulysses.

He has a very good feel for the things a reader might like to know: for instance, the use of a familiar word in an unusual or anachronistic context. His impressive grasp of the textual history of the book brings many benefits, as he casually explains how misprints arose. The notes on scientific and technical terms are particularly clear.

He has made very good use of a range of reference works, such as the 1904 Thom’s Dublin street directory, the new Dictionary of Irish Biography, the online censuses, and the Oxford English Dictionary. He has of course been helped by something not available to his predecessors, namely internet search engines. His note on the famous (non)-conundrum U.P.: up is the most convincing yet, and hopefully will put an end to that minor controversy.

“Wipe your glosses with what you know,” we are advised by Issy in Finnegans Wake. Slote has certainly done that, and his nicely polished lens provides perhaps the clearest insight into the finely grained details of Ulysses of any yet on offer.