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Annotations to James Joyce’s Ulysses: One of the best books ever devoted to the classic

This heroically researched slab is twice as long as its subject text – and well worth it

Annotations to James Joyce’s Ulysses
Author: Sam Slote, Marc A Mamigonian and John Turner
ISBN-13: 978-0-19-8864585
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Guideline Price: £145

Jorge Luis Borges once imagined a map that would render every place, object and person in the world: but decided that the project was futile, since a map so constructed would have to be superimposed upon a world that would disappear under its sheer detail. Prof Sam Slote, Marc A Mamigonian and John Turner must have had similar worries as their annotated guide to Joyce’s Ulysses reached almost twice as many pages as the book it is designed to illuminate.

But they needn’t have worried and their labour has not been in vain. In fact it makes one wonder whether Borges’s mythical map-maker should have persisted. Maps, of their very nature, tend to abbreviate and summarise, as did all previous annotations to Ulysses; but here at last is a volume that not only explains places but directs the reader to hundreds of further sources. The result is a kind of short story behind most of the footnotes, of a kind which Joyce (I guess) would have approved. After all, this was the man of whom his father said that if he found himself landed in the Sahara desert “he would sit, by god, and make a map of it”.

For instance, a restaurant named Rodot’s is mentioned in the Proteus episode: “a patisserie operating at the turn of the century, located at nine boulevard Saint-Michel, Paris, in the Latin Quarter”(Bulletin parroissial de Saint-Severin, Jan.1914, p17). On an early draft of Proteus, Joyce originally wrote “Polidor’s” and then changed it to “Rodot’s” (James Joyce Archive, Vol 12, p246). Polidor is a restaurant at 41 rue Monsieur le Prince (see note at 9.858), which Joyce frequented when he could afford it (Patricia Hutchins, James Joyce’s World, p57). If you turn to 9.858, you are told it is “a street in the Latin Quarter of Paris”.

Here, for all the detail offered, the editors are chastely restrained, on the good old newspaper adage that, while comment may be free, facts are sacred

The annotators might have added that it was a haunt of Verlaine, Rimbaud, Hemingway and the Pataphysicists, or that its omelette was one of Joyce’s favourite foods; but that might have been going too far. Still, I had fun following up the hints given.

Many previous annotators have not only provided background facts, but have tilted these towards possible interpretations of a scene or statement. (Guilty, my lord). Here, for all the detail offered, the editors are chastely restrained, on the good old newspaper adage that, while comment may be free, facts are sacred.

No index

I wondered whether I could find an entry of Joyce’s own planned afternoon newspaper, The Goblin, but (unsurprisingly in a book of this girth) there is no index. (The Goblin may be mentioned, but if so I nodded off and missed it). There are, however, compensations aplenty in the Aeolus episode, explaining why Joyce called himself “a scissors and paste man” (after a newspaper run by his hero Arthur Griffith); or how he seems to have invented the term “dayfather” from “a father of the chapel of journeymen printers”. (Was it later that father of the chapel referred also to journalists in general?)

Leopold Bloom, the main character in Ulysses, at one point expresses the desire to be an agony uncle on a newspaper: “You could learn a lot teaching others.” A reader here learns an awful lot: “to go for one another baldheaded” recalls an age “when men wore wigs and would cast them off during a fistfight”. Or “steal upon larks” is a nickname for “a slow and cautious character” (if you wonder about that, as I did, you can check it out in Padraic Colum, My Irish Year, p86).

The research behind this compendium is heroic, involving not only the three editors but a substitutes’ bench of Joycean experts. They really have been scratching their heads for well over a century, if you tot up their accumulated service to Joyce studies. They have even learned from predecessors (generously and respectfully acknowledged) that travelling from Arran Quay to Phibsborough in 1904 would require three trams and two changes. “The first tram, either the Parkgate and Ballybough line or O’Connell Bridge and Parkgate Street line, would take [a person] along the north quays to Capel Street; the second, the College Green and Drumcondra tram, up Capel Street, Bolton Street and Upper Dorset Street as far as the corner of Blessington Street; the third to his destination via the Donnybrook and Phoenix Park line along Blessington Street, Berkeley Road and North Circular Road.” Wow! And all because, as Mr Bloom shrewdly notes, the area bounded by the northern quays was the largest in the city centre to lack a proper tram service.

The Dylan problem

If you were a neophyte reader of Ulysses, working your way from episode to episode, all this might seem like an overload. When first I read the book, I simply skipped the (many) passages I couldn’t follow (much as I ignored the images of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde that I couldn’t understand). By the way, Dylan appears to have had the same problem with Ulysses: given a first edition by the president of Columbia Records, he opined “I could see this man Joyce was a lord of language, but what he was trying to say, I couldn’t figure out”. A classic case of projection, perhaps; but now there are hundreds of books and guides to help us through Dylan’s lyrics.

Because of the ample space taken, many entries read like short stories or Joycean epiphanies in themselves

Ditto with Joyce. But I would find it hard to imagine a new reader (or listener) constantly having to keep a consultative finger in this useful volume. (You might need a splint after a couple of hundred pages.) The initiatory experience in Joyce or Dylan is to press on regardless. Most readers of Proteus realise, after just a few pages, that they are not expected to follow all the learned references. Joyce is instead wickedly evoking the ways in which a good mind can be thoroughly messed up by a recent arts degree. The learning is satiric (as a classmate said, Joyce made the little he knew go a long way) – much like the recondite references to Achilles and Vermeer in Blonde on Blonde.

That said, as a Joycean veteran of more than four decades, I thoroughly enjoyed this book – it’s simply one of the best ever devoted to Ulysses. Previous annotations come from an earlier period of Joyce studies and can seem a little dated. These new notes are all up to speed with current scholarship. Because of the ample space taken, many entries read, as I said, like short stories or Joycean epiphanies in themselves. In the end I read the book straight through, for the sheer pleasure of its learning, its fine prose and unexpected insights – only now and then did I go back to Ulysses to restore a fuller context. (This was doubtless cheating – and my next sequential reading of the “buke” will be hugely enriched by this experience). These annotations are the dernier cri and may never be superseded. But you should read the main book (perhaps more than once or twice) before you turn to them.

Declan Kiberd is author of Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (Faber). The 28th James Joyce Symposium will take place at Trinity College Dublin, June 12th-18th