The Yes Woman: Ulysses, my old foe, we meet again

I tried and failed to read Joyce’s epic before. This time I’m determined to see it through

If a person is sentimental, and so inclined, he or she can consider the development of their life in terms of the books that punctuate its various stages. The trajectory of one’s history can be measured in terms of important books. The best catch you at just the right time and act as a fulcrum, levering you creakily up and into a new level of thinking.

The first book that palpably changes you always has an honoured spot in your heart. If you continue to read throughout your life, this small metamorphosis ambles on, a little and a little, until you find that the furniture of your internal world has shifted and you’re quite changed. It is a realisation both sad and wonderful.

I was at university before I encountered James Joyce. A mentor gave me a copy of Dubliners, and it shocked me. Angry, slick and serpentine, it raged at me. I tried Ulysses, but it was amorphous. Such a great, heaving construction disappeared into nothingness as I tried to grasp it. It was beyond me. Even a degree in English literature didn't result in my reading it in its entirety.

Tore my hair out

I stuck to the necessary passages and tore my hair out. With its thousand layers, it made me feel stupid; it incapacitated me. I put it back on the shelf, and there it has rested until recently, when I got to thinking about my history in books.


The first book I ever borrowed from the school library, aged about nine, was The Diary of Anne Frank – a cliched choice, but still I was electrified. I had been reading anything to hand until then, but this was the first book to give me a glimpse of my own fundamental unimportance and the ultimately confusing world of adults. It stripped me raw of the belief that grown-ups always knew what they were doing and had good reasons for doing it. That frightened and encouraged me, as did The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but that seems rather less deep, so we'll leave that one there.

If our lives are punctuated by the books we read, they are also punctuated by the books we never finish. There are many of those. Some of us will trudge through without enjoyment as though we owe it to the book. Others will abandon all hope and admit defeat, flinging it aside or using it to prop up the bum leg on the coffee table. Ulysses is such a book.

Generally when I’m told something is a masterpiece I take against it and put off reading it, sometimes for years, or forever. Reading something just to say that you have because it is difficult is unappealing. It reminds me of my undergraduate days at Trinity, passing chaps with acne in too-short trousers reading Byron in public spaces and hoping desperately that girls would notice how deep they were and swoon at their scuffed loafers.

I carried Ulysses with me everywhere for 10 days, and downloaded the audio book so that the contents of Joyce's head permeated my every waking moment. I read it pretty much constantly. I listened to it while I took walks, showered or ate. Such immersion in anything is enough to drive you mad, and after about four days I started thinking in dactyls and Joycean aphorisms. This is enough to make you unpopular with friends and family.

Thus far in this series, I’ve taken on various new challenges. Some have been physical and some have involved trying things both fluffy and with depth that I would have refused to do before. Mostly, I’ve gone out into the world to do these things and be judged. This week’s challenge was internal, but I was happy to spend some time alone in a room with Joyce.

I could read Ulysses 100 times and never fully access every secret that it holds, but I'm very glad that I did it. The effect it has on the mind is that of all important books: to make a great internal mess that might take years for you to tidy up. Of course, if that all sounds like too much work, you can always skip the personal development and head to the Little Museum of Dublin. There they keep a copy of Ulysses open at the last page so that you can read the end and look clever. I must admit, I was tempted.

The Yes Woman says yes to . . . catharsis through a great book . . . and no to... very tempting shortcuts