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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Postgraduate Diary: Blooming Ulysses

Monday, November 27, 2006

I mentioned here the other day that in his list of books Andrew Motion believes prospective English undergraduates should read, he controversially included James Joyce's Ulysses. At his Newcastle lecture on "Reading for Life," he hailed the novel's profound democracy, its willingness to plot and describe the minutiae of life, of any life, even of a sexually frustrated Dublin Jew. At 1000 pages long, however, this detail can be its downfall, depressing many readers within a few chapters.

As with all books, though, if you can't be bothered to read it, just wait for the movie. In 2004, director Sean Walsh obligingly provided one adaptation, entitled Bloom. I missed this when it came out, but I did get a chance to see it last weekend. The film itself was enjoyable without being particularly memorable. But it was the discussion afterwards that encouraged me to write this post.

The occasion for my watching the film was that I was at an Irish Studies conference. Given that my research is in science and contemporary fiction, it might seem odd that I spent two days at such an event. Without going into detail, I was offered a free place, and I thought it politically expedient to go, even if slightly alien intellectually. But it was precisely this experience of alienation that I suffered at the end of the film, when we were asked for our comments. The chair enquired whether there were any in the audience who had not read the book first, and if so to comment on how this affected their response to the film. One man (an archaeologist) tentatively put up his hand; the rest in the room, all literary people, kept their hands down. Including myself.

This was disingenuous. Although Ulysses was naturally a set text on the modernism module of my undergraduate degree, I never actually completed it. I reached the Aeolus chapter (I got up to midday, even if not mid-way) and this was enough for me to give a tutorial presentation and to write an essay. My failure was not so much to do with the pressure of time, as the fact that I just didn't get on with it. Whilst I ploughed through the couple of hundred pages of Djuna Barne's modernist novel Nightwood, without enjoying it one bit, I could not bring myself to continue on through Joyce's comparable paradigm of high modernism.

Thinking about my fib later that night, however, I decided that perhaps I should have a little more confidence. A-level English courses today are dominated by short books: Wide Sargasso Sea, Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby. These are beautiful examples of compression and symbolism; but also, handily, they cut down the hours of reading required for sometimes uninspired students. But it would be wrong to believe that these texts evidence the need for a high-speed, twenty-first century culture to have everything presented in bitesize chunks. Sit on any train, and the businessman connected furiously to the world through his Blackberry might very well be holding in his other hand the latest Harry Potter (650 pages) or Lord of the Rings (1000-plus pages). So the fact that Ulysses is a long book, one that stretches the "adhesive limits of binding-binding glue" (as James Lasdun nicely puts it in his review of Thomas Pynchon's latest epic, Pynchon being often heralded as a contemporary Joyce), should not automatically deter readers. I am not an example of a contemporary English Literature student, adept at using Spark Notes synopses and unwilling to spend time reading at length; and I suspect that the idea that the shorter the novel, the more popular it will be does not stand up.

What does deter readers, including myself, is the experience of reading. Whilst I love Joyce's Dubliners, its short stories cunningly crafted and displaying a more controlled linguistic exuberance than in the novel, I made a subjective judgement that Ulysses was, for me, not so successful a book. Objectively and critically, I am aware of the importance of Ulysses as an inspiration to later modernist novelists; I appreciate the full range of innovative devices it employs, from parralax to stream of consciousness; I understand how Joyce's position as an exile, both geographically and historically, is important in relation to this paradigm story of place; historically, I am aware of how significant Ulysses was in the struggles of censorship and taste in the early twentieth century. So when I say I have not read Ulysses, I do not see it as at all evidencing my limitations as a practitioner in English Literature. Nor does it mark my failure as a dedicated, even professional reader. Surely the ability to read a long book ought not to be the final test of one's readiness to study English at university (as Andrew Motion has it). Rather, being willing to react against the authorities who hold this up as a text that must be read and must be enjoyed is the tougher test.

The next day, in a session of papers on Joyce, I found myself sitting next to an English lecturer new to our university, who happens to be a world authority on the man. Chatting about the previous night's film, I decided to put my theoretical belief to the test, and I admitted that I had never completed Ulysses. "Shame on you," he replied, half-jokingly but also, significantly, half-serious. I had certainly wiped out in a moment any of the careerist Brownie points I had hoped to accrue by spending my weekend at the conference. But I did not really mind; I had proved my point, both to myself and to him. I always imagined that I would finally finish Ulysses sometime in the future, when (the old, endless prevarication) I got around to it. I have now determined that, unless I end up teaching the novel, I will take a defiant last stand against those gunning for the canon, and not take it off my shelves again. I may even drop it into Oxfam.

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Posted by Alistair at 10:52 am

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