James Joyce’s epic resizing and retelling of the Odyssey, “Ulysses,” has plagued English curriculums since its publishing in 1922.
A feat of experimental fiction, “Ulysses”planted the Irish flag in the avant-garde literary landscape of the time, but the book’s stream-of-consciousness style and esoteric references have given it a reputation of trudging difficulty.
For five years, professors Elizabeth Mannion, Samuel Delany and Sheldon Brivic have run a “Ulysses” reading group to help dispel notions of the book’s difficulty and to guide interested students through its inner workings.
The three English professors have lead the group in various combinations over the years. This semester, however, all three will be attending to offer their insights and analyses of the work.
Mannion believes that while there is no getting around the size of the novel, the complexity and the work required to nestle into its pages have been overstated.
“Everyone says it’s hard – it’s not,” Mannion said. “Joyce gave you everything you need. One of the things I feel really passionate about is that if somebody tells you a text is hard, right away your whole posture changes towards it.”
“So the idea here was for all of us to get together every two weeks so it doesn’t become like work, you’re not getting graded,” she added. “You just come in and casually talk about it.”
The fall group read the first three chapters, and the spring group, with 15 members already, will start from the fourth chapter. As of now, the group meets every other Wednesday, from 3-4 p.m. in Room 1006 in Anderson Hall.
Deftly crammed with allusions, symbols and literary slights-of-hand, “Ulysses” has begged annotation and analysis on top of discussion and meditations on themes and ideas present in the book. In addition, Mannion said it begs to be read more than once, as there is much that could go unnoticed and unappreciated the first time one reads it.
Senior English major Kenny Roggenkamp will return to the group this spring. On his third go-around with the novel, he brings a familiarity with “Ulysses” that not many students can claim.
“Professor Mannion once said to me, ‘Ulysses’ is like a big hug,’” Roggenkamp said. “And I didn’t understand at the time, but it’s true. In spite of the intimidating nature of the length, in spite of the intimidating nature of all of the footnotes because of all of the references Joyce is making, it is a really good story.”
This group lends itself to edging in the scope and bringing the epic down to size.
“There’s Latin and Italian everywhere, and Joyce is using so much language to describe everyday things,” Roggenkamp said.
Mannion said students are often nervous to read the book because they are frequently reminded of its difficulty, or that it’s “on every single list of the ‘most important novel of all time.’” She said students are either extremely nervous or excited to read it.
In the past, the interest in the novel has rested within the bounds of the English Department, but the group is open and welcomes students from a variety of majors and interests.
“When you sit down with someone like Mannion or [Delaney], who brings Walter Pater to the table and all the intertextual references that Joyce is playing with, you start to get a better sense of why ‘Ulysses’ has survived so long, and it takes some of the difficulty out of it too.”
Brivic, who earned his Ph.D from the University of California Berkeley, is a Joyce scholar.
“To study ‘Ulysses’ with a group is good because you get the interaction of different people, everyone has a different idea of what’s going on,” Brivic said. “One person might know something about a religion, another about history and so forth, all with different personalities, and they can contribute.
Colton Shaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org