I usually don't write here about audiobooks; I consider listening a much different act than reading, and it occupies a different slot in my life. But hearing James Joyce's Ulysses performed aloud has been so crucial, for me, in developing a love of it, that I decided to make an exception for Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan's excellent audio rendition.

I first experienced Joyce's monumental day-in-the-life tome in the traditional ink-and-paper way, during the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college. I found it just okay. Parts were utterly transcendent, but other parts were downright obnoxious. I liked the first few chapters, and a number of bright flashes of wit or beauty got through to me during the vast middle section, but mostly I just kept plugging along until the famous Molly Bloom monologue, when I finally felt I was in the presence of masterful, fully-realized and revolutionary writing. That soul-soaring, ecstatic feeling didn't kick in until the last seventy-five pages of an eight hundred page novel, which seemed to me to spell "uneven." (And I am not one to shy away from experimental modernism: Beckett, Camus, and Woolf are among my favorite writers.) It was frankly disappointing. I didn't find it scary or too difficult or any of that nonsense; I just thought it was a single astoundingly brilliant novella tacked onto seven hundred pages of self-important mediocrity.

And then I discovered, during a period when I was listening to more podcasts than was good for me, the recordings of the 2007 Bloomsday on Broadway celebration, a twelve-hour marathon of readings and performances from Ulysses and other Joycean ephemera. I started listening, and promptly fell in love with one of the parts that, a few years before, had struck me as completely tiresome: the "Nausicaa" episode, featuring Gertie MacDowell's (possibly imaginary) romanticizing of the world around her, including Bloom, and Bloom's orgasmic admiration of Gertie MacDowell. I don't remember who read the section, but the cadence of the spoken word added immeasurably to the experience for me. I started to cotton onto the sadness and humor of the episode, and to the complicated subjectivity at play: are we privy to Gertie's thoughts, or merely to what Bloom imagines those thoughts might be? Who is naive, and who knowing? Another little hilarity I discovered while listening to the Bloomsday recordings is the snippet of a scene when Bloom, unwillingly waylaid by an old acquaintance M'Coy, is listening to M'Coy talk (shout, really) about the recent death of a mutual friend of theirs, while Bloom attempts to ogle the legs of a young woman across the street:

--WHY? I said. WHAT'S WRONG WITH HIM? I said.
Proud: rich: silk stockings.
--Yes, Mr Bloom said.
He moved a little to the side of M'Coy's talking head. Getting up in a minute.
--WHAT'S WRONG WITH HIM? He said. HE'S DEAD, he said. And, faith, he filled up. IS IT PADDY DIGNAM? I said. I couldn't believe it when I heard it. I was with him no later than Friday last or Thursday was it in the Arch. YES, he said. HE'S GONE. HE DIED ON MONDAY, POOR FELLOW. Watch! Watch! Silk flash rich stockings white. Watch!
A heavy tramcar honking its gong slewed between.
Lost it. Curse your noisy pugnose. Feels locked out of it. Paradise and the peri. Always happening like that. The very moment. Girl in Eustace street hallway Monday was it settling her garter. Her friend covering the display of. ESPRIT DE CORPS. Well, what are you gaping at?
--Yes, yes, Mr Bloom said after a dull sigh. Another gone.
--One of the best, M'Coy said.

Ha! One of the best. As I listened, little gems of humor or profundity started to emerge, glimmering, from the stream of words, and transform the landscape of my relationship with Ulysses.

I gained so much, in fact, from the Bloomsday readings that David and I decided to experience the entire novel in audio form, and I'm so glad we did. Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan do an amazing job with the many, many moods and styles of Ulysses (Riordan taking Molly's voice, Norton taking everything else). There were numberless sections I hadn't liked or even particularly noticed before, which I heartily enjoyed this time around. Most notably, I think, the Cyclops episode benefits ENORMOUSLY and hilariously from being spoken aloud. The richness and texture of the colloquial language come through in a truly beautiful way, which, I think, is such a central part of the tension in this chapter: the hearty flow and cadence of the working-class Irish tongue, as contrasted (by Joyce) with the ignorance and xenophobia of the working-class Irish mind.

--What are you doing round those parts? says Joe.
--Devil a much, says I. There's a bloody big foxy thief beyond by the garrison church at the corner of Chicken lane--old Troy was just giving me a wrinkle about him--lifted any God's quantity of tea and sugar to pay three bob a week said he had a farm in the county Down off a hop-of-my-thumb by the name of Moses Herzog over there near Heytesbury street.
--Circumcised? says Joe.
--Ay, says I. A bit off the top. An old plumber named Geraghty. I'm hanging on to his taw now for the past fortnight and I can't get a penny out of him.
--That the lay you're on now? says Joe.
--Ay, says I. How are the mighty fallen! Collector of bad and doubtful debts. But that's the most notorious bloody robber you'd meet in a day's walk and the face on him all pockmarks would hold a shower of rain.

The Cyclops episode is an emphatic condemnation of the hypocrisy, prejudice and lack of self-awareness that Joyce perceieved in Dublin life of the period (epitomized by the citizen's statement "By Jesus, ...I'll brain that bloody jewman for using the holy name"), yet it still manages to be funny, rich, and enjoyable to listen to or read. I just can't resist phrases like "Gob, he's not as green as he's cabbagelooking" and "God blimey if she ain't a clinker, that there bleeding tart," especially when, as here, they're juxtaposed with riotous parodies of high-minded society narratives. I'm not sure why "Cyclops" never stood out to me before, but I'm very glad to have acquired it this time around.

There are still sections of Joyce's novel that I don't like (yet), and sections I like better on the page than through the ears. I found the Proteus chapter, in which Stephen angsts poetically along the seashore, difficult to absorb at spoken speed. When reading, I tend to linger longer over passages like this one:

In long lassoes from the Cock lake the water flowed full, covering greengoldenly lagoons of sand, rising, flowing. My ashplant will float away. I shall wait. No, they will pass on, passing, chafing against the low rocks, swirling, passing. Better get this job over quick. Listen: a fourworded wavespeech: seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss, ooos. Vehement breath of waters amid seasnakes, rearing horses, rocks. In cups of rocks it slops: flop, slop, slap: bounded in barrels. And, spent, its speech ceases. It flows purling, widely flowing, floating foampool, flower unfurling.

This language is so gorgeous, and works at so many levels: Stephen's literary preoccupations are emphasized by all the Anglo-Saxon-esque alliteration ("long lassoes," "flowed full"), and kenning-like compound words (I think "greengoldenly" is exquisite). The onomatopoeia of the sea is beautiful, and the prose rhythms reflect sometimes-unexpected movements of slapping waves: "In cups of rocks it slops." This was one of the passages that just blew me away on my first reading, but got a bit lost in the audio version.

The Ithaca section, on the other hand (the penultimate section, structured in a question-answer catechism), still strikes me, except for its final few pages, as a tiresome slog no matter which version I'm experiencing. This was reputedly Joyce's favorite chapter, but I find it totally abrasive. I must admit, though, that it provides an excellent foil for the last and always-stunning Molly Bloom monologue, with which Marcella Riordan does a GREAT job. The lovely, flowing, sleepy, sexy language is set off beautifully by her rich purr, but the performance is not overdone. She lets the lyricism and mounting rhythms do their work, and oh, they do it magnificently. As much as I adored this monologue from the first moment of contact, my love of it only grows with each successive hearing or reading.

My experience with Ulysses has been cumulative: hearing the language spoken is not better than reading it on the page, but having done both is, I think, better than either one in isolation. Ulysses is such a multifaceted piece of work that I find it very helpful to approach it from multiple directions, getting different perspectives on its contents with each new sally. Every time I enter the novel again in a slightly different way (Joycean orifice-related pun fully intended), I learn to appreciate new parts of it, and to enjoy in new ways the parts I already liked. I think really, I'm engaged in a lifelong relationship with Ulysses, and this latest installment has been a joy.

Shall we?
What can I say but yes?

God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas 2 glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

(Ulysses was my third book for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge.)


  • Thanks so much for this review - I have considered attempting Ulysses several times, but have backed out at the last moment. This not only makes me eager to actually go for it, but leads me to believe that listening to it on audiotape might be the way to go. :)

  • That's great, Sarah! I highly recommend Norton & Riordan's version. You might also want to grab a cheap paperback version of it, since there are some parts you might want to read along or go back to. Thanks for the comment! :-)

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography