Reading James Joyce's Ulysses for plunder

There’s a wonderful Paris Review interview with Robertson Davies, and the Interviewer says:

Bruce Chatwin once remarked that there were two ways of reading, reading for love and reading for plunder, in other words, reading to learn how writers accomplished certain effects, solved certain technical problems, or just in general went about doing their work. That’s a legitimate means of being influenced.

I’m precisely reading Ulysses (as previously discussed) for plunder. I find it hard to believe I will ever love Ulysses, but the number of technical effects (and the emotions they create) are astonishingly large and varied. More so perhaps than any other novel I’ve ever read. The amount of stuff worth plundering in Ulysses is tremendous, and its ability to convey a great deal in a small number of words through incomplete thoughts is showing me how to loosen up some in my own writing. At a few moments in the novel I’m working on now, I’ve come across sentences that make me say, “Yeah, that’s Ulysses‘ influence.”

Many of the novels I’ve read for grad school—The Crying of Lot 49, for instance—merely feel tedious. Ulysses, although I resisted it at first, feels like a trove of novelistic effects.

Note, however, that I’m not saying Ulysses is only good for those effects, as the kinds of emotional powers those effects create are equally impressive. But I’m reading much more for plunder.

2 responses

  1. I’ve always liked this quip from Martin Amis:

    What, nowadays, is the constituency of Ulysses? Who reads it? Who curls up with Ulysses? It is thoroughly studied, it is exhaustively unzipped and unseamed, it is much deconstructed. But who reads Ulysses for the hell of it? I know a poet who carries Ulysses around with him in his satchel. I know a novelist who briefly consults Ulysses each night upon retiring. I know an essayist who wittily features Ulysses on his toilet bookshelf. They read it — but have they read it, in the readerly fashion, from beginning to end? For the truth is that Ulysses is not reader-friendly. Famously James Joyce is a writers’ writer. Perhaps one could go further and say that James Joyce is a writer’s writer. He is auto-friendly; he is James Joyce-friendly.

    And so a few weeks ago I decided to take up Amis on this challenge and started reading Ulysses, unannotated, simply for the hell of it, on my smartphone…


  2. Hey, I’ve read it twice in readerly fashion, once at university to study it, and once more chapter-by-chapter as part of a group read. The first time I read it (straight through) I thought it was rather strange but university widened my reading horizons and I began to understand how Joyce was playing with modernism. Then I read it again when my teenage son was reading it (for fun) and I loved reading it again last year with DoveGreyReader (see I will read it again before long and I expect to make new discoveries when I do.
    I’m not a scholar, I’m not an academic, and I think it’s a real shame that so few people have read this beaut book!


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