30 Novels, # 2: Signatures of all things I am here to read

James Joyce's Ulysses

It was the early 1980’s. I had just broken up messily with my girlfriend and I was working at a career that gave me no sense of accomplishment or satisfaction. I was angry, lonely, directionless.

Around that time I picked up Ulysses in a bookstore. I had tried to read this novel several times before but I’d never gotten beyond the first few pages. Stephen Dedalus struck me as a cold, unsympathetic character. This time, I kept going beyond those first few pages. Maybe I was more like Stephen than I’d been willing to admit. He seemed cast adrift and directionless, too.

I kept at the book. It was a challenge, and I needed a challenge. I needed something to take me out and above my troubles so I could see my life from a different, larger perspective.   

I took Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated out of the library and read the novel in the evenings with the annotations at my side, penciling notes into the margins of my copy of the novel. Like a monk I kept at this for weeks, a few paragraphs at a time. Slowly learning to find my way in Joyce’s world. 

The book became my Bible. I quoted from it to my friends (to their confusion and indifference). Joyce’s dazzling stylistics became a lens through which I read my own world.

I started writing my own sketches of the city and life around me, noticing details I would normally have ignored. Sights. Sounds. Smells. Voices. Mannerisms. Patterns. The wonder and the squalor and the radiant ordinariness of things. I saw more, and paid more attention, because of this book.

One day around this time someone asked me what I really wanted to do with my life. For the first time (out loud) I said, “I want to be a writer.”


Jenny said...

Thomas, thanks so much for sharing your experience of these books with us. It is great to see how these pivotal works have shaped your own writing, and also to recognise some similarities with books from my own past. Best wishes, Jenny Turton (Australia)

Thomas Wharton said...

Thank you Jenny. If you're interested in contributing a guest post to this month of novels, let me know!

Paul G said...

I can still remember the first time I finished a novel by Dostoevsky. I had thought before that novels could transcend the realm of mere entertainment, but the transition from Jack Whyte's Uther to The Brothers Karamazov was the moment in which I realised the the real effect which novels could have. That said, I'm only halfway through Ulysses to date, but I do intend to finish at some point, maybe after a few more of Faulkner's works...they're easier to grasp.

Thomas Wharton said...

The Brothers Karamazov was also a book like that for me, Paul. I'll be writing about it later this month.